Sri Lanka: Sparring for presidential election

Ranil Wickremesinghe is likely to exploit the shake up in the Rajapaksa family to garner as many votes as possible from their support base.

5 mins read
France's President Emmanuel Macron (C) talks to Sri Lanka's President Ranil Wickremesinghe (R) before bilateral talks in Colombo on July 28, 2023.

During the month, Sri Lanka politicians were struck by presidential election fever, though people were locked in survival struggle as cost of living touched new highs. In the next two months, we can expect the leaders of amorphous political groupings to change their colours many times. Then depending on their candidate preferences, they will come together to form support coalitions to elect their ‘chosen’ presidential aspirant in the elections in September-October 2024. The president is elected for five years on a preferential voting system where the voter ranks the top three choices among candidates. The candidate securing 50% or more of the votes polled is elected winner. So far in all the presidential elections, there had been no need for transfer of the preferential votes as the winners had secured more than fifty percent of the votes polled. In the last presidential poll in 2019, the winner Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) secured 52.25% of the votes polled.

As of now, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Samagi Jana Balawegaya leader Sajith Premadasa and the National Peoples Power (NPP) formation leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake appear to be in the fray. Sample survey carried out regularly on voter preferences by the National Health Policy Institute, indicate AK Dissanayake maintaining a steady lead of 50%, while Sajith Premadasa held on to 30% with Wickremesinghe polling only 13%. The survey results indicate only trends and not necessarily translate into electoral votes that determine the winner. Other names mentioned, at least once, as probable presidential candidates include former president Maithripala Sirisena, the Rajapaksa scion Namal Rajapaksa and former president Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The SLPP which fielded the successful candidate in the last presidential poll and secured a majority in the parliamentary poll that followed, is yet to recover from the aftermath of the Aragalaya popular uprising in 2022. The popular protest resulted in the ignominious exit of the Rajapaksas, with Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party (UNP) requested by the Rajapaksas to step in as interim prime minister. Since then, with both Gota and Mahinda keeping a low profile, the SLPP is facing pulls and pressures from different power centres within. Namal, the youngest of the clan, has emerged as the most voluble of the Rajapaksas.

However, given the profile of the party’s support base among conservative Southern Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, Namal is unlikely to make the cut. The moot question is does SLPP retain the Rajapaksa-loyal support base which had stood by the family. A new front has been launched by Ministers Susil Premajayantha and Nalin Fernanda along with parliament members Nimal Lanza and Anura Priyadharshana Yapa. Media reports quote Yapa as saying the new front would include more SLPP members. It plans to eventually support an alliance at the presidential elections, based on the outcome of discussions and public meetings. In other words, the front is in the formative stage only.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is likely to exploit the shake up in the Rajapaksa family to garner as many votes as possible from their support base. As an interim president brought for ‘damage control’ Wickremesinghe had been able to skilfully manoeuvre in politics of economic disaster. managed to draw upon India’s financial help to withstand the tectonic shock of the country going bankrupt. He managed to strike a favourable equation with the West, which has helped him secure the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bail out as well as loans from the World Bank. He managed to do this, while kow-towing to the Chinese to manage the debts the country owes them.

Of course, he had to make some compromises to oblige the Rajapaksa-loyalist lobby, which are evident in the first review of the IMF evaluation. The ‘First Review Under the Extended Arrangement Under the Extended Fund Facility’ is tracked by the Verité Research. According to it Sri Lanka met with 60 of the 73 commitments due by end November 2023. Of the remaining 13 commitments, eight have been carried forward for the second term. Five were irreversibly not met. The IMF has now modified or extended the due dates of 27 commitments scheduled after November. They have been classified as ‘pending; along with eight others carried forward.

The interesting part is the first review focused on commitments that were due by June. There are four governance and transparency related commitments that were ‘not met’ even by the end of November. Foremost among these are: launching an online transparency platform related to public procurement and tax exemptions; and establishing a transparent and merit-based selection process for the directors of Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) in the Anti-Corruption Act. A case in point is the disappearance of the ministry minutes taken into custody by CID in a case of fraudulent procurement of immunoglobulin involving former health minister Keheliya Rambukwella. There are many more such cases of corruption at various levels.

The Tamil voter base, where Wickremesinghe enjoys better support than Rajapaksas has also become uncertain with the election of Sivagnanam Shritharan as president of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the erstwhile Federal Party. The ITAK is the largest Tamil political party, which had rallied the fragmented segments of Tamil polity to form the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA led by veteran politician Sampanthan had become the focal point of support during the presidential election. The TNA partners are fragmented and the first task of the new ITAK president will be to bring them back. Shritharan is a known proponent of Tamil nationalism, who considers 13th Amendment to the constitution as an unsatisfactory solution to the Tamil quest for equity. Whether he will be able to rally Tamil political parties to revive the TNA is an open question. Under the circumstances, implementing the 13th Amendment in full is the least President Wickremesinghe could do to muster the support of Tamil voters during the presidential election.

Former president and chairman of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Maithripala Sirisena is talking of forming a broad political coalition under the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Sirisena speaking after a UPFA executive meeting, said several political parties and individuals have expressed their desire to join us. “This alliance will be strong and we can win,” he added. Sirisena as President had a poor record under his watch. He dithered in taking timely action to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks as well as investigating the failure in its aftermath.

Before the presidential elections are held in September-October, there will be many rallies with political leaders, whipping up emotions with a religious, racial and language slant, while speaking on lofty issues of human rights and democratic freedom. The SJB protest rally organised on January 30, may be considered a tame curtain raiser for such activity. SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara in a press briefing said the protest would serve as “the initial warning towards toppling the present government of President Wickremesinghe.” Apparently hijacking the ownership of last year’s Araglaya, as “the peoples uprising in 2022”, Bandara declared the party’s intent to do so again.

Though he declared “The IGP or anyone else can attempt to impose restrictions, but we will defy them and bring 50,000 people to Colombo tomorrow,”, in the end 15-20,000 people are said to have turned up at the rally. Police fired teargas shells at the rally, held in defiance of court orders against obstructing normal activity. In all, eight people were injured. We can expect more chest thumping at rallies, backend palavers and trading of political support in the coming months. Will they attend to the common man groaning under the high value-added taxation which has sent the food prices skyrocketing?

Tailpiece- Maldives opts for Sri Lanka for emergency treatment: An air ambulance service between the Maldives and the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) will start on March 1 this year. The announcement followed a meeting between visiting Maldives Transportation and Aviation Services Minister Capt Mohammed Ameen and Sri Lanka minister for aviation and shipping Nimal Siripala de Silva in Colombo. Apparently, this is one more effort by Maldives to reduce its dependence on India for emergency evacuation and treatment. The Maldivian minister added, “considering the quality of emergency treatment in Sri Lanka, the Maldivian government has decided to direct such patients to Sri Lanka hospitals in future.”

R Hariharan

Col. R Hariharan is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

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