President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s statement, at the UNP Convention in Colombo, on Saturday, that a presidential election would be held next year, followed by parliamentary polls, and the Provincial Council (PC) elections would be conducted in 2025, has received much media attention. But a closer examination of his announcement will reveal that he has not said anything of crucial import; he has only stressed the obvious.  

Only a popularly elected President can advance a presidential election, and President Wickremesinghe, elected by Parliament, is not constitutionally empowered to do so. The next presidential election therefore will have to be in the latter part of 2024, when President Wickremesinghe’s term, (which in fact is the remainder of his immediate predecessor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term) comes to an end.

It is being argued in some quarters that by making the foregoing statement, President Wickremesinghe has sought to scotch rumors that he is planning to do away with the next presidential election by means of a referendum. But such a course of action is not within the realm of possibility, whatever the Opposition may say, and the argument that the government is planning to scrap the executive presidency in a bid to avoid a presidential contest is also untenable, for no constitutional amendment can be introduced without a two-thirds majority; a Bill seeking the abolition of the executive presidency will require people’s approval at a national referendum besides passage with a special majority in the parliament to become law. It is with the greatest difficulty that the SLPP-UNP government has retained a simple majority. It is not possible to assess the political fallout of the Supreme Court judgement, which led to the unseating of Environment Minister Nazeer Ahamed. Speculation is rife in political circles that some more MPs who have defected from the Opposition to the government are likely to lose their seats. It will be a struggle for the government to hold its grip on the parliament.

Nobody expects President Wickremesinghe to hold a general election before the next presidential polls because his chances of securing the presidency at a popular election will be diminished if he fails to steer his party to victory. He has only a single seat in the current parliament and therefore is dependent on the SLPP for parliamentary support. It is far more advantageous and less risky for him to contest a presidential election while the SLPP-UNP alliance is controlling the parliament than otherwise. The much-delayed PC polls cannot be held any time soon owing to a host of delimitation issues.

What the President has left unsaid is however of more significance than what he said. The real political issue at present is the postponement of the local government (LG) elections. The President carefully refrained from making any reference to the LG polls perhaps due the ongoing court cases, but the implication of his statement is that there will be no elections, parliamentary, PC or LG before the next presidential contest, and the people will have to wait until such time to exercise their right to vote, again.

The Opposition has raked him over the coals, claiming that he has sought to influence the judiciary indirectly. If he had referred to the LG polls at the UNP convention, he would have come under an avalanche of criticism for speaking about matters sub judice.

In June, he drew a great deal of flak for having said, at the National Law Conference held by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), in Nuwara Eliya, that the people had lost faith in elections; his statement was construed as an attempt to belittle the electoral process and justify the postponement of the LG polls. He was also accused of having tried to influence the judiciary by making that statement because among the distinguished guests at the event were the judges of the Supreme Court including Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya.

The President may therefore have chosen to remain silent on the LG polls, at the UNP Convention, on Saturday, but his silence was very eloquent, in a manner of speaking. He has conveyed his message effectively without even making any direct reference to it.

Harin’s shots at ambitious businessmen

Saturday’s UNP convention also saw the official launch of the party’s reorganization campaign. The UNP has a long way to go before it could face an election confidently.

President Wickremesinghe has been able to shore up his image to some extent by handling the economy arguably well under trying circumstances, but it is doubtful whether his party has been able to do so. The President rightly pointed out in his speech at the BASL even in Nuwara Eliya that none of the parties had a clear majority of votes. All political parties are experiencing various problems, and the public is growing cynical and hostile towards politicians and political parties. A contraction of the vote bases of political parties translates into an increase in the swing vote, and improves the chances of non-professional politicians or novices in politics succeeding at elections. This is a disconcerting proposition for political party leaders and those who are riding on their coattails.

That some business tycoons with presidential ambitions have begun to appear on President Wickremesinghe’s rearview mirror is now evident. SJB dissident MP and Minister of Tourism Harin Fernando took a shot at the entrepreneurs who had evinced an interest in the presidency. He did not name names, but it was obvious that his reference was to Dilith Jayweera and Dhammika Perera.

The Sri Lankan public, reeling from the current economic crisis, is more concerned about the economy as never before, and their expectations have undergone a radical change, as a result. They have lost faith in traditional politicians who cannot solve complex economic problems and have let them down and landed the entire country in the current predicament.

President Wickremesinghe’s advantage over other professional politicians with presidential ambitions is that he is seen as a person capable of managing the economy better than his peers, but it will not be so easy for him to outshine captains of industry vying for the presidency. Hence, the UNP is likely to train its propaganda guns on Dilith and Dhammika in time to come.