by Vishvanath

Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranagunga has been quoted by the media as saying, after an SLPP event in Minuwangoda over the weekend, that his party would not field a presidential candidate, and it will back someone in the fray instead. He has reportedly stopped short of naming the candidate concerned or the party the latter represents. The SLPP leadership would have promptly denied Ranatunga’s claim if it had been false. It has chosen to remain silent. 

Ranatunga is reported to have also said that in his opinion President Ranil Wickremesinghe is the most eligible candidate, who must be popularly elected President for the role he has played in managing the country’s worst-ever economic crisis. One just needs to connect the dots to get at what Ranatunga has left unsaid. 

It may not necessarily follow from Ranatunga’s assertion that the SLPP has decided to back Wickremesinghe in the presidential race, but it is now clear that another group of SLPP MPs consisting of party seniors like Minister Ranatunga, who led the SLPP’s presidential election campaign from the front in 2019, will side with President Wickremesinghe even if the SLPP does not officially throw its weight behind the President. In other words, the SLPP will suffer another split if it does not back Wickremesinghe or tries to prevent its parliamentary group and the rank and file from throwing in their lot with him. 

The SLPP finds itself in a dilemma. It cannot field aformidable presidential candidate who will not be trounced, and its defeat will adversely impact its performance at the next general election. If it backs Wickremesinghe, most of its MPs will join the UNP or an alliance led by it, and the UNP will eat into its support base.   

What matters to a politician more than anything else is self-interest, and it will be extremely difficult for the SLPP MPs to secure re-election unless they actively participate in the coming presidential election campaign either for their own candidate or someone else with the potential to win. Parliamentary election campaigns become extensions of presidential hustings to all intents and purposes if they are held immediately afterwards. Hence, most SLPP candidates are likely to join Wickremesinghe’s presidential election campaign and avail themselves of the opportunity to promote themselves while stumping for Wickremesinghe; whatever the outcome of the presidential race, they will gain in terms of publicity and funds. 

Minister Ranatunga had been one of the bitterest critics of Wickremesinghe, prior to the latter’s elevation to the premiership in 2022 and to the presidency in quick succession. But he has since been consistently rooting for Ranil very enthusiastically. He is not alone in doing so. There are believed to be a considerable number of SLPP MPs are supporting Wickremesinghe on the sly in addition to those who have already joined forces with him, such as Nimal Lanza, Sususil Premjayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Mahinda Amaraweera, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Lasantha Alagiyawanna. Some of these MPs are SLFPers elected on the SLPP ticket. 

The SLFP is now divided between two camps; one is led by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who is using Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva as a front, and the other by former President Maithripala Sirisena. Wickremesinghe has secured the backing of some SJB MPs such as Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara. The CWC is fully supportive of him.

Thus, President Wickremesinghe is now backed by the CWC, which has a huge block vote in the central hills, dissident groups of the SLPP, the SLFP and the SJB. But the question is whether their support alone will be enough for him to face a presidential election confidently vis-a-vis aggressive campaigning by SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP/NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. This is why he is campaigning hard in the North and the East to woo the Tamil and Muslim votes.  

There is no way Wickremesinghe can engineer crossovers from the NPP, which has only three MPs, and it will be an uphill task for him to lure any more SJB MPs into joining him, for the SJB’s presidential campaign has intensified to the point of making one think that Premadasa’s claim that he leading in the presidential raceis true. The JVP/NPP is using social media very effectively to promote its leader, Dissanayake, as in the past. 

Wickremesinghe has not yet thrown his hat into the ring but his presidential poll campaign has gone into overdrive, and the official announcement of his candidacy is very likely to change the way the presidential contest is unfolding. 

President Wickremesinghe has more trumps up his sleeve unlike the other contenders for the presidency. He has already embarked on a campaign to distribute freehold land title deeds among farmers and others and the beneficiaries are expected to number two million. He has provided political leadership for the economic recovery process, the progress of which the IMF has appreciated while warning that Sri Lanka is not out of the woods yet, the implication being that the recovery strategy will have to be continued for the crisis to be resolved once and for all. Wickremesinghe is sure to use this fact to gain popular support for his bid to win the presidency by claiming himself to be the only candidate capable of sustaining the momentum of the economic recovery process. The government is expected to reach an agreement with external creditors on debt restructuring soon, marking a turning point in the economic recovery programme. This too will be beneficial to President Wickremesinghe.

Wickremesinghe is planning to declare the end of the country’s bankruptcy himself soon and gain a tremendous boost for his presidential election campaign. He is very likely to make a formal declaration of his candidacy immediately afterwards. Timing is of the essence in politics. 

President Wickremesinghe is said to be busy forming an electoral alliance, which is to be launched soon, according to Minister Premjanatha. That way, he is trying to secure the support of those who will not vote for the UNP, and to accommodate the SLPP or a section of it. The JVP has done likewise by forming the NPP to woo those who do not endorse its Marxist policies. President Kumaratunga forged the United People’s Freedom Alliance in 2004to accommodate the JVP and won a general election held in that year. Perhaps, Wickremesinghe will launch his electoral alliance and announce his candidacy simultaneously to create a dramatic effect and gain a massive boost for his presidential election campaign. 

Various predictions have already been made about the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, but it is too early to make such prognostications. We have to wait until President Wickremesinghe officially announces his intention to contest the presidential election to see which way political winds are reallyblowing.   


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