While Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate for the November 16 presidential election, is facing fresh hurdles to his candidacy following legal action by two civil society activists over his Sri Lankan citizenship, the rift created within the United National Party (UNP) over its candidacy seems to be fast mended.
The UNP leaders such as Minister Ravi Karunanayake and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who had been openly critical of Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa before he was appointed as their party’s candidate on September 26 have started to speak in support of him now.
Thus, the claim made by the UNP leaders that unlike in the SLPP there is more democracy in their party when decisions are made on crucial issues holds water. They fought, even publicly casting aspersions against each other, but after the official decision on the candidacy, they, though owing to compulsion of the circumstances, are now campaigning for their candidate.
As we have mentioned in this column before, Sajith has followed his father Ranasinghe Premadasa’s footsteps to obtain presidential candidature of the party. Senior Premadasa expected to contest the 1988 presidential election on behalf of the UNP, as the then President Junius Richard Jayewardene -- commonly known as JR -- had already held presidential office twice in 1978 and 1982.
" Abolition of executive presidency would not be practical without the support of the SLPP led by former President Rajapaksa who is a strong pusher for presidential rule, though he has been vacillating on the matter lately"
However, it was rumoured that JR was preparing for another term on the grounds that he was not elected twice as President by the people, as specified by the Constitution, in spite of him held office twice. He was correct since he was not elected by the people at an election for the first time, but was appointed to the topmost office through the provisions of the second Republican Constitution of 1978 which he brought in.
It was also rumoured that the senior Premadasa had threatened to contest the election as an independent candidate if he was deprived of the opportunity to run for presidency. JR had to give in to the threat as he feared a divided UNP would pave the way for the victory of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) candidate Sirimavo Bandaranaike whose civic rights were annulled by his government from 1980 to 1986 over allegations of corruption.
Similarly, Sajith Premadasa and his loyalists in the UNP created a situation where the party would be divided if Sajith was denied the opportunity to contest this year’s presidential election. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the UNP leader, was so adamant not to accept him as the party’s candidate until the party reached a breaking point. He attempted to use the constituent parties in the United National Front (UNF) coalition as a last minute manoeuvre to eliminate his deputy from the race. However, he had to give in finally when the leaders of Tamil and Muslim parties as well as Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) -- who felt the pulse of the grassroots level supporters of the UNP -- expressed solidarity with Sajith.
The fears behind Wickremesinghe’s opposition to Sajith’s candidacy surfaced in the form of certain conditions he laid down before he succumbed to the pressure. He wanted Sajith to give an assurance that he would continue as the party leader and the Prime Minister after ascension of the latter to the topmost post in the country. He also wanted an assurance that the Constitution-making process initiated by his government would continue and executive presidency scrapped.
Sajith agreed, but since he had already told in public he would not accept conditions with the candidacy, they were put forward in the form of a resolution at a Working Committee meeting of the party held on September 26 in which his candidature was announced after being proposed by party leader Wickremesinghe. Besides, Sajith loyalists had already been asserting that the party leadership and premiership would not be changed under a presidency of Sajith Premadasa. Yet, with the entire party rallying behind Sajith in the event he wins the election, there is no assurance of things changing.
"The fears behind Wickremesinghe’s opposition to Sajith’s candidacy surfaced in the form of certain conditions he laid down before he succumbed to the pressure"
Given the history of other two policy-wise issues – abolition of executive presidency and Constitution-making with special emphasis on resolving the ethnic conflict – any politician can give any number of promises on them as they would most probably be non-starters. Abolition of executive presidency would not be practical without the support of the SLPP led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is a strong pusher for presidential rule, though he has been vacillating on the matter lately.
On the other hand, if Sajith is to succeed in scrapping the executive presidential form of governance, the sequence of events would be; he could win the election, do away with the presidential rule giving all executive powers to Parliament which would be enforced by the Prime Minister (who will be Wickremesinghe according to the above resolution) and go into oblivion. Also, if he did not keep his promise on the matter, there might be a similar situation as what prevails now – the continuation of a power struggle between two equal power-centres in the form of President and Prime Minister created by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
When the issue of resolution of the ethnic conundrum inevitably takes centre stage of the Constitution-making process, it becomes an easy target for the communalist forces in the opposition, making it a non-starter. This has been the history of efforts to resolve the problem, with the only exception being the period of peace talks between the UNF Government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) between 2002 and 2004.
During that peace process, the opposition led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga cautiously discerned the acts of excesses from those of peace and protested. However, given the highly-racist nature of the present main mouthpieces of the SLPP, it is doubtful whether Sajith would be able to move at least a millimeter towards the resolution of the ethnic problem.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main amalgam of Tamil parties, is well-aware of this but does not have any other viable option than supporting Sajith. Other options would be to side with the SLPP or keep away from the fray as it did in 2005, at the instance of the LTTE. On the other hand, they would not have had a problem in supporting the UNP, had Ranil Wickremesinghe been its candidate. Since Wickremesinghe is now campaigning for Sajith, the possibility of the TNA falling in line is high. There is only a remote possibility of them supporting the JVP or any other party.
"Masses are being reminded of the famous ‘white vans’ that had terrorised the country during the tenure of Gota as Defence Secretary"
Interesting enough, supporters of both main contenders accuse each other of horrific episodes in the past. The SLPP leaders attempt to scare the people by reminding the ‘tyre pyres’ -- a phenomenon that haunted the country when senior Premadasa’s Government crushed the second insurrection of the JVP in 1988/89. In response to this, masses are being reminded of the famous ‘white vans’ that had terrorised the country during the tenure of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary between December 2005 and January 2015.
The existence of periods of tyre pyres and white vans is interestingly undeniable. And neither party can absolve themselves of the horror that was experienced by the people of this country due to these two horrendous phenomena. Neither party has repented about those situations. Yet, it is clear that people would ironically elect one of these two candidates.