President Ranil Wickremesinghe has made no bones about the fact that the government will not allow the local government (LG) elections to be held any time soon despite protests from the Opposition, poll monitors and other pro-democracy activists. The Election Commission (EC) has already announced that the LG polls will not take lace on March 09, and a new date will be decided on soon.

Speaking in the parliament on Thursday, President Wickremesinghe claimed that the EC had not declared the date of the elections in a proper manner, and therefore its decision could not be considered legal, and the question of the government postponing the LG polls did not arise. He has thrown a monkey wrench in the works by preventing fund allocations for the EC. That he would do so was a foregone conclusion, for the SLPP and the UNP are scared of facing an election.

The President has sought to justify the government action by claiming that some EC members were not agreeable to the timing of the LG polls, and the EC did not request funds from the Treasury in a proper manner. These are lame excuses, and nobody will buy into them, but there is hardly anything that anyone can do because the presidential actions cannot be challenged in courts. So, the Opposition has now been left with a choice between giving up their campaign for elections and intensifying its anti-government campaign to achieve its goal.

President Wickremesinghe seems to think that he will be able to break the back of the economic crisis once the country secures the IMF bailout package, and win over the public by granting some relief to them before November 2023, when he will be constitutionally empowered to opt for a snap presidential election. He does not want any other election held before the presidential polls lest the government should suffer an electoral setback.

It is popularly thought that President Wickremesinghe has already embarked on his presidential election campaign. He is striving to enlist the support of the Tamil community, who will be a decisive factor in a presidential contest, by promising them the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. He has been touring all parts of the country, and holding meetings. The SLPP says Wickremesinghe was brought in as the President to do three things—restoring the rule of law, stabilizing the economy and granting some relief to the public. But he is busying himself with other things such as the devolution of power and attempting to introduce reforms in all sectors.

What are the chances of Wickremesinghe winning a presidential election even if the economic situation improves to some extent on his watch? He was more powerful than President Maithripala Sirisena during the Yahapalana government (2015-2019) to all intents and purposes because he controlled the parliament and was the de facto head of state. He did everything in his power as the PM to retain his hold on power, but he baulked at running for President and allowed his deputy Sajith Premadasa to do so in 2019, and at the 2020 general electionthat followed, he even lost his own seat in Colombo, and his party, the UNP, could poll fewer than 250,000 votes countrywide. The UNP had 106 seats in the parliament at that time, and its share of the votes at the 2015 parliamentary election was 5,098,927 or 45.66%. Wickremesinghe’s appointment as the PM was accidental. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invited Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Premadasa respectively to take over as the PM, after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation. Both of them turned down his offer, and Wickremesinghe grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Today, he has only one parliamentary seat, and to win a presidential election in the first round, he will have to secure more than 50% of the valid votes. The challenge before him is to increase the UNP’s vote from 2.15% (249,435 votes) polled at the last general election to 50% at the next presidential polls.Needless to say, this is a gargantuan task.  

There has been no discernible improvement in the country’s economic situation. There are no queues because the repayment of some foreign loans has been suspended and the money saved is utilized to buy essential imports. Most of all, there have been huge increases in petroleum prices, and they have led to a significant decrease in the demand for cooking gas, diesel and petrol. The fuel rationing system has also helped to do away with queues near filling stations. These are piecemeal remedies and they will not be feasible in the long run, and there is no guarantee that the government will be able to put the economy back on an even keel in time for the next presidential election.

Staggering electricity tariff increases have incensed the general public. A water price hike is said to be in the pipeline. After the water and electricity bills are settled, the people are left with hardly any funds for other basic needs. Unprecedented income tax hikes have sent professionals such as doctors, judges, lawyers, engineers, accountants and IT experts reeling. They have also affected other workers as can be seen from protests in places like ports. They have been agitating and are threatening a general election, which will cripple all vital sectors, and the government will not be able to crush it unlike in the past. In 1980, the J. R. Jayewardene government went so far as to break a strike by sacking as many as 50,000, but the situation has changed. The Opposition was extremely weak at that time; the government was not unpopular and, above all,there was no economic crisis.

Will President Wickremesinghe be able to bring taxes and tariffs to affordable levels before the next presidential election? It is highly doubtful whether he will be able to do so, given the parlous economic situation and the constricting IMF conditions, which do not allow subsidies and any other measures that will reduce the state revenue and require money printing.

More importantly, the Rajapaksa family appointed Wickremesinghe the PM and had him elected the President by the SLPP parliamentary group, only as a stopgap. They wanted someone to hold the presidency until one of them was ready to secure it. They may have expected Wickremesinghe, who was the only UNP MP in the current parliament, to savor executive powers and fade away after doing their bidding. They want to have him on a string and make him further their interests. They will not take kindly to him pursuing his presidential ambition. They do not want any outsider to secure that post. After all, it is one of them who was elected to the high post in 2019. So, it is doubtful whether they will throw in their lot with Wickremesinghe and deliver their votes to him at a presidential election.

It may be that President Wickremesinghe is planning to cash in on the rifts in the Opposition to win the presidency; the SJB, the JVP and the SLPP dissidents are expected to field separate presidential candidates thereby causing a split in the anti-government vote. But the question is whether the UNP’s plan will succeed. The SJB polled 2,771,984 votes (23.9%) at the 2020 general election, and its leader Premadasa obtained 5,564,239 votes (41.99%) at the 2019 presidential election. The odds are that the SJB and the SLPP dissidents and their allieswill be compelled to field a common candidate in case Wickremesinghe contests the next presidential election as the UNP-SLPP candidate, with the JVP going it alone as it has done previously. The next presidential contest is likely to be a three-cornered fight with Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake in the fray. However, the possibility of a member of the Rajapaksa family choosing to run for President cannot be ruled out, and Wickremesinghe will be left without the backing of the SLPP in such an eventuality. The JVP’s approval ratings may have increased during the past few months, but the way the people vote differs from election to election. Not all those who vote for the JVP at the LG polls will support it at a presidential election. Public approval for the SLPP-UNP administration has plummeted to 10%, according to a public opinion survey conducted by Verite institute.

Wickremesinghe should consider himself extremely happy if everything goes as planned for him. Nothing is so certain as the unexpected in politics. This, he must have realized at the previous presidential contests, some of which he chose to skip for obvious reasons. Most of all, the postponement of the local government elections is bound to lead to unforeseen trouble, causing a further drop in the government’s approval ratings, and chaos on the political front. There’s the rub.


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