N Sathiya Moorthy  21 April 2024

Closer the presidential election gets, the more complex it is getting. Of course, it has always been the case, including the question if the parliamentary polls should precede presidential election. In the past, incumbent Presidents and their ruling coalition alone used to be pressured over the question but this time round, it involves the parliamentary under-writer of the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency.

In the reverse, it confirms the theory that Ranil and the Rajapaksas are at it together and are coalition partners without claiming to be one. After all, the Rajapaksas’ SLPP parliamentarians are part of the Ranil government as ministers. Some of them even took time off on the eve of the annual Sinhala-Tamil New Year celebrations to declare their loyalties to Wickremesinghe, as if he had declared his intention to contest the presidential polls already. Barring a couple of them, none has the electoral clout to make any difference to the final outcome – which actually rests with the voters.

Yes, the voters are confused, but so are the political parties and their leaderships. If Wickremesinghe is not sure if he should yield to the Rajapaksas’ pressures and give in, to their demand for ordering parliamentary polls before the presidential elections, the latter do not know if they want to field a candidate in the second poll, which in the normal course should come first, between September and October. They want to be seen as supporting Wickremesinghe, if at least he settles for a common front under a new name and election symbol.

Yet, each of them has his honour to save. The Rajapaksas also need to secure their traditional constituency, or whatever remains of the same, for fighting it out on another day – near or afar. Obviously, they do not want to go down the Ranil way, who as the undivided UNP president allowed common candidates to contest the presidential polls but on a common symbol that was not the party’s ‘Elephant’.


Of the two, Sarath Fonseka lost in 2010 and Maithripala Sirisena won in 2015. His surmise was that incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa was non-stoppable after the 2009 war victory.  He did not have such anxieties in 2015, but it made sense for the common Opposition to try and chip away a part of the Rajapaksas’ pre-split SLFP, if they were serious about sending Mahinda home. However, the narrow victory margin came from the minorities’ vote-banks, and not that of the breakaway SLFP faction, so to say.

It meant that for ten long years, the UNP’s ‘Elephant’ symbol had disappeared from the ballots for two presidential polls in a row, and a whole new generation of youth – rather two – had got into the electoral rolls without known what the ‘Elephant’ symbol looked like on the ballot, or presidential poll campaigns, otherwise. Leave aside the ‘Easter blasts’ that caused UNP’s Sajith the Stubborn to lose to the Rajapaksas’ Gotabaya, the symbol problem too was symbolic of the fate that awaited him.

Anyone in Sajith Premadasa’s place would have happily let Ranil contest without fighting for the party ticket – and lose the poll, but he was not the one to lose heart.  He lost the elections, and with that went down the party. It needed resurrection of the post-split SJB kind but the trick is yet to work.  Maybe, now that Sajith has jumped the gun to declare himself the presidential candidate of the SJB combine even before even the monolith JVP had named party general secretary Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) as their choice.

Incidentally, the SLFP, which still recorded a 13-per cent vote-share in the 2018 local governments poll and transferred it almost entirely to SLPP ally’s presidential candidate Gota Rajapaksa the next year, is in disarray.  Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, CBK, daughter of late party founder S W R D Bandaranaike, obtained, some weeks ago, a court-ordered stay on another former President Maithripala Sirisena continuing as party chairman.

The two factions have since elected rival ‘acting chairman’ – Cabinet Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva for the Chandrika faction and Wijedasa Rajapakshe by the Siriena group. Already, Dayasiri Jayasekara has moved the court separately against Maithri sacking him as party general secretary. The two major factions have also moved the Election Commission (EC). From there, the dispute is sure to land in the courts. It could mean that Maithri’s dream of contesting the presidential poll could well nigh become a pipedream.

Million-dollar question

Therein is a hitch. According to reports, minority parties, those of the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil communities that are part of the SJB combine, want Sajith to promote Ranil as the common presidential candidate. They have not decided whom they would back if both were to still contest, but when there is a talk of parliamentary elections first, they would prefer the SJB to the UNP unless proved otherwise.

The same argument may not hold if the minorities were to back Ranil and he won the presidency. They would then happily hitch onto him and even join his government, seeking and accepting ministerial positions. Already, it is a long wait for them after ditching Ranil long ago, but they do not want to be seen as returning to the Rajapaksas’ fold, even if indirectly. It is more so among the Muslim parties than the Upcountry Tamils, where mutual animosities dictate that not all of them can sail in the same boat.

Hence, also their wanting a Ranil-Sajith patch-up. But there is nothing that Ranil can offer Sajith other than the presidential nomination – though in the reverse the latter can still offer party cadres and traditional UNP votes that are believed to be with him still. Or, have they returned to Ranil, in the aftermath of the political and economic stability that he could usher in over the past two years after the massive crises that led to the mass Aragalaya protests? It’s a million-dollar question.

Common adversary

Outside all these are the SLT community and their multiple political parties, whose leaders cannot see eye-to-eye on anything. Unlike in the Sinhala South, they are not even ready to target a common adversary from among them.

Though it is yet to reach many newsrooms in Colombo and down South, the TNA as an entity ceased to exist very long ago. The ITAK is split, but not formally yet. The party’s first and only organisational elections since forming in 1949 is now in a Trincomalee court.  Parliamentarian Sivagnanam Sridharan, supposed to be a hard-liner, defeated the post-war moderate face of fellow-MP, M A Sumanthiran, not by a huge margin. But with the party elections out for judicial scrutiny, the eternally ineffective Mavai Senathirajah continues in office.

Less said about two other parties, namely, the TELO and PLOTE, which left the TNA long ago to form another one of the kind with a few others – but their stock is as low as the popularity of their leaders. Former Northern Province chief minister C V Wigneswaran wants him named the common presidential candidate of the Tamil community, but there are not many takers. If anything, his open appeal poured cold water on what was said to be a starting point for conversations on the possibility.

As always, Gajan Ponnambalam, who is the lone chip of the old C G Ponnambalam block, remains aloof and distant from everyone else, starting with his Tamil brethren and also the Sinhala-led Sri Lankan State and polity. He has already announced his decision for his party and alliance to boycott the poll – not that it would mean anything in the final analysis.

After all, Gota Rajapaksa, in 2019, declared that he would not waste time campaigning in the Tamil North as they would not vote for him – and still won, hands down, by a ten-per cent margin. No, it did not owe to the extra votes he might have got from the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists, who anyway did not have a second choice. It owed to the Easter blasts and the unending internal strife in the Maithri-Ranil combo at the top, but it suited everyone to claim it was a victory for ‘Sinhala nationalist’ hardliners. And the SLT were among those who wanted to believe it!

So, it’s like this, but the question arises: Which bell, what cat – and how to tie it?


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