Prez Sirisena’s rapport with Sajith
Posted on August 31st, 2019

By C.A.Chandraprema Courtesy The Island

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We are now in the month of September and the presidential election is almost upon us. The earliest date, on which the Elections Commission will be empowered to issue the Gazette notification calling for nominations for the presidential election, will be the 9th September. According to the Constitution the latest date for holding a presidential poll will be one month before the expiration of the term of the President in office. Since President Maithripala Sirisena assumed office on the 9th January 2015, the last date by which the presidential election should be held, is the 9th December 2019. According to the Presidential Elections Act, the maximum period that can lapse between the date on which nominations close and the poll is held, is two months. The maximum period that can lapse between the time of the issuance of the Gazette calling for nominations, and the closing of nominations, is one month.

That is how we arrive at the 9th September date as the earliest date on which the Elections Commission can issue the Gazette notification calling for nominations. This is of course on the assumption that the date of the poll is pushed back to the very last day permitted by the Constitution. But if we assume that the poll will be taken at the earliest date permitted by the Constitution, then the earliest date by which EC can issue the Gazette notification becomes 9th August 2019, which means we are already within the election period. The present heat generated by the presidential race is therefore fully justified. The announcing of the SLPP and JVP candidates in August also makes good sense in that context.

This brings us to the question as to what is the furthest date to which the presidential race can be pushed, assuming that the poll is held on the last possible date, and that as little time as possible lapses between the time the nominations close and the poll is held, and that as little time as possible lapses between the issuance of the Gazette calling for nominations and the closing of nominations? If we work backwards from the 9th December final date, we see that the last date by which the EC should issue the Gazette notification setting dates to receive nominations will be the 23rd October. The EC cannot hold back any further than 23 October to issue the Gazette notification calling for nominations to close by the 9th November and for the poll to be held by the 9th December. Of course in practice, the EC can never push the election back to these last possible dates because so many factors have to be taken into account in fixing the date of the poll.

The poll cannot be fixed on Poya days or public holidays and many other factors such as the commencement of public examinations and the like have to be taken into consideration. The EC has a leeway of about six weeks to fix the appropriate dates. So we have to expect it to issue the notification calling for nominations for the presidential elections on any day between the 9th September and the 23rd October.

Situation still fluid

Even though the presidential election is almost upon us, we still don’t know what will happen next. From the end of 2014 onwards, surprises have always come from Maithripala Sirisena, and from the looks of it, he will not disappoint us this one last time either. The Supreme Court opinion on the holding of the Provincial Council Elections would by now have been conveyed to the President and we have no idea whether a PC election will precede the presidential election. If a PC election is held, the political situation will undergo a significant change. Despite several rounds of discussions between the SLFP and SLPP and even direct talks between the SLFP and the presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, interspersed with at least two discussions between Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithipala, an alliance has still not materialized between these two parties. The formation or non-formation of an alliance between the SLPP and the SLFP will have a significant impact on the political scene.

Disciplinary action has been initiated against MPs  S. B. Dissanayake and Dilan Perera by the SLFP in the context where no such action was taken against Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, who openly joined the SLPP earlier. The latter is also like SB and Dilan, a national list MP appointed by Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 after they failed to get elected at the Parliamentary election of that year. However, the SLFP has not yet initiated disciplinary action against MPs who joined the UNP. One gets the impression that Maithripala Sirisena and the rest of the SLFP rump left with him may be marking time to see whether Sajith Premadasa will be able to wrest the UNP presidential candidacy and in such an eventuality President Sirisena may tag along with Sajith. There has been little doubt about the fact that Sajith has been President Sirisena’s preferred partner in the UNP. Even when he spoke at the joint SLPP-SLFP rally in Battaramulla after Mahinda Rajapaksa was made Prime Minister, in October 2018, Sirisena stated openly that he had, on several occasions, tried to make Sajith the Prime Minister. He was virtually apologising to the UNP constituency for having appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa to that position, by explaining that he had been compelled to do so only because he had been able to get Sajith or, at least, Karu Jayasuriya to accept the Pemiership.

If Sirisena was marking time without making any firm commitment to the SLPP in the hope that Sajith would be able to become the presidential candidate of the UNP, we never know how things will finally turn out, now that the UNP has put off announcing their candidate until a presidential election is actually declared. Obviously, the SLPP is not going to wait that long for Sirisena to make up his mind. Even in Sirisena’s case, it will be suicidal to wait that long to see who the UNP candidate is. If by some chance he learns at the last moment, that it’s not Sajith but someone else that the UNP will be fielding, he would have fallen between two stools, losing both the UNP and the SLPP.

The SLPP is obviously not unaware of Sirisena’s greater predilection for Sajith Premadasa. With each passing day, the SLF is losing voters to the SLPP due to the polarisation between the two camps. It should be borne in mind that the SLFP was able to retain even its present depleted vote base, at the 2018 local government elections, because President Sirisena relentlessly attacked the UNP. If he now joins hands with the UNP even in a situation where Sajith becomes the presidential candidate, it is unlikely that many SLFP voters will feel inclined to follow him into an alliance with the UNP. Even if there are a fair number of SLFP personalities who expect to obtain positions in a government, who may follow him into an alliance with Sajith, it is unlikely that the ordinary SLFP voter who has no such expectations of public office, will join Sirisena if he sides with Sajith.

