That President Maithripala Sirisena desires to be the next presidential candidate surfaced once again when newly appointed General Secretary of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Dayasiri Jayasekara made some utterances to that effect early this week.
Jayasekara said that his party wished to field President Sirisena as the candidate for the next presidential elections.
The President has been harbouring such an ambition right throughout despite his pronouncement in the run up to the 2015 presidential elections that he would not seek re-election. On earlier occasions, his intention of contesting for the second term became obvious when he parried answers to the direct questions posed to him by the media with regards to his candidacy.
For instance, in an interview with Daily Mirror on December 8, 2018, he said, “There is one more year for it to be decided. There is no need to decide on it now,” It is an elusive answer, but bespeaks of his desire to contest for the top office for a second time. Jayasekara, in his latest remarks to the press, only gave further hints in this direction.
The President’s desired intention is becoming clear by the day through the political moves he makes these days. The President is making measured, calculated efforts as part of his strategy to secure candidacy next time. It is a challenging task for him, though.
At the local authorities’ election conducted on February 10, 2018, his party was relegated to the poor third position gaining only a little over 13 percent of votes polled. A candidate should poll more than 50 percent of votes at a presidential election to become the President. So, it is unrealistic for the President to be in the presidential contest only with the bag of votes his party polled at the Local Government Elections. Obviously, the President has to receive the backing of one of the two main political forces- the United National Party (UNP) or the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – to become a successful candidate next time.
He prompted action in this respect much earlier. After his political relations with the UNP leadership soured beyond redemption, he made overtures to its second tier of leaders – Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Deputy Leader Housing and Construction Minister Sajith Premadasa- and offered them the premiership. It was nothing but a political strategy to cobble up an alliance with the UNP leaving out Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from the process.
It proved impossible since both Premadasa and Jayasuriya were not ready to accept the premiership under the current circumstances. Afterwards, he tied up with his erstwhile colleague Mahinda Rajapaksa who is ostensibly heading the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
Now, the President is back with one of the two main political forces in the country. Once this is now secured, he is determined to consolidate his base so that he can stake a better claim for candidacy at the presidential elections to be conducted probably by the end of this year. In what appeared to be a move appealing most to the Sinhala Buddhist constituents, he declared the Tripitaka, the sacred book containing the entire Buddhist discourse, as a national heritage. He also promised to lobby internationally for its declaration as a world heritage. Alongside, he inaugurated development projects in Laggala. The publicity blitz that entailed was aimed at image boosting. All these actions have to be weighed in the context of the presidential polls pending this year.
Amidst the President’s pursuits of electoral ambitions in this fashion, the SLPP is in a dilemma because it has propped up the names of some others as possible presidential candidates.
MR experiences something awkward
In the immediate aftermath of Jayasekara’s announcement that President Sirisena would be the chosen bet for the presidential polls, SLPP Chairman Prof. G. L. Peiris hit back at him saying that only Mahinda Rajapaksa would nominate the candidate.
Among the rank and file of SLPP which is commonly called ‘Pohottuwa’, sentiments against the President seem to be reigning in more and more.
Rajapaksa experienced something awkward while addressing a public gathering in Anamaduwa recently. He was slandering the Government for various acts done during the past four years. And, all of a sudden, someone from the crowd shouted, “the President is also held responsible for it,”
Rajapaksa felt a bit uneasy over this since he could not openly endorse any criticism of the President as both of them were in the common political front. So, he dodged a direct response to the lone voice from the crowd.
Also, there was some stir within the UPFA after Jayasekara attacked Mahinda Rajapaksa through innuendo when he said that President Sirisena was the only President whose name was not tarnished by allegations of corruption and frauds. It ruffled feathers within the UPFA or the SLPP/SLFP front, and the Rajapaksa loyalists insisted that Jayasekara should apologise.
Subsequently, at the UPFA parliamentary group meeting chaired by President Sirisena and Rajapaksa, Jayasekara said he regretted the remarks made by him the other day.
In the New Year, mainstream political forces have revved up their political engine in view of the presidential elections. As for the SLPP/SLFP political front, it grapples with a challenge in the selection of the presidential candidate because President Sirisena eyes it.
As far as the UNP candidate is concerned, uncertainty prevails. The UNP has been riddled with factionalism. The faction, loyal to Deputy Leader Premadasa, is back in the limelight openly advocating his candidacy. Some MPs such as Non Cabinet Minister Ajith P. Perera who was known as an acolyte of Ranil Wickremesinghe, is also highlighting Premadasa as his party’s presidential candidate.
The UNP calls for an early presidential election, hoping that it would emerge victorious with the en bloc support of the minority communities.
Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka is also projected as a prospective candidate. However, either Premadasa or Ranawaka has not committed to anything in this regard in clear cut terms.
Let alone, Rajapaksa has chosen his political activities carefully and measured the tone of his speeches in a manner that is appealing to the Sinhala – Buddhist constituents. He even named one of his model villages in Hambantota after Weera Keppitipola, the Singhalese hero who led the Uva Wellassa rebellion in 1848.
Premadasa showered praise on President Sirisena for his declaration of the Tripitaka as the national heritage. In this fashion, the tone and tenor of Premadasa’s political language is a marked departure from that of his party.
For years, the UNP has been politically weak in the Sinhala majority electorates. Is Premadasa trying to revive it in a move that would propel him to the presidency? That is a logical question arising in the minds of politically savvy people.
Kabir warns UNP backbenchers
When the UNP demands a snap presidential election, the President is keen to get the provincial council elections declared first. He wants such elections as a launching pad for the next presidential elections. In the event of provincial council elections, the SLPP/SLFP alliance can be cobbled up in the formal sense. It will be an opening for the President to go before voters as a main speaker at that front. He might be thinking that it will be helpful for him to secure candidacy at the presidential elections.
However, the SLPP insists on a snap general election with a resolution passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Some UNP MPs are ready for it whereas others are opposed to it.
The UNP MPs were critical of Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama these days. Party’s MP for the Ratnapura district Hesha Withanage was in the forefront leading criticism against Samarawickrama.
However, UNP Chairman Highways Minister Kabir Hashim warned Withanage and others against public criticism of the party matters. Instead, he asked them to raise any issue within the party without making it a public spectacle.