Further confusion added to the internecine feud of the United National Party (UNP) over presidential candidacy after its civil society allies floated the idea of fielding Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as the presidential candidate this week- that is in place of either Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe or Minister Sajith Premadasa.
The activists of the National Movement for Social Justice which spearheaded the political campaign of President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 have parted ways today to work under different banners. Nevertheless, they share a common ideology, more or less. One such group called ‘Civil Society and Trade Union Collective’ functions under the leadership of Saman Ratnapriya. Its representatives called on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Sunday morning and discussed the need for abolition of executive presidency, realizing the goal of late Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Thera who led the movement in 2015 for it.
If it is practically impossible to do it at this juncture, they said, a new leader should be elected at the upcoming presidential elections with the pledged to do it. They were careful not to mention any name as a suitable bet for it. The delegation comprised Ven.Dambara Amila Thera, Dr.Wickramabahu Karunaratne, Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara, Dr. Jehan Perera and Kumuduni Samuwels.
Besides, Premadasa is likely to command the support of the UNP allies
Later, another similar ideological group made representation to Temple Trees and stressed the same point. It included Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya, Gamini Viyangoda, Janaranjana and Lal Wijenayake. They are a more vocal group in this regard. They identified Speaker Jayasuriya as the best bet to vie for presidency for the sole purpose of scrapping executive presidential system to create space for more powers to be vested with Parliament.
A couple of days later, the Speaker put out his statement expressing his interest in contesting the elections with a pledge to do away with executive presidential system if elected . Now, there are three presidential hopefuls of the UNP-Wickremesinghe, the Speaker and deputy leader Sajith Premadasa.
At every election since 1994, the abolition of executive presidency has been an election slogan by every candidate. After ascension to office, it was never kept by anyone except President Sirisena who was compelled to agree to prune some of his powers under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Later, President regretted his decisions and said the 19th Amendment should be rescinded in the future by anyone coming to power. The 19th Amendment, according to him, created three power centres in the government with no proper checks and balances.
Abolition of executive presidency is no longer a popular or populist theme. Executive presidency is basically needed to ensure political stability in the country since a stable Parliament is a rare occurrence under the present proportional representation system. So, the abolition of executive presidency should be linked to the change of the electoral system as otherwise it would lead to destabilization. The country experienced issues in governance after executive powers were reduced during the last four and half years. It is a glimpse of what it would look like if the system were annulled for all without changes to the parliamentary electoral system. So, it is no longer a popular slogan to galvanize voters who are, in fact, concerned presently about national security, strong leadership, economic development, sovereignty and the country’s identity.
But, the topic is mooted so that the parties and the groups that stood together at the 2015 elections can come together as a force that can thwart Premadasa from making a bid for candidacy.
At every election since 1994, the abolition of executive presidency has been an election slogan by every candidate
During interaction with the Prime Minister, civil society representatives have spoken of the need to convince JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake to withdraw his candidacy in support of Speaker Jayasuriya coming forward with the solemn pledge to annul executive presidential system. If Dissanayake can be convinced, it will be the strong point of Jayasuriya to be the candidate. The Speaker’s foray in the presidential race depends on his ability to convince Dissanayake who has already announced his candidacy representing the movement called ‘National People’s Power’.
In case, Dissanayake announced withdrawal of his candidacy in support of Speaker Jayasuriya , it will a repetition of what JVP candidate Nihal Galappatti did in 1994 in understanding with then presidential candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
Dissanayake, however, denied speculation that he met with the Speaker or anyone from his camp for such an understanding this time. However, there are attempts to make overtures to him in this respect.
Dissanayake, however, denied speculation that he met with the Speaker or anyone from his camp
As the Speaker steps into foray, Premadasa also redoubled his efforts to clinch up candidacy, asserting one again that he would contest definitely. He has now taken a hard and fast position. As such, any form of backtracking will be detrimental to his future politics. But, it is highly unlikely that the Prime Minister will agree to give him nomination as the party’s candidate. Come what may, Premadasa took his lobbying campaign for candidacy to a new height on Tuesday when he announced that he asked the party leadership in writing for the conduct of a secret ballot at the party’s Working Committee and the parliamentary group to choose the candidacy if there is no unanimous agreement on him.
It is true that the party’s nominee for presidential candidacy has to be ratified by the Working Committee. Also, it should be done after the declaration of the elections. But, there is no provision in the UNP constitution that provides for such a secret ballot to be conducted at the parliamentary group.
The Working Committee is the body that matters in this instance. According to inside sources from the UNP, the two factions are in a race against time to secure its majority. The Prime Minister, at a recent meeting with a team of his loyalists, sounded confident that he had the majority support of the 63-member Working Committee.
The Working Committee has 12 office bearers. Besides, the Prime Minister, as the party leader, has the discretion to appoint 20 members to it. Therefore, at the Working Committee, Wickremesinghe is likely to have edge over Premadasa, but it won’t be the same at the parliamentary group.
Besides, Premadasa is likely to command the support of the UNP allies such as Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The JHU, led by Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, called for a secret ballot at the parliamentary group meeting well knowing that Mr. Premadasa would emerge victorious.
The TNA is also keen to get executive presidency abolished
However, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is not an ally of the UNP, but supports it from outside, is not quite pleased with the policy of Mr. Premadasa on the Tamil national question. Any UNP candidate has to factor in the support of the TNA either to win the presidential elections or for a close contest.
The TNA is also keen to get executive presidency abolished. Therefore, it won’t be that difficult for the TNA to support the Speaker as the UNP candidate .So, one can wonder whether the Speaker will be the compromise candidate acceptable to both the factions and the alliance partners.
Yet, it is not easy for Premadasa to turn back now because of his public pronouncements on his plan to be the candidate. Given that, speculation is rife whether he will defect from the party to contest the elections under an alternate arrangement. Some of his loyalists such as Ajith P. Perera also talk about such alterative steps in the event of denial of candidacy to Premadasa.