The UNP’s all lose–no winners cold war over the Presidential candidacy seems to be heading to a saner end.
Party heavyweights, including the leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and constituent parties of the UNF are gradually leaning towards Karu Jayasuriya, the Speaker of the House as the national candidate, who will pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency within a set time.
Mr Jayasuriya is a decent political choice, who can command the support of the Buddhist clergy and a sizeable number of Southern voters, who might place an added premium on the Sinhala Buddhist identity in the aftermath of public uproar over the Easter Sunday attacks.
An overly Anglicized choice would dissuade a good part of this audience. Also, an unimaginative imitator would not impress them. Whereas a moderate, cosmopolitan Sri Lankan nationalist would offer promise and a way out from the Hobson’s choice, which the Sri Lankan voters would be confronted with if the things proceed as they threaten to do.
The rational Southern voters who are disgruntled by the years of economic inactivity, political paralysis and ultimate security lapses under the Yahapalanaya reign, also harbour serious reservations about the SLPP’s Presidential Candidate.
Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa is admired for his role in defeating the LTTE terrorism, also for his proactive administration as the Secretary of the Ministry of Urban Development.
But he is also loathed for his arrogance, arbitrariness and alleged complicity in many egregious dealings.
Mr Rajapaksa who riles at the vacillation of the current government is offering an efficient and technocratic government. He stresses on discipline. However, many of the undecided voters are worried that what Mr Rajapaksa is, in fact, offering the Sri Lankans is a leviathan, the Hobbesian choice of an absolute monarch to escape from the state of nature, i.e. security lacunas that led to the Easter carnage, and other deficiencies of the benevolent, but inefficient Yahapalanaya regime.
The problem is as many would recognize soon, once you enter into the social contract of a strong and monopolistic government, of the type offered by Mr Rajapaksa, in exchange for peace, and possibly, development, you cannot walk back.
The internal struggle has prevented the UNP from capitalizing on these widely held public concerns. And, Mr Sajith Premadasa, who has led a self-harm campaign for the presidential candidacy may not be the best choice for the UNP if it is to take on Mr Rajapaksa on his Achilles Heel.
His campaign has failed to inspire the undecided voters and independents. Mr Premadasa is not Emmanuel Macron, the political insider who ran like an outsider, galvanized the French voter wary of the rot in the traditional politics and won the French Presidency.
Rather, Mr Premadasa seemed to be trapped in the past. Sometimes, despite all the nastiness of white vans, Mr Rajapaksa seems to be inspiring the aspiring Sri Lankan populace.
Karu Jayasuriya may not be the most boisterous of the likely contenders. But, he can win through the electoral arithmetics. He can pull together a vast majority of the ethnic and religious minority voters.
He can win the support of the civil society, the Buddhist clergy and other religious dignitaries.
However, his (Or any other UNP candidate’s) success would depend on two other factors-The support of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the JVP.
The UNP cannot perform in this election worse than it did during the Local Government election of 2018. It won 29.4% of the votes. The SLFP won 12.1%, The JVP: 5.76% and the TNA: 2.73%. The SLPP won 40.47%
Can Mr Jayasuriya reach out to President Sirisena, who himself has serious reservations about the return of the Rajapaksas? President Sirisena has had enough of the UNP leadership of Mr Wickremesinghe and his sanctimonious coterie and previously reached out to Mr Premadasa. But, if the choice comes to between Mr Rajapaksa and Jayasuriya, the president might opt to the latter. He is still waiting for Mr Premadasa to clear hurdles on his way to the UNP Presidential Candidate.
However, the art of possible is also about the art of patching up. The undue waiting over the announcement of the UNP Presidential Candidate has put the SLFP and President Sirisena himself in a dilemma.
If the SLFP finally decides to put its weight behind Gotabaya, out of sheer desperation, the UNP and its fighting factions are to blame for their misfortune. Whoever wins the backing of the SLFP is likely to win the presidential election. The other pillar is the JVP. Its 5% of the popular vote is big enough to swing the election.
The JVP Presidential Candidate, Anura Kumara Dissanayake cannot win the Presidential Election, but, if the JVP persists in its losing gamble, they can help elect Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The JVP surely does not want that honour. However, neither SLFP nor JVP want anything to do with Mr Wickremesinghe.
Mr Jayasuriya with a pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency offers a way out for all these factions.
President Sirisena who promised to abolish the Executive Presidency, but failed, ostensibly due to the dearth of Parliamentary support can now claim that the SLFP would give it a second shot.
The JVP too can find the common ground. Neither the SLFP or the JVP voters want their parties to be a surrogate of the UNP.
They want to be the kingmaker. This deal gives them a shot at it, and be part of a worthy national cause, bring home a long-held demand to abolish the executive presidency.
However, the time is fast running out. The UNP cannot be dillydallying forever. Its prospective partners would lose interest. Sooner it announces Mr Jayasuriya as the national candidate is better.