The Speaker of Parliament and the United National Party’s one-time chairman, Karu Jayasuriya is expected to be proposed as a possible “National candidate” by an influential section of the party following party leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa digging in to their position on the presidential ticket.
The basis for bringing in the Speaker into the equation comes from the UNP announcing simultaneously it will abolish the Executive Presidency immediately after this Presidential election.
The Constitution’s 19th Amendment has already clipped some of the next President’s Executive powers. Party insiders said the UNP had already decided at its 2014 National Convention to do away with the Executive Presidency, but argued the party did not have the legislative support to implement it after coming into office in 2015.
Speaker Jayasuriya has unofficially intimated his willingness to be a “National candidate”, with the backing of non-political civil society groups but says he will come on the UNP/NDF ticket only if invited by the party.
According to UNP insiders, it is likely that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) could back Mr. Jayasuriya’s candidature if his platform is the abolition of the Executive Presidency. They say that he has the backing of the Buddhist monks, the “Sinhala Buddhist majority” and the minorities together with civil society if he pledges to abolish the Executive Presidency. This move comes only three weeks after President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa discussed the feasibility of moving for the abolition of the Executive Presidency before a presidential election. The move was shelved as Mr Rajapaksa opted out, saying it was too late to pursue the matter as his party had already announced a presidential candidate.
Last Tuesday’s high-level meeting between Mr Wickremesinghe and Mr Premadasa to resolve who should be the UNP’s Presidential candidate ended inconclusively.
Mr. Wickremesinghe was presented at the meeting with the results of a poll conducted by ‘Pepper Cwube’, a professional group of pollsters showing Opposition candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the front-runner for the upcoming presidential election and Mr Premadasa ahead of Mr Wickremesinghe from the UNP with Mr Jayasuriya in fourth place.
Neither Mr Rajapaksa nor Mr Premadasa, however, had a 50 percent vote needed to win a Presidential election in the first count, according to the poll. Pepper Cube is a successor to Mitofsky, a US-based pollster. UNP state minister Harsha de Silva, who supports the Premadasa faction, was a founder and a quarter shareholder of Pepper Cube. However, when he took office in 2015, he transferred his shares to his wife.
During the Wickremesinghe-Premadasa talks, one time UNP chairman Malik Samarawickrama and current UNP chairman Kabir Hashim argued that Mr Premadasa had a better chance of defeating Mr Rajapaksa based on the poll results.
The Wickremesinghe faction, however, had argued that the first opinion poll before the 2015 presidential election gave President Maithripala Sirisena a less than 20 percent chance of winning. Survey results could change closer to the polls, they pointed out.
On Tuesday, Mr Premadasa was asked how he was going to defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa if the polls showed him behind. Mr Premadasa’s camp was expected to produce the evidence in the coming days.
A Premadasa camp member said they would press for his candidacy and that putting forward Mr Jayasuriya was to frustrate their campaign. Mr Premadasa was prepared to offer the premiership to Mr Jayasuriya, he said.
Mr. Wickremesinghe has said that he will put the issue of the party’s candidate before the Working Committee, but party seniors say they are trying to avoid a showdown. A vote taking at the party’s decision making body may split the party, they say.