The Presidential polls in the offing have been contentious, to say the least. On the one hand there were issues raised over the legality of the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa contesting for a third term despite the implementation of the 18th Amendment; on the other hand was the move to prompt a change in the structure of governance by a ‘common opposition’ through a ‘common candidate’.
By last week, issues raised over the constitutionality of President Rajapaksa seeking to contest a third term were ‘cleared’ -- one might say they were laid to rest. But question marks still loom over who would lead this much-hyped movement to prompt a regime change in the country.
Speculation circles around various names that have been proposed and promoted by different groups to lead this controversial movement. The names include that of a former president, a sibling of a former president, the current opposition leader, popular sportsmen and even an ex-chief justice. But the movement that made the first call to field a common candidate, is yet to reveal the identity of this common contender.
In the history of Sri Lanka’s political landscape, contrasting ideologies represented by various political parties working together on a single platform without locking horns has been rare. Even in the few instances where the impossible became possible, the collaborative efforts have not lasted very long or succeeded.
The delay of the opposition parties to announce their candidate has been amply exploited by the incumbent regime to boast of their power and success - making it easier for them to convince the masses that there really is no politician strong enough to compete against President Rajapaksa for the Presidency. Irrelevant of who the common contestant is, he or she will not only have the challenging task of outsmarting the crafty political manoeuvres of the Rajapaksas but also win the support of minority parties and their interests; crucial issues in this battle for power and change.
Will the opposition be able to win the hearts of the masses? Is it realistic for the public to expect any level of empathy towards their plight when the common opposition seems unable to reach a consensus on a figure to represent their common interests? Will the greed and need to gain political mileage come into play or will the opposition parties be able to cast aside their differences and join hands to give a run to the Rajapaksas?
“Right from the start we maintained that our presidential candidate will be announced only after the declaration of the Presidential poll. We are not ready to reveal the identity of our candidate simply because the government wants to know,” says UNP MP and Media Secretary Gayantha Karunathilaka.
He says the party is working closely with all social movements and parties that have come forward in recent times seeking a change in the structure of governance to arrive at a decision.
"We are not ready to reveal the identity of our candidate simply because the government wants to know"
“Our working committee is due to convene within two or three days and the final decision will be made during that meeting. Once the Presidential poll is announced, we will make public our decision,” he adds.
MP Karunathilake went on to say that until then, they are tirelessly working on strengthening their grass root network in preparation for the upcoming poll. “We will make the right choice at the right moment,” he said with certainty.
TNA MP and spokesman Suresh Premachandran says that as of yesterday, his party has not conducted official discussions with any political party or social movement on the matter of the common candidate.
“So far we have not decided on whom to support; we will wait until the names of the contestants are announced and thereafter decide on whom to support depending on our assessment of who would be able to best solve issues of the Tamil community,” he says.
MP Premachandran adds that in the selection of a candidate, they have prioritised resettlement, political prisoners and a resolution on the Tamil ethnic issue that need his [ candidate’s] support.
"we will wait until the names of the contestants are announced and thereafter decide on whom to support depending on our assessment of who would be able to best solve issues of the Tamil community"
“Resettlement of Tamil people is a massive task that involves the repatriation and resettlement of over 250,000 individuals of Tamil ethnicity residing in both India and Sri Lanka. In order to settle them it is important to demilitarise the North and withdraw the military from privately-owned lands,” he explained.
He also said that they also seek the release of all political prisoners particularly of Tamil ethnicity who are mostly being detained without charges. “Our next priority is the ability of the candidate to resolve the ‘Tamil problems’ in which the present government lacks direction. So we wish to create a dialogue on this matter under the auspices of the international community,” he said adding that the support of the TNA would be given to a candidate who is able to present effective measures to meet those ideals.
Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri
The new social movement that has gained momentum through its calls for the abolition of the Executive Presidency and a change in the system of governance is led by Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ). Its spokesman Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri says the common candidate will be named within a week’s time once the MoU is signed by the parties [who are to be the signatories to the common opposition] is completed.
“We do not view the delay experienced in signing the MoU or announcing our presidential candidate as grave issues. The plan was to announce the name following the announcement of the Presidential poll that has not been made yet. However, the signing of the MoU was delayed due to several technical issues that needed to be fixed. I believe we have achieved great progress in reaching an agreement on areas that need more understanding,” he said.
"We do not view the delay experienced in signing the MoU or announcing our presidential candidate as grave issues"
Although the common candidate is yet to be decided, Dr. Dewasiri says the names proposed includes Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sobitha Thera, Karu Jayasuriya, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and even Arjuna Ranatunga. He said CBK has promised to actively partake in the common opposition campaign whomever the candidate would be. He added that they hope for the support of the JVP and other minority parties. “ The TNA and the JVP have declared they will support a candidate agreeable to everyone although they would not be signing the MoU itself. We have had informal discussions with the SLMC but no decision has been made. However, I personally believe they have no other option but to back the common opposition because they cannot justify supporting the incumbent President at the upcoming polls,” he added.
The JVP says it has not made a decision on whom to support at the Presidential polls as they are of the belief that the elections should not be held in the first place. “It has been clearly pointed out that holding the Presidential election is unconstitutional and illegal. But the government has decided to proceed according to their whims and fancies just like they do with every other decision in the governance of this country,” JVP MP Sunil Hadunnetti asserted. He said that any course of action will be contemplated only IF the Presidential poll is officially announced. “So far, the government has not made an official announcement. We will cross the bridge in the declaration of a common candidate when we come to it,” he added.
"We will cross the bridge in the declaration of a common candidate when we come to it"
Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thera
The longstanding coalition partner of the UPFA government - the Jathika Hela Urumaya following a series of discussions with the government has finally made a decision not to support the UPFA candidate at the upcoming polls.
"We have decided to part ways with the election and consider the possibility of supporting a candidate backed by the common opposition"
“We have decided to part ways with the election and consider the possibility of supporting a candidate backed by the common opposition,” JHU MP Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thera said. The Thera has been pioneering a separate movement that calls for a change in the system of governance in order to put an end to the rampant corruption and other issues in the country through the ‘Pivithru Hetak’ movement (A better tomorrow). Rathana Thera says their decision to support the common candidate would depend upon that person’s willingness to incorporate the proposals put forward through the common front. “We are due to have several discussions with the opposition parties on the coalition,” he said. However, he added that a decision has not been made concerning the likelihood of the JHU fielding its own candidate if the plan to support a common candidate falls through owing to contrasting ideologies.