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The presidential race

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Although no presidential election is due till November next year, developments in the domestic political field last week brought such an election to be held in the future to public attention. While President Ranil Wickremesinghe has not personally announced his candidature, it is no secret that he desires an elected term with a peoples’ mandate different as chalk from cheese to what he holds at present. Various persons, excluding the Rajapaksas he is widely alleged to be protecting, have made statements that he will be a candidate come 2024, These include spokesmen from his own United National Party as well as some Sri Lanka Podu Jana Pakshaya heavyweights currently serving in his cabinet. Other SLPPers have been ambivalent though none have expressed any degree of hostility to the man they elected president in the aftermath of the aragalaya.

Wickremesinghe last week summoned a meeting at his Colombo office to which SLPP district leaders were invited. A few of them attended but others did not. The Rajapaksa party, or should we say the Basil Rajapaksa’s party, took umbrage at the summons. Its position was that while Wickremesinghe as president, is entitled to summon ministers and state ministers of his government on matters he wishes to discuss, he has no such authority over SLPP functionaries like district leaders. The proper way to call such a meeting, they insisted, was via the party. This had not been done they said and hence the non-attendance of many district leaders. All this clearly suggests some differences between the president and those who catapulted the man who reduced the UNP to zero elected seats, to numero uno of the country.

Despite many claims to the contrary, Ranil Wickremesinghe now serving as Sri Lanka’s Head of State and Head of Government, has not been able to revive his own party to a formidable fighting force to successfully run on its own at a future election. True, he is no longer a captive of the SLPP parliamentary majority as he was at the time he was elected president to serve Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s balance term. That situation changed following the passage of two and half years from the last parliamentary election in August 2020. The president is now empowered to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election at any time he wishes. But nobody expects him to do that, nor do the vast majority of sitting SLPP MPs want him to do that. The non-event that the due local elections countrywide turned out to be on a ‘no money’ contention is clear proof that the ruling establishment literally funks any election. So any poll in the short term is most unlikely.

Even the ranks of Tuscany cannot deny that Wickremesinghe, during his short tenure, has taken the country forward from the hopeless situation it had plunged into when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa were ejected from office. Miles long fuel queues have become a distant memory, there are no gas queues (or explosions) and living conditions have improved vastly. The deal with the IMF has been concluded, the rupee has strengthened against the dollar (although it has begun weakening again last week). Worker remittances from overseas have resumed and tourist arrivals are looking up. There are real prospects of an economic turnaround, though not in the short term, and bankrupt Sri Lanka appears to be on a road to recovery. The economically literate are well aware that we are able to sustain essential imports today thanks to our debt default and matters such as domestic debt restructuring remains to be sorted out. Yet the president can rightly take credit for many favourable developments.

Unless something completely unpredictable happens, Rani Wickremesinghe will be a front runner at the next presidential election. His yet unannounced candidature is a given. Whether he will be backed to the hilt by the SLPP, which remains the Rajapaksa party which dragged Sri Lanka down to its worst ever economic disaster is till not assured. Its options remain open. There are mixed signals on this question. Important for Wickremesinghe’s success is whether the voter, when he goes to the poll, will remember what the situation was when RW assumed office and the enormously favorable change he was able to ensure in a relatively short time. The president’s prospects of improving on this track record between now and November 2024 also appear good. In a country notorious for its short memories, what will matter most is whether people will remember the horror that was when they cast their votes.

Other prospective candidates include Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa who broke away from the UNP where he was deputy leader and presidential candidate, NPP/JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Patali Champika Ranawaka who’s been in many political parties including the Jathika Hela Urumaya, UNP, SJB, the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe Yahapalana outfit among others. He was a onetime supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was arrested during the JVP’s second insurrection and served as a cabinet minister under different administrations. He’s a qualified electrical engineer who has demonstrated competence in cabinet office. Some analysts believe that his running for the presidency really targets the parliamentary election that will follow.

As has been common in previous presidential elections there are likely to be many candidates next time round including those from communal parties and ‘vote breakers’ running for the benefit of the principal contenders. Premadasa, as recently as last week, stressed that there will be no deal with either the president or the UNP. The SJB’s present parliamentary strength is accountable to UNP votes and the rejection of Ranil Wickremesinghe by those voters. It’s still early days and new names and formations are likely between now and November 2024.

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