By Vishvanath

The SLPP and the UNP are at loggerheads. They have not been able to reach a consensus on whether it is the parliamentary polls or the presidential election that should be held first. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has ruled out the possibility of holding an election until the conclusion of the IMF-prescribed external debt restructuring, which, he says, will not affect the next presidential election. In other words, he has said there will be no parliamentary election before the presidential contest. As for his assurance that the presidential election will be held on schedule, he has only made a virtue of necessity. It is the Election Commission (EC) which is constitutionally empowered to determine when presidential elections are held. The President has no say in the matter. There is no provision for the postponement of a presidential election. A popularly-elected President can advance a presidential election, but a President elected by the parliament, like Wickremesinghe, cannot do so.

It is being speculated in some quarters that the government and the SLPP will make peace by agreeing to hold both presidential and parliamentary polls on the same day so that it will be a win-win situation for the warring parties. Leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya and SLPP MP, Udaya Gammanpila, told the media on Wednesday (03) that the government was planning to hold both elections simultaneously to overcome their political difficulties. He claimed to have obtained information about the government move from an insider. But SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa hinted at the possibility of the two elections being held on the same day, in a recent television interview. Insisting that a general election had to be held first, he said it would not clash with the next presidential polls. Both elections could be held on the same day if necessary, he said.

How can a general election be made to coincide with a presidential election? According to Gammanpila, if the President dissolves the parliament immediately after the EC announces the date on which the next presidential election will be held, both presidential and parliamentary polls will have to be conducted on the same day. If the President and the SLPP cooperate and patch up a compromise, they will be able to make both elections happen simultaneously, but the question is whether they will be able to achieve their political objectives by resorting to such a course of action.

The SLPP does not want its electoral weakness exposed before the next parliamentary election, where it expects to retain as many seats as possible amid political vicissitudes. Its plan will go awry if a presidential election is held first. It can neither find a formidable presidential candidate nor afford to back President Wickremesinghe, whose party, the UNP, will gain in case of his victory in the presidential contest. Worse, some more SLPP MPs including ministers are expected to switch their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe in the run-up to the next presidential election. Speculation is rife that he will contest as the presidential candidate of a common political front. Such a move will enable the dissident SLPP MPs to throw in their lot with him without leaving their party. Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has gone on record as saying that he will not support President Wickremesinghe if the latter contests as the UNP’s presidential candidate. He may have said so knowing fully well that Wickremesinghe would contest from an alliance under a symbol other than that of the UNP—the elephant. Maithripala Sirisena won the 2015 presidential election by contesting it under the Swan symbol, which belongs to the New Democratic Front.

The UNP is wary of facing a general election before the next presidential polls because it is dependent on its leader, President Wickremesinghe, to score an electoral win so that it can take a head start over others at the next general election. If this order is reversed, the UNP will be saddled with the unenviable task of promoting all its unpopular candidates, who are widely considered political liabilities, instead of Wickremesinghe, who has been able to recover some of the lost ground.

But chances are that the problems that the SLPP and the UNP are trying to avoid by facing either the parliamentary polls or the presidential contest first will not go away even if both elections are held simultaneously. How so? The SLPP will have to field a presidential candidate or back Wickremesinghe while fielding its strongest possible team at the parliamentary election. But the public will know in advance whether the SLPP presidential candidate has any chance of winning or will end up being another also ran, and such foreknowledge will influence how they vote. The SLPP seniors straddling the fence will also know whether their party’s candidate stands any chance of winning, and they are likely to defect to the UNP or any other party, with the potential to win the presidential election.

The UNP will be in a similar predicament in case of simultaneous elections. The identities of the UNP candidates contesting the parliamentary polls will be known to the public before they vote at the presidential election. The UNP will have to field most of the candidates who are not popular and were defeated in 2020 if it is to avoid intraparty problems. Unless it does so, some of its seniors who are denied nominations will defect to other parties. If they are allowed to contest, their unpopularity will take its toll on Wickremesinghe’s presidential election campaign. The UNP will be in a dilemma.

Thus, the holding of the presidential and parliamentary election together will not help improve the prospects of either the UNP or the SLPP of winning or improving their electoral performance. It will be a case of swings and roundabouts for both parties in such an eventuality. Therefore, chances are that President Wickremesinghe will do his utmost to hold the presidential election first for the sake of his own party, which matters to him more than anything else. A President without control over the parliament is politically vulnerable. He must be aware that the SLPP leadership cannot muster 113 votes to call for the dissolution of the parliament, for some of members of the SLPP parliamentary group are already with him, and there are others who do not want face an early general election for fear of losing; they will try to hold on to their positions as long as they can. However, a parliamentary election is bound to be held before the end of this year; the President to be elected will dissolve the parliament forthwith to make hay while the sun shines.