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The Battle begins as major parties name Candidates for Presidency

Next two weeks will see the UNP and SLPP candidates named. Will it be Sajith Versus Gota?

Bodu Bala Sena lay supporters gather at Kandy rally/Samanthi Warawerella RepublicNext

During his meeting with Media persons on June 27, President Maithripala Sirisena threw in a truism that went hardly noticed.

“Mark my words, as the elections come closer, you will see that every major political party in this country is in turmoil,” Sirisena said.

The clock is ticking towards what can be expected to be one of the most important elections in our time.

There isn’t much time for the contestants to decide, as the Presidential elections will be called in early November and the poll taken in December. The new President has to be in the hot seat by January 8.

This time voters will be offered quite the buffet, ranging from the beefy candidates from the main parties to some exotic and spicy offerings from outlying groups and individuals.

But in the next ten days, the focus will be on the main two political formations which will be choosing who will front their campaigns.

In an ideal situation, the coming Presidential election campaign will see a robust debate as to which sort of Sri Lanka we want to live in.

We have to decide whether we want to live in a Right-Wing militaristic Sinhala-Buddhist theocratic state where oligarchs and rabid Monks dominate or do we want to live in a still Conservative, reasonably liberal free market under a benign Sinhala-Buddhist tent.

For now, I urge you to shelve the thought of Sri Lanka becoming a modern liberal democratic socialist state, as our moniker indicates, as our educational system has ensured that most of us are not critical thinkers and we remain way too tribal in our behaviour to achieve that in a reasonable time frame.

Let’s look at the front-runners.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Minister Patali Champika Ranawake at Awissawella on July 27/PM Media
The United National Party – What Lies Beneath

The Grand Old Party is in serious trouble as it is in turmoil.

In the past month, there have been at least two occasions where United National Party meetings saw members openly challenging the leadership only to be swept aside by Party Leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The first was when the Working Committee met to appoint party organisers on June 19, for the upcoming elections.

At that meeting, Wickremesinghe, who has clung on to the powerful Party Leader position in the UNP for 25 years, proposed that some organizer posts be given to Sri Lanka Freedom Party MPs who are very keen to support the UNP-led front at the next elections.

There were objections raised by many members for this proposal, but eventually, when Wickremesinghe proposed that Jathika Hela Urumaya chief Patali Champika Ranawake be given an organiser post there were stronger objections.

Some working committee members had said Ranawake was “stripping the party of members as he was giving jobs to UNP workers,” and making them join his own party.

Several pointed out that Ranawake could not even get his closest supporters elected in past elections. Particularly vociferous was Colombo Mayor Rosie Senanayake.

Again Wickremesinghe prevailed, even asking the redoubtable Senanayake to sit down.

UNP insiders say that this lack of “inner democracy” in the party has led to the collapse of many constituency organisations.

“The appointment of organisers and candidates are not being done according to wishes of the constituents and the Constituency Councils (Bala Mandalaya),” one senior party member said.

He recalled that during the leadership of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, for instance, Constituency Council members were invited to party headquarters and then secret ballots conducted to choose the organizer and candidate.

“Right now senior party members are moved to safe seats if they are in the good books of the Leader, as a result, the party organisation at the grassroots is very disheartened,” multiple UNP sources said.

Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa greets President Maithripala Sirisena at an event in July/President’s Media

The second was a more recent event when at a Parliamentary Group meeting on Monday, July 22, MPs sought to have Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa chosen as the party’s Presidential candidate.

The party Chairman Minister Kabir Hashim proposed Premadasa’s name which was seconded by another, Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara, a senior member of the party.

No other person’s name was proposed and many MPs acclaimed the proposal prompting Minister Ajith P Perera to tweet “Its unanimous it’s Sajith.”

MPs we talked to said “we need a winning captain. Otherwise, we will be reduced to eight or nine seats in Parliament in the next General election.”

At a Press conference held in Badulla on Saturday, Cabinet Minister Harin Fernando said that he “explained to the Prime Minister that the only way forward was to nominate Premadasa as our candidate. At the Group meeting, no-one proposed any other name.”  

But Wickremesinghe prevailed without bowing to the MP’s wishes saying that the final decision who the UNP’s choice will be with the Working Committee, a body that the Party Leader effectively controls.

He said a new alliance will be formed shortly and the Presidential Candidate will be chosen in consultation with the partners. In such a scenario Speaker Karu Jayasuriya may be a compromise candidate.

Again at that point, the autocratic Wickremesinghe got his way.

Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa speaking at an event in June to remember Easter Sunday attack victims/ Imesh Ranasinghe RepublicNext
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna – truly feudal

If the UNP is autocratic then its principal opponent at the upcoming election the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna is truly feudal.

It’s choice as the candidate will most likely to be a member of the Rajapaksa family.

The question as to who will be the candidate has arisen because party patriarch, former President and current Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest the Presidency again because of the term limits imposed by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 2015.

Rajapaksa has in many recent interviews indicated that his chosen successor for party leadership and a probable Presidency is his son Namal. Unfortunately, he too cannot contest as the minimum age for a Presidential candidate is 35 and the scion is only 33.

With father and son out of the picture, the SLPP is still looking for candidates from within the Rajapaksa family.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa flanked by bodyguards leaves court where is yet to face trial/ RepublicNext

Leading the race for the nomination is younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa the former military officer who grew a fearsome reputation when he served as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence during his brother’s presidency.

Gotabaya has repeatedly said he will be the SLPP candidate and a number of MPs from the party, including a leader from the Women’s Wing Pavithra Wanniarachchi, have endorsed him in recent days.

Gotabaya has to clear a few matters before he can be nominated. Mainly he has to renounce his American citizenship as persons with dual citizenship cannot hold political office according to the election laws.

Although Gotabaya has applied for renunciation it is not clear whether the US government has granted his request as yet.

Gotabaya is also embroiled in a number of cases of corruption and abuse of power and he has been ducking and weaving through the court system, successfully avoiding facing trial.

The retired Lt. Colonel is fiercely supported by a strong coterie of ex-Military men. Among them is retired Admiral Sarath Weerasekara. The Admiral told RepublicNext that he would support the SLPP only on the condition that Gotabaya is the candidate. “I won’t support any other candidate,” he said.

Some senior partners in the SLPP alliance such as Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Kumara Welgama and Dinesh Gunewardene have voiced their opposition to a Gotabaya candidacy.

Nanayakkara has expressed concern that in case Gotabaya contests and wins he would bring in ex-Military personnel to run the government, effectively shutting off traditional career politicians such as himself from the fray.

These retired officers may be nominated for a possible Parliamentary General election which will follow the Presidential elections after three months.

Gunewardene, who is also a senior and well-respected political leader, thinks of himself as a possible candidate, one of his close associates told RepublicNext.

Most importantly Gotabaya has yet not got an endorsement from the patriarch himself.

The former President in a recent encounter with Media has said that there are nominations or suggestions for the candidacy from various parts of his alliance. “There are five people whose names have been suggested,” he said earlier this week.

If it’s not Gotabaya then the next front-runner could be the eldest of the Rajapaksa brothers in politics, Chamal.

A former Speaker, Chamal is a non-controversial figure and more acceptable to the older political parties allied with the SLPP.

The other politico-Rajapaksa brother Basil has indicated that he is not interested and would not give up his American citizenship.

Whoever it will be, he or she will need the formal anointing and unstinted support of Mahinda if they are to win.

The days ahead – the debate begins

In the next two weeks, we will see the heavyweight parties announce coalition partners and present their platforms.

The first to go will be the UNP-led alliance to be called the United Democratic Front on August 5.

The UDF will comprise many of the current UNF alliance partners as well as some elements of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party which supported the UNP during the October 2018 Constitutional Coup.    

It is very likely that some senior members of the SLFP will announce their intention to support this alliance on the 5th.

The next major announcement will be from the Rajapaksa-led front which will be anchored by the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.

The SLPP won the 2018 Local Government Polls handily and with that momentum will be the party to beat at the forthcoming Presidential poll and the Parliamentary elections that will follow. This is because of the muscle it has at the ground level and the slick organisation built for the LG polls.

The SLPP has been joined last week by a number of smaller parties that signed a Memorandum of Understanding with it.

The nature of the formations will shape the debate ahead.

The UDF is likely to have more substantial minority representation while the SLPP will be weighted heavily on the Sinhala majority side.

In it’s words and actions, particularly after the Easter Sunday attacks the SLPP has shown it will run a Sinhala majoritarian campaign.

In several of the Local Government organisations it dominates such as Kurunegala with the Shafi case, and Wennappuwa where Muslim traders were banned from participating in the weekly fair, it has shown a strong anti-Muslim bias.

The UDF is expected to attract more substantial minority support and try to present itself as a unifying multi-cultural and multi-religious alliance.

The divisions will be clearer as the weeks roll out, but one thing is certain; hang on to your hats we are in for quite the ride.