Presidential blues Winning elections and staying in power
Posted on May 12th, 2018

by arjuna ranawana Courtesy Ceylon Today

The presidential and parliamentary elections are 18 months away, and one person has already declared himself a candidate for the presidency. President Maithripala Sirisena speaking at the SLFP May Day Rally in Batticaloa on Monday said that he will not retire in 2020 as ‘he has more work to do for the nation.’ That Sirisena would take another shot at the presidency was not unexpected. The post of Executive President of Sri Lanka, designed for the personality of its first incumbent J.R. Jayewardene, has seen some powers delegated to the Prime Minister by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, but it is still a very powerful position.

Once a politician wields that kind of power, it is hard to let go. New Presidents are quickly surrounded by all kinds of deal-makers who then wouldn’t want the incumbent to step down as they would lose the opportunities to make money. In Sirisena’s case, all of them have urged him to stay and if possible run and win again.


Most observers would say he does not have a chance of making it, but politics is a strange thing and given the unpredictability of the Sri Lankan electorate anything could happen.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not take Sirisena’s apparent declaration of intent to contest seriously. Speaking at the May Day Rally of the Joint Opposition in Galle, he said all Sirisena wanted by making this statement was to retain whatever Members of Parliament that were with him from the SLFP.
But, Party MPs supporting Sirisena have said that he will be their Presidential candidate come 2020.

Sirisena was elected in 2015 as a common candidate by an electorate which wanted to defeat the Rajapaksa Oligarchy. He was backed by the UNP as well as minority groups who voted in large numbers for him. The charge was led by social activists who wanted an end to what they felt was a kleptocracy and indeed Sirisena beat Rajapaksa against all odds.

It is unlikely that he will get that coalition behind him in a 2020 bid for power. Most of the promises he made to the electorate have not been met. Importantly, he has failed to punish the wrongdoers of the former regime. Other pledges such as setting up of the Office of Missing Persons has taken very long and is yet to be able to get its act together.

Sirisena also unsuccessfully tried to remove Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from his post. This soured relations between the UNP and the President. The No-Confidence Motion against the Premier which was brought by the so-called Joint Opposition was defeated soundly and ended up with a group of SLFP Members of Parliament who supported him, splitting.

Now the SLFP/UPFA appears to have three factions, those who are in Government, those who are in Opposition but back Sirisena and those who are with the Rajapaksa-led JO. Thus the number of MPs now supporting him has dwindled, further weakening him.

Until now, there have not been many accusations of corruption against Sirisena or his family except for some murmurings about the business activities of his daughter and son-in-law. But recently, his Chief of staff Dr. I.H.K. Mahanama and close associate Timber Corporation Chairman P. Dissanayake were arrested by Bribery Commission officers while they were allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs 20 million from an Indian businessman.

Sirisena promptly sacked them and ordered a full investigation. However since then, Social Media has been awash with pictures of Dissanayake’s son and some members of the President’s family holidaying together.
But Sirisena’s real chances hang on who his opponents will be.

Political discourse

For now, it appears that Wickremesinghe will be the UNP candidate. Battered and bruised by recent events, he has however shown that he maintains an iron grip on the party machinery. He was also supported in the NCM by the minority parties in Parliament.

But, revelations about the Bonds Scam which involved people close to him, particularly former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, have dented his reputation as ‘Mr Clean’. He has also been hampered in implementing a neo-Liberal agenda which he would have liked to do because of the compromises he has had to make with the pro-Sirisena faction in the Unity Government.

Wickremesinghe has also led his party since 1994 and has served three short terms as Prime Minister but has not won a presidential election.
UNP insiders admit that under Wickremesinghe the party has ‘lost the village’. In the last Local Government elections held just months ago, the UNP managed to hold on to some urban strongholds but was wiped out in the rural Sinhala-dominated South by the Rajapaksa-led Podujana Peramuna.

For some time, he has faced rebellions from within the Party from MPs who feel he lacks the common touch and that he is surrounded by his cronies. The cry for Party reforms have now reached a crescendo as the last round of changes done after the NCM did little to dispel the notion that the key positions are still held by the PM’s close buddies. As the election nears, these rebels are likely to gather steam as the younger MPs will be reluctant to back a ‘losing captain’ and be relegated to the Opposition once again.

For the Third Force, the SLPP led by Rajapaksa there is a conundrum – Mahinda is the most popular politician in the country, but he cannot contest the 2020 election as the Constitution has re-imposed term limits on the Presidency. There is some consensus that it should be a member of the Rajapaksa family. Who that person will be, is a question that the party will have to sort out closer to the election.

The strongest bid for SLPP candidacy is being made by the ex-President’s younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Defence Secretary. He has been building a coalition of support from like-minded right wing thinkers and is due to unveil his vision for the country later this month.
Gotabaya comes with a fearsome reputation and is accused by Human Rights activists and other parties of being responsible for violence unleashed on dissenting journalists and others. He has also been accused of corruption, but is yet to be formally indicted on any of these charges.

A few senior supporters of the party have said they prefer the elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa. He is a former Police Officer and much respected Speaker of Parliament and seen as a moderate individual. In all this, we Sri Lankans may lose out in the long run. The people who are likely candidates are either from powerful families or party-men with tired platforms.

What the country needs at an election is a robust discussion on political theories, but as Philosophy Professor Desmond Mallikarachchi points out, we Sri Lankans are called to vote more on tribal lines and not on proper manifestos or political visions. These leaders have no political theories, so we are forced to choose personalities and we learn nothing and don’t take the political discourse any further.”

That is how matters stand, but there is another 18 months or so to go, so let’s hope for the best.

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