Sirisena as a liability

One also has to ask whether Sajith will actually gain anything even if President Sirisena decides to support his candidacy. Obviously, Sirisena will be expecting something in return. If Sajith is going to be the presidential candidate, it is unlikely that Sirisena will join him for anything less than the premiership. Given what has happened over the past four and a half years, it is highly unlikely that Sajith’s own faction would allow him to have anybody other than a UNPer as the Prime Ministerial candidate. Furthermore, if Sajith actually forms an alliance with Maithripala Sirisena, the latter will be a millstone around his neck because Sirisena is heartily disliked by UNP voters for what he has done to the party.

Sirisena has the power of the presidency and the name board and headquarters and physical resources of a political party whereas what Sajith has is his popularity among village level UNP voters. Sajith has already stated that he will be contesting the presidential election come what may. Does that mean that he will contest the presidency even if the UNP does not give him the candidacy? If we envisage a scenario where Sajith having failed to get UNP nominations, defects to the SLFP and comes forward as the SLFP’s presidential candidate with Sirisena remaining as the SLFP leader and Prime Ministerial candidate, it is highly unlikely that the bulk of the UNP rank and file will follow Sajith into such an alliance.

The rank and file of the UNP has once been in a state of captivity under Sirisena and it is very unlikely that any UNP voter will have any appetite for more of that. So, however good the rapport between President Sirisena and Sajith may be, a political alliance between them will be highly detrimental to Sajith. Since President Sirisena on his own has no prospects at all, even an experimental alliance with Sajith may be better than nothing. But for Sajith, any association with Sirisena will be politically disadvantageous. Even if Sajith takes over the UNP leadership and invites Maithripala Sirisena into an alliance, that, too, will put many UNP voters off. When one thinks about it, Maithripala Sirisena will be a liability even to the SLPP candidate. Sirisena’s appearance on the platform of the SLPP candidate will put supporters of the SLPP off.

The only real use that the SLPP will have from an alliance with Sirisena is the ability to show the public that the SLPP and SLFP vote bases together already has arithmetical superiority over the other side. If the SLFP enters into an alliance with the SLPP and then disappears from the public scene until the election is over, that may be the ideal situation for the SLPP! They would then be able to benefit from the psychological effect of being able to arithmetically demonstrate proven superiority even before the election is held, without suffering the fallout from having to accommodate highly disliked people on the election platform and risk dampening the enthusiasm of the voters. If the Sirisena led SLFP forms an alliance with the SLPP, President Sirisena will be able to get himself elected to Parliament from the Polonnaruwa District because he has a base there. But all others in the SLFP may get wiped out at the hustings by failing to get that critical number of preferential votes to make it to Parliament.

The only way that the present lot in the SLFP will have any hope of survival within an alliance with the SLPP, will be only total and abject surrender after the fashion of SB and Dilan. Any talk of being able to form an alliance with the SLPP while retaining the identity of the SLFP, is impractical. That kind of luxury is available only to the smaller political parties in the Joint Opposition because they have always stuck by Mahinda Rajapaksa and have got identified with the JO. In fact as far as the public is concerned, many of the faces that they are most familiar with as stalwarts of the Joint Opposition are not SLPP at all.

The SLFP will not be able to enjoy the privileges available to the smaller parties in the Joint Opposition. Whichever way one looks at it, President Sirisena is on a bad wicket. This is why we have now once again started hearing about the abolition of the executive presidency. Leaders of the UNP have approached President Sirisena with the suggestion that the executive presidency be abolished. On Friday, President Sirisena said that it was not his fault that Parliament had not abolished the executive presidency. In the meantime, there are reports that President Sirisena and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa have agreed not to abolish the executive presidency at this stage, on the eve of a presidential election.

It may be pertinent to state at this stage that even though President Sirisena says that it is not his fault that the executve presidency was not abolished, it was in fact his fault. His election manifesto said that the Constitution would be amended only to the extent that a referendum was not made necessary. That was a ruse adopted to avoid abolishing the executive presidency once he was ensconced in power. Since the executive presidency cannot be abolished without a referendum, the position still exists. Besides, the most important precondition to the abolition of the executive presidency which is the reform of the parliamentary elections system also has still not taken place. The reform of the electoral system has featured in the talks between the SLPP and SLFP. Be that as it may, the present uncertainty as to what is going to happen next is due to President Sirisena thrashing around looking for survival strategies.

What will he do once he gets the Supreme Court opinion on the holding of PC elections? What is the opinion that the SC is likely to give? Will the SLPP-SLFP coalition talks bear fruit or fail? Will Sajith succeed in getting the UNP’s presidential candidacy and will Sirisena opt to join him instead of the SLPP? Will Sajith break away from the UNP and contest on his own with Sirisena’s help? Will Sirisena ask for another opinion from the Supreme Court as to whether his term ends on the 9th January 2020 or on the fifth anniversary of the signing of the 19th Amendment, which would extend his tenure in office till the 15th of May 2020? Whichever way we look at it, President Sirisena is at the centre of everything. Certainly, a fire burns brighter before it goes out.

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