Despatch from Colombo | International

In Sri Lanka, many leaders eyeing top office

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, following the former’s election in January 2015.   | Photo Credit: AFP

It’s a poll year in Sri Lanka — except that few know whether it is the provincial, presidential or general election that will be held first.

Provincial elections are overdue, with the terms of six out of nine Provincial Councils in the island having expired in 2018, but the possibility of a presidential election has elicited more interest in the country.

“I am ready to contest presidential polls, if the people too are ready [for that],” former Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently declared, reaffirming his earlier indications, despite the Constitution barring dual citizens — he is also a citizen of the U.S. — from contesting. Soon after his announcement, his brother Chamal Rajapaksa — a former Speaker and current parliamentarian — said “I am also ready to contest for presidency,” according to local media reports.

Neither of them may have said this but for a 2015 legislation — known popularly as the 19thAmendment — that disallows their brother and two-time former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting a third term.

Mr. Rajapaksa, who has refrained from spelling out his preference, in August 2018 spoke about finding out if he was still eligible to participate in the presidential race. However, President Maithripala Sirisena apparently had other plans for him — as was seen in the political drama that unfolded in the island on October 26.

Mr. Sirisena appointed his former boss-turned-rival his Prime Minister. From being a former President to being questionably appointed Premier, to now being named Leader of Opposition, all in a span of three months, it has been a whirlwind for Mr. Rajapaksa, as it has been for the entire country.

Even now, some legislators argue that Mr. Rajapaksa cannot serve as Opposition Leader, considering that his party leader, Mr. Sirisena, holds key Cabinet positions in government.

Meanwhile, it is not just the Rajapaksa brothers who are eyeing the top office. Mr. Sirisena himself is said to be exploring a second term. His senior party colleague Nimal Siripala de Silva recently said that President Sirisena would be the “common candidate” fielded jointly by the new party formed by Mr. Rajapaksa’s supporters, along with the United People’s Freedom Alliance to which both Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa belong. That leaves their camp with at least three contenders for candidacy.

There are at least three contenders on the other side as well, in the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led United National Party. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the party’s Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya have their respective support bases — based on perceptions of their chances to win an election.

‘October coup’

All this comes amid a growing chorus to abolish executive presidency — one of the key residual demands of many Sri Lankans following what they call the “October coup”.

In their view, it is Mr. Sirisena’s indiscriminate use of executive powers that set off the unprecedented political crisis, leaving the country with no legitimate government for two months.

The leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna has been campaigning for the abolition of the executive presidency, but it remains to be seen if either of the two main parties might commit to that. Going by the unkept promises of Sri Lanka’s past political leaders in this regard or simply by the popular logic of power, it will be surprising if a candidate desiring to be President is willing to see all his/her powers being clipped once elected.

Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo


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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 1:07:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/in-sri-lanka-many-leaders-eyeing-top-office/article26038390.ece

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