Leon Trotsky famously observed , “Politics is more like algebra than like elementary arithmetic, and still more like higher rather than elementary mathematics”. The recent election of President Ranil Wickremesinghe by Sri Lankan members of Parliament appears to be an illustrative example of Trotsky’s statement about Politics being more like Algebra than Arithmetic.
Prior to actual voting by the 225 MP’s, it was Sri Lanka Podujana Party(SLPP) dissident MP, Dulles Alahapperuma who was perceived as the would be winner. The pledges of support by many different political parties and groups of so called “independent” MP’s indicated in terms of arithmetic that Alahapperuma would easily gain the minimum number of 113 votes.
On the other hand, the sole MP from the United National Party(UNP) Ranil Wickremesinghe had the support of the SLPP – as announced by its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam – which was the single largest party in Parliament However this was challenged by SLPP chairman Prof.G.L. Peiris who went to the extent of formally seconding Alahapperuma’s candidacy. Moreover the chief opposition party Samagi Jana Balavegaya(SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa withdrew as a candidate and supported the candidacy of Dulles by proposing his name.
Thus it seemed certain that Alahapperuma would be able to defeat Wickremesinghe. All arithmetical calculations based on pledges of support indicated that. Media reports too stated that Dulles had the edge over Ranil. Despite the arithmetical odds being in favour of Alahapperuma, it was Wickremesinghe who ultimately won the race with a huge lead.
Though support had been pledged by parties and groups the “variable”factor had come to the fore when secret ballots were cast by individual MPs. Politically, Algebra had triumphed over Arithmetic. It is against this backdrop that this column focuses this week on the first ever election of an executive president by Sri Lankan members of Parliament.July 20th 2022 was a red letter day in Sri Lankan political history. On that day, the Island nation’s Parliament directly elected a new executive president for the first time.
The Executive Presidency
The executive presidency was introduced by the United National Party(UNP) Government of Junius Richard Jayewardene 44 years ago. It was ushered in first through the second amendment to the Republican Constitution of 1972. JR Jayewardene became Sri Lanka’s first executive president. Consequently the executive presidency system was enshrined in the new Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka Constitution promulgated in 1978.
JR himself was re-elected president in 1982. Thereafter all executive presidents were directly elected by the people at presidential polls as made mandatory by the Constitution.However if a president died or resigned or was removed from office before his or her term of office was completed, the Prime Minister would become acting President but Parliament had to vote soon and elect a new President.
In 1993 when President Premadasa was killed there was no election because Parliament’s unanimous choice was incumbent premier Dingiri Banda Wijetunga. He became acting president and then President. In 2022 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned amidst controversial circumstances in a volatile political climate. Gota fled from Sri Lanka and sent his resignation letter via electronic mail from Singapore. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who had been appointed Prime Minister on May 12th 2022 by President Rajapaksa was sworn in as acting president by Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya.
Unlike in 1993 when DB Wijetunga was the unanimous choice of Parliament, acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe had to face many challengers and challenges. There were several MP’s aspiring to be executive presidents. There were several groups of Parliamentarians whose primary objective was to prevent Ranil becoming president.
“Fascist“ Book Burning Mobs
Likewise there were powerful lobbies outside Parliament – coming under the broad canopy of “Aragalaya”(struggle) – who were all motivated by the burning desire to keep Wickremesinghe out of presidential office. So intense was this burning desire, that some of them burnt down the private residence of Ranil and Maithree Wickremesinghe. Their collection of books – of immense historical, cultural and sentimental value- were also set on fire by book burning mobs of a “fascist” mould.
Mobs also invaded the Prime Minister’s office and ransacked it. An attempt to seize the Parliament building in Kotte was foiled due to stiff , non-lethal resistance by the Police and armed services personnel. All these acts were committed with the objective of compelling Wickremesinghe to quit , prevent him from functioning as Premier/acting president and abort his attempt to contest the presidential poll. The alleged role played by some opposition MP’s in instigating violence in this regard – if proven true – is truly deplorable.
It was in this turbulent political environment that Parliament voted on July 20 to elect a new President. On D-day there were three candidates in the electoral fray. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) dissident group leader Dulles Alahapperuma, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe were the three contenders. Their names had been proposed and seconded the previous day July 19.
