Running for President: On Sri Lanka polls

A second Premadasa is against a second Rajapaksa in race for Sri Lanka’s presidency

September 28, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 09:48 am IST

In fielding Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka’s United National Party (UNP) has chosen arguably its strongest candidate to take on former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential election to be held on November 16. The party chose to back the claims of Mr. Premadasa, its deputy leader, over those of Ranil Wickremesinghe, its leader and the Prime Minister. The party may have reckoned that Mr. Premadasa, son of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, with a lineage not drawn from the urban elite, is its best bet while facing Mr. Gotabaya, a rival from another Sinhalese political family from the same southern region. The latter has the image of a strongman who guided the armed forces, as defence secretary, to victory over the separatist LTTE, and the UNP may need all the grassroots support that Mr. Premadasa can mobilise to recapture the presidency it lost in 1994. For Mr. Wickremesinghe, it will be the third consecutive election in which he has had to step aside from the contest in favour of another. In the 2015 election, as part of a grand opposition plan to unseat Mr. Rajapaksa, he backed Maithripala Sirisena, who recorded a historic victory on the promise of good governance, economic revival and ethnic reconciliation.

It is quite uncommon that the battle lines in a presidential election appear to be drawn even before it is known whether the incumbent will seek re-election or his party will field a candidate. In recent times, President Sirisena has been marginalised in the political arena, and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is no more the organisation it was in its heyday. He has had a bitter parting of ways with Mr. Wickremesinghe, even though both have shared power for nearly five years. Last year, the president ousted Mr. Wickremesinghe from his post, but the courts reinstated him. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who cannot run for president now because he has already completed two terms, has walked away with a significant part of the SLFP’s support base, and leads the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). He has fielded his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on its behalf. It will be primarily a contest to win the support of the majority Sinhalese. The leftist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna has chosen its leader Anura Dissanayake as its candidate, whose prospects may not be high, but can make a dent in the vote share of the two principal candidates. Lost in the perennial jockeying for power is the promise of abolishing the executive presidency, something that has been heard for the last 25 years. Sri Lanka will be holding one more election for the post, even while the idea of scrapping it remains a key issue. That there is no sign of the promised inclusive Constitution for the multi-ethnic country is another disappointing feature of recent Sri Lankan history.

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