For the past month the issue of who will be the presidential candidate of the ruling UNP has been dividing the party and diverting attention away from its needs to develop an election manifesto that is owned by the party as a whole, and not by a faction. There are two main factions, one backing the Prime Minister and party leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the other backing its deputy leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. They have different strengths and support bases. Due to the difficulty that the party leadership is having in selecting one over the other there is an attempt being made to seek the abolition of the executive presidency either before or soon after the presidential elections which are due by December this year.
There is increased competition between the global big powers in the India Ocean. The four main protagonists are India, the United States, China and Japan. The challenge to Sri Lanka is how to maximize the benefit to itself from this situation without being overwhelmed by pressures that may be brought to bear upon it. Sri Lanka can become a beneficiary of competition as it has in the case of the USD 480 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation of the United States. However, each of the global powers will see a threat to itself if Sri Lanka were to favour one over the other. The threat perception will grow if Sri Lanka were to permit any one of them a foothold within the country, especially in military terms, that is significantly bigger than what they already have.
When the government was elected in 2015 there was heady anticipation of large inflows of economic resources from Western countries into Sri Lanka that would boost economic growth and bring prosperity to the general population. This expectation was strengthened by the government’s positive response to international pressures to improve the human rights situation within the country. The previous government had confronted the international community led by Western countries to its detriment on these issues. The new government in 2015 reversed its predecessor’s aversion to human rights, and went to the extent of co-sponsoring Resolution 30/1 of the UN Human Rights Council which called for post war transitional justice and accountability.
The main opposition party, the SLPP, was the quickest off the mark to propose its candidate. Their candidate, former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the advantage of being both a known and unknown quantity. On the one hand, he is known as being one of the primary architects of the military defeat of the LTTE, once believed to be an undefeatable politico-military force and enjoying local and transnational support. On the other hand, as a former army officer and public servant, his performance as a politician is untested and unknown. In the context of the widespread disillusionment against established politicians, this is an advantage to which the SLPP’s political opponents need to find an answer.
The delay in the announcement of the ruling party’s presidential candidate continues. There are reports of negotiations and breakdown of negotiations within the UNP. The open disagreements within the ruling party may be contrasted with the decisiveness of the main opposition party, the SLPP. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was granted the party leadership and nominated his younger brother Gotabaya to be the presidential candidate of the SLPP. Thereafter he announced that he himself would be the prime ministerial candidate at the general elections that would follow. Such decisiveness fits well with the current emphasis in the country on the need for a strong leader to address the many problems in the country.
The selection of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate of the SLPP will impart enthusiasm in an electorate that has grown discontented at the absence of coherence in governance over the past few years. The UNF government with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm failed to govern with unity of purpose. They each had different advisors and different visions and the clash between the two grew to unmanageable proportions to the detriment of the national interest. A primary casualty was the hope that a political solution to the vexed issue of inter-ethnic power sharing would be found through a bipartisan UNP-SLFP consensus with the representatives of the ethnic minority parties.
The postponement of the inauguration of the new political alliance to be led by the UNP was due to the division within the ruling party on who its presidential candidate should be and on ceding too much power to the alliance members. The two front runners are party leader, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and its deputy leader, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, with Speaker Karu Jayasuriya being a possible compromise candidate. When the draft constitution of the alliance was presented to the Working Committee several senior members including had disagreed with it stating that the draft constitution undermined the interests of the UNP.
The political opposition is on the offensive in the North. They are going to the people and highlighting the many failures of the government and its broken promises. However, while they point to the government’s failings, they do not give their own solutions to the problems that the North has. It appears that they have no answers either or they fear that the answers they have will not be to the satisfaction of the Northern people. Chief amongst these are the unresolved issues of the war, which are more and more distant from the minds of people elsewhere in the country, with the exception of the East, which was also a theatre of war. Especially in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, the attention of most people at this time is to contain potential Muslim extremism. For them the war is a rapidly receding memory, especially for those of the younger generation.
There were many reports last week that the ruling party, UNP, will contest the next presidential election in a major alliance based on national security, democracy and the economy. The UNP General Secretary stated that an agreement will be signed with the partner parties on the 5th of August. This will be in in preparation for the upcoming presidential election. The UNP has also made it clear that no one has still been picked to be the leader and this will not happen on August 5. One of the reports was that the candidate to be fielded for the presidential election would be the made the leader of the new alliance. In other words, if this is to happen those who wish to be the presidential candidate would need to be willing to give up their party membership to take on the leadership of the new alliance.
Once again the issue of the long postponed provincial council elections are coming into national focus. The problem, however, is that the focus is not on improving systems of governance as it should be, but on the forthcoming elections. It is being reported that President Maithripala Sirisena is seeking to ensure that provincial elections are held prior the presidential elections that are scheduled to be held by the end of this year. The president appears to be increasingly conscious that he needs to do something out of the ordinary, which others do not dare to do or do not want to do, to leave behind a legacy of greatness or obtain a second terms of presidency for himself. So far his plans have been unsuccessful. They range from the attempt he made in October 2018 to topple the government he came to power in alliance with, to winning the war against drugs and to re-imposing the death penalty, to lengthening his term in office.