Last Saturday, he walked into the convention of the United National Party (UNP) he leads and declared that presidential elections will be held on schedule in 2024. Not stopping at that, he declared that general elections will also be held next year and that the much-postponed local government elections will be held in 2025.

Momentarily at least, Wickremesinghe let slip the fact that he is setting dates for local government elections when that shouldn’t be the case. He can call for presidential and general elections and even provincial council elections but the dates of local government elections are not his prerogative. They had been scheduled for March this year when he tried every trick in the book- and a few out of it- to postpone it. In saying that local government elections will be held in 2025, Wickremesinghe appears to have forgotten the fact that the matter is still before courts which will make the final determination.

Be that as it may, there is more attention on the more important elections, the presidential elections, due by October 2024 and general elections, due by August 2025. So, given the assurances provided by Wickremesinghe at the UNP convention, should we be content that these polls will be held on schedule?

Of course, not. Just four days before the UNP convention, Wickremesinghe, through the Secretary to the President, issued a gazette notification appointing a nine-member commission headed by former Chief Justice Priyasath Dep to “examine all existing election laws and regulations and make necessary recommendations to amend election laws to suit current needs”.

As the wording suggests, the Commission’s mandate is broad and sweeping. It does not mention any particular election, so it could go about amending election laws pertaining to any election, be it presidential, general, provincial council or local government.

Arguably, some of the aspects the Commission has been requested to explore are issues worth reviewing. They include the adoption of a hybrid Westminster type first-past-the-post system combined with the current proportional representation (PR) system, instead of only the latter which has been the bane of our political system.

Another issue the Commission has been directed to give ‘special consideration’ is regularising the operation of political parties to prevent unscrupulous politicians with access to funds from ‘buying out’ established political parties, so they could use their name and symbol.

The Commission has been given a six-month time frame to conclude its work. That itself is questionable. Similar commissions in the past have always exceeded their deadlines. Even in the event they adhere to it, it would only mean that its recommendations are available by mid-April 2024.

If it does suggest reforms to election laws- as it surely will, because that is the very task of this commission- then those changes have to be drafted into laws. Such laws, most likely will require changes to Constitution. That means presenting them to the Supreme Court to assess whether they are consistent with the Constitution and facing challenges in the form of public petitions. Such an arduous process is highly unlikely to be completed by October 2024. Therein lies Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political sleight of hand.

This is vintage Wickremesinghe. When confronted by an issue Wickremesinghe’s ‘go to’ strategy is predictable: appoint a committee and wait for the committee’s report. By the time that emerges, sufficient time has passed and the issue is not an issue anymore. It is a ploy that has served him well many a time. It is this tried and tested tactic that he is trying to resort to yet again.

That is also they very reason why he goes before the UNP convention and declares that presidential elections will be held on schedule and general elections, in fact, a year earlier. He is only preparing the stage to say, “of course I want to have these elections but there is a committee sitting and we have to wait for their deliberations to conclude, so we can implement their recommendations’.

These moves come hot on the heels of speculation that Wickremesinghe wished to scrap the Executive Presidency and replace it with an Executive Prime Minister. Again, that is not because he does not believe in an Executive Presidency. In fact, he is using all its powers now at his disposal, to the hilt. It is just that he fears losing a third presidential election and is horrified about the prospect that his successor could potentially be not Sajith Premadasa but quite possibly Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

Presidential elections, even if they are held on schedule, are a year away. That is a very long time in Sri Lankan politics. As such, any predictions about victors of the next presidential elections would be naïve and premature. Even so, the three main contenders would be Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Dissanayake in no particular order.

Wickremesinghe only has the advantage of being the incumbent in that he can decide on the date of the election and has the state machinery at his disposal. Other than that, his record as President and his aligning with the much-maligned Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna works against him. Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balavegaya has a strong grassroots base but he himself cuts a poor figure as a leader. The opposite is true for Dissanayake who comes across as a sincere and capable leader but at the same time many are still wary of his Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna antecedents and the socialist ideology he represents.

Among the latter two, Wickremesinghe fears losing to Dissanayake more. If Premadasa wins, Wickremesinghe could always dangle the carrot of returning to the UNP and offering its leadership to Premadasa in exchange for a safe retirement free of prosecution. On the contrary, if Dissanayake wins, Wickremesinghe will have many questions to answer, including his various errors of commission and omission during his term as a ‘stand-in’ President.

That is why Wickremesinghe is preparing the groundwork for a possible postponement of the presidential elections while saying the opposite. His yardstick for conducting elections is really very simple: don’t hold an election you cannot wi