United National Party (UNP) deputy leader and Cabinet Minister Sajith Premadasa will run for President, Sri Lanka’s ruling party announced on Thursday, ending weeks of uncertainty and apparent infighting over candidacy.
Mr. Premadasa, 52, is the son of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. In the November 16 election, he will face Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Defence Secretary and brother of Leader of Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa, from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who leads the leftist Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
The UNP’s working committee on Thursday unanimously endorsed Mr. Premadasa, nominated by party leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The development follows an internal struggle among supporters of three contenders — Mr. Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Mr. Premadasa. With the party grassroots throwing its weight behind Mr. Premadasa, he emerged the final choice, party sources said, adding that he was the “only candidate who can beat Gota”.
With the UNP naming Mr. Premadasa, the contest — primarily between him and Gotabaya Rajapaksa — is set to pick up in the coming weeks. All the same, Mr. Dissanayake drew a huge crowd to the JVP rally held at Colombo’s sea front Galle Face Green mid-August, pointing to potentially growing support for the party.
Sri Lanka follows a preferential voting system for its presidential election, where voters can mark up to three preferences in candidates. If no candidate gets past the 50% mark as first preference, a run-off count will be held.
Pitching himself as a “decisive leader” and “efficient administrator”, war-time Defence Secretary Mr. Rajapaksa has been holding regular pocket meetings with his supporters, including professionals. National security and economic development have been recurring themes in his speeches that come months after the deadly Easter terror attacks.
Mr. Premadasa, in turn, is seeking to build on his rural outreach that he began through the Housing Ministry he currently helms. In the rallies he has held in the last few weeks, in anticipation of his candidacy, he has promised jobs for the youth and an economy that reaps benefits for all.
The Rajapaksas are known to appeal to the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist electorate of the island’s south, especially after their administration ended the war in 2009, defeating the LTTE militarily. However, minority Tamils of the north and east, the Muslims, and Malayaha Tamils living in Sri Lanka’s hill country decisively voted against the Rajapaksa government in 2015, playing a crucial role in propelling the President Maithripala Sirisena-PM Wickremesinghe combine to power.
The UNP-led ruling coalition includes partners representing the Muslim and Malayaha Tamil minorities. Though in Opposition, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represents the Tamils of the north and east, has been closely engaging with the UNP-government since the regime change in 2015, particularly on constitutional reform that has remained its chief demand in relation to the Tamil national question.
Following the UNP’s announcement on Thursday, TNA Leader R. Sampanthan said the alliance was yet to make a decision on which candidate to support. “The party has unanimously chosen its candidate. That is a healthy sign. We will give the matter deep consideration after nominations are filed and candidates make known their policy positions, particularly in regard to the national question. We will take a decision after that,” he told The Hindu.
Chandra Schaffter, General secretary of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) that is currently part of the government, said the alliance would support whoever the UNP officially nominated. Speaking to The Hindu, he said: “But it is also important that the party holds together now,” referring to the tension within the party. “We have certain requests and concerns in regard to the Malayaha Tamil community, we will discuss them with the candidate,” he added.
Muslim parties have not stated their position as yet, but they are widely expected to align with the UNP with whom they are in government.