Sri Lanka’s uneasy coalition is expected to hobble along till the presidential elections next year, but it is not only the government that is in trouble. The opposition too is in trouble, trying to choose a candidate.
The uncertainty over the contender at the 2019 vote is at the nub of wrangling between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as they both harbour hopes of contesting.
Within the opposition ranks, the euphoria that followed the February local council victory has given way to fissures within the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The “Economy Next” political correspondent discusses the options for both the SLPP and the unity government in the next 18 months.
Former defence secretary and the youngest among the Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabhaya, has made no bones about his intention to have a shot at the presidency, despite a constitutional obstacle in his way.
US citizen Gotabhaya and his “Viyathmaga” (intellectual) followers believe that he can easily renounce his foreign nationality to meet the new constitutional provision that candidates must be Sri Lankans only.
Despite a lavish launch of his presidential election campaign at the Shangri La hotel last month, Gotabhaya’s candidature is not a done deal. It is unclear if he can renounce his US citizenship in time to file nominations next year.
Even if he succeeds in clearing the constitutional bar, he faces a stiff challenge from older brother Basil who took credit for the February local council elections while Gotabhaya was out of the island throughout the election campaign.
Basil also cannot contest the election unless he too gives up his US citizenship. Should he clear the citizenship test, Basil has greater support within the SLFP party machinery. But, neither Basil nor Gotabhaya are likely to get the approval of older brother Mahinda.
Firebrand leftist MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara proposed the eldest Rajapaksa sibling, Chamal, as a compromise to avoid a fight between the younger brothers, but Mahinda’s long-term strategy does not include either of them getting the candidacy.
Party insiders say that Mahinda is keen to pass the baton to his legislator son Namal. However, should any of the Rajapaksa siblings get the top slot, that would be the end of Namal’s hopes of succeeding the father.
The 19th amendment to the constitution that both Namal and Mahinda voted for in 2015 has precluded the younger MP from contesting the next presidential election. A presidential hopeful must be at least 35 years of age.
Namal, 32, will fulfil the age requirement only in April 2021 which means Mahinda will have to keep control of his flock till the 2025 presidential election to hand over the reins to his son.
Any other Rajapaksa taking the leadership of the party would mean the end of the road for Namal and that is something his father is keen to avoid and that is why he is non-committal on either Basil or Gotabhaya.
The best outcome for Mahinda Rajapaksa is for the proposed 20th amendment to go through scrapping the executive presidency so that he could return as a prime ministerial candidate.
It is unlikely that either Sirisena or Wickremesinghe will support the 20th amendment despite their previous pledges to abolish the presidency and revert the country to a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.
Another alternative for Mahinda would be to support Sirisena’s re-election bid and hope to get his endorsement to be the next prime minister at the August 2020 parliamentary election.
A possible realignment between the two sworn enemies cannot be ruled out given Sri Lanka’s recent history of political foes making common cause against their new enemies, for example, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe joining hands to topple Rajapaksa in January 2015.
Party stalwarts say a Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine is no longer credible unlike in 2015 and the two would have to necessarily part ways when the next election is called. Neither of them would, collectively or otherwise, be able to muster public support given their track record, leaving both to look for proxy candidates.