National Elections Commission (NEC) on Wednesday announced the dates for the much-talked-about Presidential election and the nomination period for it. Nominations will be entertained on October 7 and the election will be held on November 16, according to the announcement by the NEC.
This is not a snap election or a mid-term election as the last Presidential election in 2015. This is an election to be held according to the Constitution at the end of the tenure of the incumbent President. Yet, the ruling United National Party (UNP) is struggling to decide the party’s candidate for the fray while the party led by President Maithripala Sirisena, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is undecided at least on contesting.
The crisis within the UNP on the matter seems to have deepened with the announcement by the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of his intention to contest on Tuesday. He had stated that many people had requested him to contest as the Party’s candidate and he hoped to enter the race with a view to abolish the executive presidential mode of governance.
Earlier the party was to choose between its Deputy leader Sajith Premadasa who had already announced his candidacy and a candidate from the faction led by the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who is also the Prime Minister. Despite various ministers describing the situation as a dialogue within a democratic party and not a crisis, the party seems to be in fact in a deep crisis as its leader and the deputy leader were digging into their stances, while there are media reports that the party’s high-ranking officials are to be sacked.
It was against this backdrop that the Speaker Jayasuriya as another contender has announced his intention to enter the race. Within hours the social media was agog with various interpretations of his announcement. Some people are of the opinion that one-time anti-Ranil rebel leader’s announcement would end the feud between the leader and the deputy leader while some others who see something fishy in the announcement say that Jayasuruya is being used by the party leader to sideline his deputy.
"The UNP led present government with the ardent support of President Sirisena brought in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in April 2015 in order to prune powers of the President"
Mr. Jayasuriya’s claim that he intended to scrap the executive Presidency after assuming the same office might be seen by many as a ridiculous slogan, as it has been the main promise of all successful Presidential contenders since 1994 but none of them made a genuine effort to keep their pledge during their tenure. Although President Chandrika Kumaratunga presented a new draft Constitution with provisions to abolish the executive Presidential system in Parliament on August 3, 2000, she was very well aware then that she did not have the required Parliamentary support.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa despite his pledge to rid the system twice in 2005 and 2010 strengthened it through the infamous 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 2010. UNP leaders including Mr. Jayasuriya and President Sirisena who came to power in 2015 on this promise simply abandoned it hiding behind a Supreme Court ruling that a referendum is needed for the purpose.
Given the current strength of the political parties in the country, no Constitutional amendment could be adopted with two thirds majority without an agreement between the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the UNP. Has the Speaker got an assurance from the SLPP that it would support his move to abolish the executive Presidential system? It has to be recalled that Rajapaksa in June defended the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which introduced a dictator, while responding to a statement by President Sirisena that both the 18th and 19th Amendments have to be discarded.
"Speaker Jayasuriya as another contender has announced his intention to enter the race"
The UNP led present government with the ardent support of President Sirisena brought in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in April 2015 in order to prune powers of the President. The degree of pruning powers under the 19th Amendment was such that it created two almost equal power centres in the President and the Prime Minister, resulting in the current conflict between the two. Hence, the abolition of executive Presidency now has become a greater need than what it was before the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Nevertheless, there must be a conducive atmosphere to do so. The main political parties - the SLFP, SLPP and the UNP - have played politics with the issue by alternately holding diametrically opposing stances. When one party genuinely or otherwise wanted to do away with the Presidential form of government, others had reasons to preserve it, at least for the moment. Most importantly, those who have already tasted the fruits of the system and those who are longing to taste it do not want to rid it. Hence, whatever the sincerity in the statement made by Speaker Jayasuriya on the executive Presidency, the viability of it is too remote. And the sudden impulsion to abolish the executive Presidency might rouse suspicion in the minds of the people. One might also presume this as a tool to lure the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) - which has been campaigning against the executive Presidency during every Presidential election - to withdraw its candidate from the current race.
Speaker Jayasuriya’s intention enter into the fray is no doubt a side effect of the crisis within the UNP over the Presidential candidacy. He would not have announced his intention to contest or to scrap the present system of governance, had the party already chosen Mr. Premadasa or somebody else as its candidate. Hence, the argument that the party leader was behind his move holds water, for some extent.
This is not the first revolt within the UNP and especially against the leadership of Mr. Wickremesinghe. He has survived two more such rebellions in the past - in 2001 and during the period between 2010 and 2014. Ironically Karu Jayasuriya and Ravi Karunanayake who are now with the leadership were two of the rebel leaders in 2001 and Sajith Premadasa was then supporting Mr. Wickremesinghe. It must be recalled that during the rebellion by the late Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake ten years before against the then UNP leader Ranasinghe Premadasa, the father of Sajith, Wickremesinghe sided with the party leader. The rebellion after the defeat of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka who contested at the 2010 Presidential election with the support of the UNP, Sajith Premadasa took the leadership in the fight against the party leader and the conflict lasted for four years until party’s former General Secretary Tissa Attanayake successfully mediated between the two factions in the run up to the 2015 Presidential election.
"The degree of pruning powers under the 19th Amendment was such that it created two almost equal power centres in the Prez and PM, resulting in the current conflict between the two"
Every time when his leadership was criticized Wickremesinghe’s answer had been a leadership council instead of a leader. A leadership council was in fact appointed under the chairmanship of Karu Jayasuriya in November 2013, but only to be faded away with the passage of time. Wickremesinghe in a televised speech after the local government election defeat last year again promised to appoint a leadership council which was yet to be appointed.
Every time, the grievance of the rebels has been that elections could not be won under Wickremesinghe’s leadership. Yet, interestingly, at the end of both the previous revolts the UNP had managed to record a national level election victory under his leadership, ending the anti-Wickremesinghe campaign within the UNP at least temporarily. In December, 2001, the party won the Parliamentary election and Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister whereas in January 2015 Maithripala Sirisena won the Presidential election mainly with the support of the UNP.
However, this time the crisis seems to be deeper than what it was at the last two occasions.