The United National Party Working Committee, the party’s apex decision-making body yesterday endorsed the candidature of Maithripala Sirisena as the common Opposition candidate.
Following months of uncertainty about whether UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would contest President Rajapaksa in the 2015 election, the Working Committee formally endorsed the selection of the former Health Minister.
Earlier in the day, the UNP’s special committee on elections, dubbed the G20, met to discuss the issue of Sirisena’s candidacy.
UNP Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya spoke in favour of the SLFP General Secretary, saying it was a viable choice and urging the UNP to throw its weight behind his candidacy.
UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake has also been a vocal backer of common Opposition candidacy.
Overwhelmingly, the G20 was in favour of supporting Sirisena and saw his candidacy as a real chance to beat the incumbent President, sources with knowledge about the meeting told Daily FT.
Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya were both front-runners for the common candidacy, but disagreement within the party diminished their chances as negotiations reached fever pitch during the last week.
Despite UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa’s insistence that Wickremesinghe must be the candidate and contest under the elephant symbol, yesterday he agreed to go along with the decision of the party.
Party General Secretary Tissa Attanayake said all those opinions were ultimately subservient to the Working Committee decision. “Now the party has decided. That is our choice. That is who we will support,” he said.
Sirisena will campaign on an explicit platform to abolish the presidency.
The Working Committee meeting was held at Sirikotha last evening, with several members expressing their opinions and putting forward conditions, party sources told Daily FT.
A strict agenda will be set out as part of the alliance agreement according to which the common candidate will be expected to work, sources added.
An agreement on the Opposition alliance is likely to be inked in the coming days, with final modalities now being hammered out between the UNP, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and other opposition groups.
The UNP, as the main Opposition party, will be the nucleus around which the alliance will form.
The party’s grassroots machinery and organisation will play a large role in the Sirisena campaign.
Both sides have hailed the opportunity to show bipartisanship.
“UNP members are overwhelmingly in favour of this move,” UNP National List Legislator Eran Wickremaratne told Daily FT. “It’s surprising, despite Maithripala being a SLFPer,” he said.
Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who quit the Government yesterday, said that after more than 50 years, the SLFP and the UNP were coming back together. “After years of separation these two parts of the whole will be reunited,” he said during the press conference at New Town Hall.
The two parties have been split ever since S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike stepped out of the UNP in 1951 – three years after independence – to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
Crossover race day 2: UPFA loses 7, UNP 1
The Government has lost seven parliamentarians to the Opposition since President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced he was seeking a third term in office, while UNP MP Palitha Range Bandara has announced he will be joining the Government.
Government sources said several more crossovers were expected from the UNP, most likely members in the Opposition party who have long been on the fringe.
The UPFA has lost parliamentarians Maithripala Sirisena, who will be President Rajapaksa’s main challenger in the election, Rajitha Senaratne, Wasantha Senanayake, Duminda Dissanayake, M.K.D.S. Gunewardane and Rajiva Wijesinha.
UPFA parliamentarian from the CWC, Perumal Rajathurai also joined the UNP and was appointed the party’s Nuwara Eliya organiser at Sirikotha yesterday.
Earliest polling date 8 January, says polls chief
Polls Chief Mahinda Deshapriya has announced that the earliest date possible for the snap presidential election is 8 January 2015.
The Elections Department said after a meeting with representatives from political parties yesterday that time was inadequate to hold the poll any time before that date.
Nominations for the election will be called on 8 December, one month before polling day, the Elections Department announced.
Deshapriya ruled out election dates soon after the new year, saying his office would be unable to conduct the poll so quickly.
Luckily for President Rajapaksa, his lucky number is 8, some observers quipped.