It was crystal clear from the start that Anura Kumara Dissanayaka would be an also ran. This was demonstrated effectively when he got only three votes, all from the JVP. At face value, Ranil Wickremesinghe seemed to be in a worse predicament as he was the only MP in Parliament from his party the UNP.
Sagara Kariyawasam-G.L. Peiris
Yet, he had the perceived advantage of being premier and acting president. Wickremesinghe’s chances received a massive boost when the SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam announced that the SLPP would support the UNP leader. This boost was followed by another jolt when SLPP chairman Prof.G.L.Peiris challenged Kariyawasam’s announcement and publicly stated that the SLPP had not taken an official decision to support Wickremesinghe. Furthermore GL Peiris openly sided with Alahapperuma and engaged in efforts to canvass votes for the latter.
Matara district MP and ex -cabinet minister Dulles Alahapperuma was portrayed by many sections of the media and political commentators as having more support than Ranil Wickremesinghe. Despite the SLPP Gen Secy announcing support for Wickremesinghe, it was said that a very large number of “Pohottuwa “MP’s were backing Alahapperuma . Moreover Alahapperuma reportedly had the support of the “G-ten”group led by the Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Nanayakkara trio,the SLPP “independent” group led by Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and the supposedly non-aligned Sirisena -led Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP).
Furthermore the chief opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya(SJB) was supporting Dulles. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa had withdrawn his candidacy and declared full support for Alahapperuma. Parties associated with the SJB like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress(SLMC),the Tamil Progressive Alliance(TPA) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress(ACMC) also backed Dulles. So too did the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that had 10 MPs.
UNP Chairman Wajira Abeywardena
Under these circumstances ,it was but natural for hopes to soar high in the Dulles Alahapperuma camp. An MP from a party that had pledged to support Dulles told this writer on the eve of the election that Alahapperuma would win easily. According to their estimates Dulles would get a minimum of 122 votes and a maximum of 135 votes ,he said. On the other hand, UNP chairman and former cabinet minister Wajira Abeywardena was also highly optimistic about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s chances of victory.Wajira told the media that Ranil would get 140 votes and be elected. Many thought the UNP chairman was exaggerating as a confidence building pre-vote tactic.But when the results were known it became clear that Wajira’s figure was only six votes short.
The Presidential election by Parliament resulted in most pre-poll calculations and predictions going awry. Ranil Wickremesinghe won convincingky with 134 MPs voting for him. He had a 52 MP majority over chief rival Dulles Alahapperuma who obtained 82 votes. Anura Kumara Dissanayaka got 3 votes. The two All Ceylon Tamil Congress(ACTC) MPs had abstained.Four votes were rejected as being invalid.
The lone UNP Parliamentarian Ranil Wickremesinghe had defied all arithmetical calculations in this political game of numbers and romped home the winner. Ranil’s remarkable victory has once again highlighted the fact that politics is not always a numbers game. As stated earlier Leon Trotsky’s observation – about politics being more like algebra than like elementary arithmetic – seemed to have come true in this presidential election.
How then did the lone UNP parliamentarian Ranil Wickremesinghe triumph? The answer to that question will be related in detail in this two-part article.
At the outset it must be stated that a disconnect prevailed between the 225 Members of Parliament and a huge number of the people who had voted them into office in August 2020. The people were concerned about the rising prices of essentials, the shortages of food,gas,kerosene,petrol, diesel and the huge power cuts. They began protesting against the Government headed by Gotabaya for its perceived unwillingness and inability to address these issues.The protests that commenced against Gota gradually expanded against the entire Rajapaksa clan, the government and finally the opposition. All 225 MPs were asked to go by some sections of the protesters.The planned co-ordinated attacks against SLPP parliamentarians “in the name of the people”on May 9 had made all MPs anxious. Some opposition MPs too changed their places of stay for a few days in fear. Some began currying favour with the many different strands of the “Aragalaya” movement in sickeningly sycophantic mode.
MPs Acting in Their Self-Interest
Therefore the MPs voting to elect a new President were not reflecting the will of the people who elected them though many claimed to do so. The parliamentarians regardless of whether they were Govt,opposition or in limbo as self-declared independents were all acting in their -not necessarily enlightened – self -interest. Thus there was a convergence of interests on certain issues between individual or groups of MPs. But this was no clear cut identity of interests.
