Will he, or won’t he? That is the question that everyone in politics seems to be asking these days: will President Ranil Wickremesinghe conduct the next presidential election as constitutionally required, at least by October 2024?

In recent weeks there has been feverish speculation that Wickremesinghe is keen on a strategy that will avoid this: conduct a national referendum asking voters whether they wish to abolish the Executive Presidency.

Given that there have been repeated calls to abolish the Executive Presidency with several presidential candidates- most notably Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena and even Mahinda Rajapaksa running for his first term-promising to do so when elected, it would be assumed that this is a prospect that would have considerable public support.

We also recall that during the ‘aragalaya’ last year, the blame for all of Sri Lanka’s economic ills were laid at Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s doorstep and the fact that he had unbridled power after the passage of the 20th Amendment. Those events would sill be fresh in voters’ minds.

As a political strategy, this is very clever. Wickremesinghe has taken a leaf out of his uncle J.R. Jayewardene’s book. JR held the one and only referendum this country has ever had. That was barely two months after he was elected for a second term.

Jayewardene steam-rolled into Parliament with a yet unmatched five-sixth majority in 1977. That, coupled with the undated letters of resignation he had from his MPs, enabled him to do as he pleased. He was keen to preserve that majority to consolidate his power. So, he was loath to hold a general election because it would have almost certainly reduced his majority in Parliament, although he was equally certain to remain in power.

Jayewardene ‘won’ the referendum. Pretending to be a great democrat he asked MPs of electorates that voted against the extension of Parliament to resign. By-elections were held to those elections.

The underlying moral of that story was that elections were postponed for political expediency. The moral of Wickremesinghe trying to ‘abolish’ the Presidency is identical.

If, as the current Constitution demands, presidential elections are held next year, it is almost certain that Wickremesinghe won’t win. His United National Party (UNP) is still in shambles, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is playing hard to get and floating the names of decoy candidates in the form of Dhammika Perera and his plans to poach from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) haven’t really materialised.

Besides, Wickremesinghe has proved, in the time that he has been in office as a stand-in President, that he is no miracle worker to turn around the economy. Even the second tranche of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout hangs in the balance. The going is tough for the average citizen. As a result, most voters are disappointed, frustrated and angry. Come and election, they will vent their anger in no uncertain terms.

So, why would Wickremesinghe conduct an election that he would lose? Only one President in Sri Lanka has sought re-election and lost. That was Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015. That election too was conducted- a full one year ahead of its due date- only because Rajapaksa believed that he could win, misled by astrologers and an opposition that was in disarray until the eleventh hour.

What Wickremesinghe is trying to exploit is the ‘Executive Presidency’ factor. Almost all opposition parties including the SJB and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) had vehemently demanded its abolition. So, Wickremesinghe can go to the electorate, declare ‘Here I am, Executive President with near dictatorial powers at my disposal, proposing to abolish my office’ and, at least a first glance, it will be difficult for other political parties to oppose it.

The devil though is in the detail. The abolition of the Executive Presidency, a core feature of the 1978 Constitution, cannot be achieved with the stroke of a pen. It requires an extensive overhaul of the Constitution, a process that will take months if not a year or two to complete. That would mean that, until this is completed, Wickremesinghe will remain in office overseeing the transition.

What of the general election? There is also a parallel suggestion that the proportional representation (PR) system should be diluted by having hybrid of the PR and the first-past-the-post Westminster system, restoring the electorate-based contests. While this is a democratically healthy option, this is again a process that will require tinkering with electoral boundaries, a process that will definitely take years, as recent past experience has shown.

Then, why should opposition parties- and voters- trust Wickremesinghe? They shouldn’t. Here is a man who came to Parliament last year and proudly talked of the indefinitely postponed local government elections, saying, “What election? There is no election. Even if there was an election, there is no money for an election!.”

The only reason Wickremesinghe tried every trick in the book- and succeeded- in postponing the local government elections was because he knew that the SJB and the JJB would have emerged winners. If the same principle is applied to the presidential election, then Wickremesinghe will be keen to postpone that too. This ‘abolition’ is a ruse to get there.

Fortunately, there is a constitutional safeguard. This is in the form of a requirement in the Constitution that the President can only put forward for a referendum, issues that have been endorsed by Parliament by a two-thirds majority. In the current political equation, Wickremesinghe struggles to muster a simple majority. If he were to secure a two-thirds majority in this scenario, some parliamentarians are likely to become very, very, wealthy!

If a referendum is held and approved that could mean that Wickremesinghe could serve as President for probably about a further two to three years- up to the ripe old age of 77 years- go down in history as the statesman who did the virtually impossible and could use that time to rejuvenate his UNP and even return to Parliament as Prime Minister: it would be a fairy tale ending to a political career that was in tatters not so long ago.

Therefore, it is not beyond Ranil Wickremesinghe to at least try this trick. It is up to the opposition and voters not to fall for it.