The week that passed saw considerable political activity related to the forthcoming presidential election that must be held late next year in accordance with the constitution. Connected events included business magnate Dhammika Perera’s declaration that he is willing to run for president provided the political parties – he did not identify which parties though he said they included the SLPP – guarantee him 51 percent of the vote. Perera is no spring chicken not to know that no party nor anybody else can “guarantee” anybody a proportion of the vote. That must await the polling and the counting of the votes. The second event was the launching of Dilith Jayaweera’s new Mawbima Janatha Pakshaya (MJP) which opened its new party office in Colombo.
Neither Jayaweera nor Perera have declared themselves as candidates for the forthcoming presidential election. The only declared candidates up to now are Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP/NPP. Both Jayaweera and Perera have been staunch supporters of disgraced former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Aragalaya-fuelled ejection of GR from the presidency he won comfortably in November 2019 propelled incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe into the hot seat. As is very well know, Wickremesinghe lost his own parliamentary seat in the parliamentary election that followed next August and led the UNP to stunning zero elected seats at that contest. Yet he entered the legislature through the UNP’s single National List seat and was anointed by Gotabaya first to succeed brother, Mahinda as premier and then GR himself as president.
All that, of course, is so much water that has passed under the bridges. Asked if he was a potential presidential candidate in November 2024, Jayaweera said at his party office opening: “First, we will give enough time of the MJP to succeed as a political movement across the country and then decide when to run for political office.” Perera, at a posh Nelumpokuna show in Colombo last week, declared that he does not invest in unwinnable projects. “I’m trying to unite a country divided by politics through education,” he said at this event celebrating the fourth anniversary of DP Education. Incidentally, DP stands not for Dhammika Perera but for Dhammika and Priscilla (Perera) Foundation which has already reached out to a claimed 1.5 million students enrolled in its programme which imposes no cost on the beneficiaries.
While Ranil Wickremesinghe has not declared himself as a candidate at the next presidential election, it is very clear that he is aspiring to an elected presidency. Much of what he says and does reflects that ambition. The SLPP which elected RW to office, and is keeping him there, is on record saying that it will field a candidate but it is very coy about who that will be. Pressed at news briefings it says that it will reveal the name “at the right time.
” Some SLPP parliamentarians have already expressed their support for RW. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, widely considered to be the voice of Basil Rajapaksa, asked last week about the kite that Dhammika Perera has flown, responded that Dhammika is a valued member of their party. Several potential candidates are ambitious about running for president, and Dhammika being one of them is not a breach of party discipline. However, the SLPP has not decided on a candidate.
Political observers and commentators are of the view that more important than who the candidates will be next year is whether the election will be held on schedule in less than a year from now. According to Prof. GL Peiris, polling must be by September though GR’s term, which RW is serving out, would end only in November, But recent reports and statements that the government is looking at changes in the electoral system giving direct election (160 seats) a greater weight than the number elected by proportional representation (65 seat).
Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has already presented a cabinet paper to this effect and a cabinet sub-committee going into it. This has triggered fears in political circles about an attempt to postpone elections. Such fears are legitimate in the context of the postponement sine die of the local election after nominations were accepted as well as elections to Provincial Councils.
A senior political analyst commented that in any society undergoing economic shock therapy that Sri Lanka is, it is vital that the safety valves be opened on schedule and that the public’s hope of a chance for change will not be frustrated. If next year’s presidential election is the earliest scheduled chance for a change, any experiment with the election laws should not be of a sort that defers the holding of that election. Our political history clearly proves that any blocking, retarding or distortion of the electoral calendar and/or process leads to violent upheavals.
Whether the SLPP will throw its weight behind Dhammika Perera, will remain with Ranil Wickremesinghe who arrested last year’s anarchy and restored a sense of normalcy – though at the cost of not repaying the country’s debt – or play a wild card will remain an open question certainly in the short term. The JVP/NPP has been demonstrating tight organization and growing support.
But it must be remembered that at the 2019 presidential election, Anura Kumara Dissanayake polled only 3.16% of the vote against Sajith Premadasa’s 41.99%. Undoubtedly both these candidates will pick-up SLPP votes next time round after GR destroyed his party’s rural agricultural base. Extensive Rupavahini publicity Dhammika Perera’s DP Education anniversary received last week demonstrates he’s not without government backers.