There was however an underlying factor that bound most MPs together. Notwithstanding public postures to the contrary, most parliamentarians were reluctant to face an early election. There were two related reasons. One was the realization that only about 25 to 50 of the present group of Parliamentarians would re-enter the August chamber if a fresh election was held soon. Most MPs from all sides would not be re-elected. The second was that over 80 were first time MPs who would not be entitled to their pensions if Parliament was dissolved before their full term expired. Thus there was a broad, undeclared consensus against a fresh parliamentary poll being held.
When a presidential election through parliament became imminent, there was speculation in the media that several contenders may fling their hats into the ring. Apart from the incumbent Prime Minister and acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe the other names being bandied about were leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa, SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, SJB MP Sarath Fonseka, SJB MP turned independent Champika Ranawaka and leaders of SLPP dissident cum independent groups Dulles Alahapperuma , Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Wimal Weerawansa. As time progressed it became apparent that only Wickremesinghe, Premadasa, Alahapperuma and Dissanayake would be in the fray.
Authentic Son of the ”Pohottuwa” Soil
With SLPP Gen-Secy Sagara Kariyawasam announcing support for Ranil, the acting president’s chances seemed bright but soon there was a dampener as SLPP chairman GL Peiris disputed the announcement and declared support for Dulles. It became obvious that the SLPP had split into two factions with one supporting the “parachutist” Wickremesinghe and the other the authentic son of the ”pohottuwa”soil Alahapperuma. It appeared that Dulles had an advantage over Ranil as the groups led by Weerawansa and Priyadarshana Yapa and most SLFP members would support him
Outwardly the prospects seemed to be getting better for Dulles as some “Viyath Maga” MPs like Channa Jayasumana and Nalaka Godahewa had joined his group.More importantly SLPP chairman Prof.GL Peiris was firmly backing him against Ranil. According to informed sources Wickremesinghe had indicated to Peiris that he would shift the Professor as Foreign Minister when he re-constituted the cabinet. Also there was no possibility of GL being made Prime Minister. Hell hath no fury as a professor scorned! So GL openly confronted Sagara Kariyawasam on the question of declaring SLPP support for Ranil. GL became the chief backer of Dulles within the SLPP and a tower of strength to the man from Matara district.
Sajith Premadasa Camp.
At another level there were fresh moves within the Sajith Premadasa camp. Prior to Sagara Kariyawasam’s declaration of support for Wickremesinghe, Sajith had been quite confident. Apart from his Samagi Jana Balavegaya MPs and those of aligned parties like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress,Tamil Progressive Alliance( and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress, Sajith also banked on Tamil National Alliance support. He also hoped to get Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP backing. He also thought he would get the bulk of votes from the ten party group led by the Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Nanayakkara trion(known as the Weerawansa group).
Kariyawasam’s declarion of support for Wickremesinghe ,impacted on Premadasa strongly.It is well-known that the SLPP General Secretary is a loyal mouthoiece of the “pohottuwa”’s master strategist.Therefore Sagara Kariyawasam was voicing the official SLPP line as determined by Basil Rajapaksa,it was felt. Furthermore there were signs of increasing support for Wickremesinghe
The SJB and SLFP dissidents serving as cabinet ministers like Harin Fernando,Manusha Nanayakkara,Mahinda Amaraweera and Nimal Siripala de Silva would be definitely supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe. In addition there were other sources of support too. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) had split from the SLPP led Govt when Gotabaya was president. The two CWC MPs Jeevan Thondaman and Maruthupandy Rameshwaran had remained independent without joining the Weerawansa-led group of parties formerly aligned to the SLPP. The CWC had openly declared support for Wickremesinghe. So did cabinet minister Douglas Devananda whose Eelam Peoples Democratic Party(EPDP) had 2 seats. National Congress leader AHM Athaullah too had pulled out of the 10 -party group and pledged support to Ranil. In a further twist “Thamil Makkal Thesiya Koottani”MP CV Wigneswaran had also announced his support for Wickremesinghe.Earlier the former Northern Provincial Council chief minister had said he would be neutral.
