The main feature of the Democratic National Front, would be a leadership council of the main political parties in the alliance. They would have the power to select candidates for elections. It is believed that the majority of these parties, which represent ethnic and religious minority interests, would feel comfortable with the leadership of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe due to his proven commitment to secular and non-racist values. The event set for August 5 was meant to be a show of strength that would catapult the alliance’s presidential candidate into the presidential election campaign. However, the intention of the alliance to transfer the selection of the alliance’s presidential candidate from the UNP to the leadership council of the alliance has not gone well with other senior members of the UNP.
The UNP, which is like its symbol, the elephant, is a behemoth in comparison to the midget size of some of the alliance parties. As a result of open dissent within the party on this issue, party leader Wickremesinghe has requested dissenting UNP members to send amendments to the constitution to the UNP Chairman Minister Kabir Hashim who is himself a leading dissenter. This is an indication of willingness to reach an accommodation. One of the key demands of the dissenters is that Sajith Premadasa, rather than a non-UNP politician, be made the secretary of the new alliance, as the secretary will have a key role to play in signing the nomination papers of candidates for election. This would also give due regard to the tide of grassroots support for his own candidacy for the presidential elections.
It is not only the ruling party that is having difficulty selecting its presidential candidate. The main opposition party, the SLPP, is also facing similar issues although the differences are not so openly manifested as in the case of the UNP. The front runner in the SLPP is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former defense secretary, who has achieved iconic status amongst sections of the population on account of his role in the no-holds barred military defeat of the LTTE. However, the SLPP party leadership is not making categorical statements affirming his candidacy. The former defense secretary is also dogged by persistent claims that he has been unable to shed his US citizenship which precludes him from contesting elections in Sri Lanka
Especially in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, and the governmental failure to prevent it, there is a widespread perception that the government is weak and has failed to govern effectively. This problem has been exacerbated by the conflict between the President and Prime Minister who are from two different parties and with the President in particular blocking initiatives and changing his mind with harmful consequences to the government’s effectiveness. The past four years of governance by the UNP led alliance has seen a welcome respite from a culture of fear and human rights violations, and space has opened for political and social activism. However, the sense that the government is unable to act cohesively in the interests of the country has created an impression that it is a failure.
In this context, there is a strong desire in society in general for a cohesive government that is led by a strong and decisive leadership. This is reflected in the search for the presidential candidates as well with Gotabaya Rajapaksa standing tall among the potential strong leaders. The search for the strong leader who will take over the presidency after the next presidential election is a reversal of the reform-oriented thinking of the past four decades which focused on the need to curb the powers of the presidency. The abolition of the executive presidency was the promise of several presidential candidates who contested the presidential elections and won the presidency, such as former presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena.
So far the only success in delivering on the many promises made over the past decades to abolish the presidency has come during the tenure of President Maithripala Sirisena who gave leadership to the 19th constitutional amendment in the immediate aftermath of his presidential election victory in January 2015. This amendment significantly reduced the powers of the presidency and increased the independence of state institutions, such as the judiciary and police. It is the main constitutional reform to take place since the 13th Amendment which set up the provincial council system and devolved power to the provinces.
However, there is today a questioning of the value of the 19th Amendment due to the unprecedented fractures within Sri Lankan society. In the North and East of the country there is a strong sense of dissatisfaction that their problems have been neglected and continue to remain without a solution. The promise of a constitutional solution to the issue of greater devolution of power has been left unaddressed due to the protracted delay in the constitutional reform process. This problem is compounded by the religious conflict which has got exacerbated after the Easter Sunday attacks and has led to a breakdown of trust between people. The ethnic and religious polarization is so great, and confidence in the state is so diminished, that even the findings of the Criminal Investigation Department of the police (CID), which is the main investigative arm of the state, are being disregarded.
The emblematic case is that of Dr Shafi, a government doctor, who in the context of anti-Muslim sentiment following the Easter Sunday attacks, was accused of secretively sterilizing over 4000 Sinhalese women who had Caesarian operations during childbirth. He was put into remand prison on this charge for two months. After exhaustive investigations, the CID stated that there is no evidence against the doctor, and requested his release. But despite this, religious clergy, politicians and media alike are claiming he is guilty and the CID should be investigated. The litmus test of the political leader who should lead Sri Lanka will be to publicly speak up for the CID and appreciate their services to the Sri Lankan state, oppose the purveyors of ethnic and religious hate and prejudice and compensate Dr Shafi and his family for the sufferings they have had to undergo.