There are some who say that for Sajith Premadasa , it was more important to prevent Wickremesinghe becoming president rather than being President himself. Be that as it tmay, there began palavering between the Sajith Premadasa and Dulles Alahapperuma camps. Earlier there had been a loose understanding between stalwarts of both camps that Sajith and Dulles could join forces after contesting against each other in the presidential election. If Sajith was elected President Dulles would be Premier and vice versa. Ranil was not regarded as a force to be reckoned with then .But with Sagara’s declaration,it was realised that some form of collaboration was required between Sajith and Dulles to overcome the Ranil backed by Basil threat.
Sajith Withdraws and Backs Dulles
After much discussion and several revised stances, it was finally resolved that Dulles Alahapperuma would be the sole Presidential candidate. Sajith Premadasa would bow out of the hustings. The SJB and aligned parties would support Alahapperuma’s candidacy.The deal was that Sajith Premadasa should be appointed Prime Minister. Thereafter a constitutional amendment transferring much of the executive presidential powers to the Prime minister would be passed.
Before withdrawing from the race Sajith tweeted “ I want the people of Sri Lanka to know that I will take the correct decision at the appropriate time to protect my motherland’s national interest and the rights of all my fellow Sri Lankan people.”. After Sajith’s withdrwal Dulles praised Sajith as having done a great sacrifice.
Thus a political deal came into being and Dulles Alahapperuma was backed by several parties of the opposition including the SJB. It had been the Sajith Premadasa led SJB’s position that the entire SLPP MPs led by the Rajapaksas were corrupt and had to go. The SJB would not have anything to do with them. Ranil was faulted for accepting the premiership of a SLPP Govt. It may also be recalled that Ranil Wickremesinghe has been constantly attacked for having entered into a deal with the Rajapaksas and reviled as a deal maker. In fact a makeshift protest site was set up opposite “Temple Trees.” called “No Deal Gama”. Ranil has been portrayed and vilified as a Rajapaksa stooge.He is mocked as “Ranil Rajapaksa”. He is depicted as an extension or continuation of Rajapaksa rule with the continuous demand that Ranil should go home.
Rajapaksa Acolyte Alahapperuma
But then who is Dulles Alahapperuma? He is reportedly a very nice,unassuming person. He was a joutrnalist once and I have a soft spot for him as a fellow journalist. However the positive personal attributes of Dulles cannot make one oblivious to the fact that Alahapperuma has been for many years a Rajapaksa acolyte as Tisaranee Gunasekera wrote in a recent article.
This what she said – “Clinging to Ranil phobia has enabled the obscene travesty of making Dulles Alahapperuma – a Rajapaksa acolyte for over 25 years, candidate Gotabaya’s chief media spokesman, and a minister in the regime that brought Sri Lanka to this pass – the standard bearer of the anti-Rajapaksa camp. A man who didn’t utter a whimper about tax cuts, money printing, fertiliser fiasco, or 20th Amendment became more anti-Rajapaksa than Ranil Wickremesinghe who had opposed every one of those disasters.”
As Tisaranee has correctly observed, Ranil Wickremesinghe has for long opposed the Rajapaksas while Alahappperuma was a Rajapaksa camp follower until recently. It was Ranil who contested Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 and later backed Fonseka and Sirisena against Mahinda and Premadasa against Gotabaya.Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister only on 12 May 2022. But Dulles has been with the Rajapaksas for decades. Yet Ranil is being portrayed as a Rajapaksa puppet by opposition MPs,NGO wallas, civil society elements, so called human rights defenders and sections of the national and international media. The SJB had now entered into a “deal” with a key figure of the SLPP and long time acolyte of the Rajapaksas.
An Ironic Situation
It is indeed an ironic situation where the man who opposed the Rajapaksas for many years is branded a Rajapaksa stooge while a long time Rajapaksa loyalist turned “independent”is depicted as a candidate for change. Though projected as a fight between a pro-Rajapaksa candidate and an anti – Rajapaksa candidate,the bizarre reality was that both obtained votes from the SLPP as well as opposition parties. It was Wickremesinghe who won because he got the bulk of the SLPP votes. How this came about would be discussed in greater detail in the second part of this article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appears in the “D.B.S.Jeyaraj Column”of the “Daily Mirror”dated August 13th 2022.It can be accessed here