On the eve of the 1988 presidential election, it was rumoured that J.R. Jayewardene – who had by then assumed office twice as President – was planning to re-contest despite the Constitution introduced by him in 1978 provided for an individual to hold presidency only twice.
The Constitution says: “No person who has been twice elected to the office of President by the people shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the people.” And Jayewardene was said to have argued he was not barred from contesting another term since he was not elected by the people when he took office as President the first time, but was elected to post through a transitional clause of the 1978 Constitution.
It was also said that Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa – who had been expecting that year the presidential candidacy on behalf of Jayewardene’s United National Party (UNP) -- was furious and had threatened to contest independently at the same election if Jayewardene sought a third term. Jayewardene who sensed it as a real threat was said to have caved in as it would pave the way for the victory of his archenemy and former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike whom he had deprived of civic rights.
History seems to have repeated. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa were not originally named by their respective leaders as candidates for the oncoming poll, but they created the atmosphere for leaders to accept their candidacy.
Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa were not originally named by their respective leaders as candidates for the oncoming poll, but they created the atmosphere for leaders to accept their candidacy
Gotabaya Rajapaksa commenced his campaign for candidacy (and presidency) some two years ago with the inauguration of the ‘Eliya’ movement and then with ‘Viyathmaga’ – a campaign in which Gotabaya had been placing his vision for 2030 before the selected intellectuals. Without any hope for presidency, none would have campaigned for his development plans and programmes for a period that is a decade ahead and spending millions of rupees.
Despite their participation, leaders of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) were never seen organising or actively involved in those programmes. Accepting or announcing Gotabaya’s candidacy by SLPP leaders at that time would not have harmed the party. Instead, it would have been an added advantage. Disowning these programmes by the SLPP and other Rajapaksas points to the fact that Gotabaya had commenced the campaign on his own.
Thus, Gota created the situation first for the SLPP supporters and thereby for leaders to accept him as the party’s presidential candidate. He succeeded.
A notion that elections cannot be won under the incumbent UNP leadership had been among many of the party loyalists during the last regime, as the party had been facing continual election defeats; it was somewhat forgotten after the last presidential and parliamentary polls. However, it reared its head again with a new vigour after the UNP’s humiliating defeat at last year’s local government elections and party loyalists were left with only one hope, which was Sajith who had unsuccessfully attempted to assume party leadership several times before. Marking time while others spoke about him, Sajith came to the fore and challenged the leadership a few days ago with the presidential election fast-approaching. Now, with many of Ranil loyalists having embraced him, it seems to be disastrous for the party to ignore his campaign.
Interestingly, opponents of both Gota and Sajith seem to be attempting to undermine them by recalling past, terrifying episodes. One was the period when the country witnessed dead bodies along roadsides and more than 60,000 people were said to have disappeared in the southern region of the country while the government under Sajith’s father President Ranasinghe Premadasa fought the JVP during its second insurrection. On the other hand, the UNP is attempting to reawaken some of the memories of the Rajapaksa regime when many government opponents including parliamentarians, journalists and activists were either killed or made to disappear.
Despite personal involvement of Ranasinghe Premadasa and Gotabaya in those horrifying episodes and their knowledge on individual incidents being contentious, it was a fact that respective governments either turned a blind eye to those incidents or the investigations into them were suppressed during both regimes. Yet, a majority of countrymen are divided into the two camps and prepared to support these candidates.
An interesting aspect in this presidential race is that in spite of the popular belief that the SLPP would be able to win without the support of the minorities, party leaders seem to have realised otherwise. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had, on the eve of his taking over of SLPP leadership on Sunday, met leaders of small Tamil parties including Varatharaja Perumal who almost declared unilateral independence to the Northern and Eastern Provinces on March 1, 1990.
As usual, many Sinhala media blacked out this meeting, the outcome of which had also been gripping. During the discussion Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged to grant 13+ as solution to the ethnic problem.13+ was a solution evolved by him during his tenure as President and never implemented or at least explained properly as to what it would be. Some people might not believe their ears if they heard Rajapaksa promised, during the meeting, to implement the police powers granted to provincial councils by the 13th Amendment which were never gazetted to be implemented. It would be more fascinating to know the responses of the firebrands in the Rajapaksa camp such as Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila, to these remarks by their leader.
Rajapaksa has been attempting to win over the Tamils since his defeat at the presidential election in 2015. During a similar meeting with Tamil journalists in October 2016, he had acknowledged the need to release the LTTE cadres detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) – a piece of legislation much hated by many in the North and the South. Moreover, Rajapaksa had repented his failure to address the Tamil people politically after the end of the war.
A year later in October 2017, the former President’s brother Basil Rajapaksa told in an interview with leading Tamil daily newspaper Virakesari that his brother’s government would have granted permission for the commemoration of LTTE leaders such as Thileepan if it had been in power for another year. While Rajapaksa loyalists were clamouring against the release of land occupied by the security forces in the North, Basil told Virakesari that they should be released. However, many might not have forgotten they were about to prune powers of Provincial Councils (PCs) before the Northern PC election in 2013.
MR had, on the eve of his taking over of SLPP leadership on Sunday, met leaders of small Tamil parties including Varatharaja Perumal who almost declared unilateral independence to the Northern and Eastern Provinces on March 1, 1990
The UNP is more dependent on the minorities as its Sinhala vote-bank has gravely eroded, as evident during last year’s LG polls. Its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is being pressured to support Sajith, promised last month at a function in Kandarodai, Skandavarodhaya Maha Vidyalayam, Chunnakam to provide a lasting solution to the ethnic problem in two years. However, Tamil people or Tamil media did not seem to have taken the promise seriously. They knew that no government wanted to resolve the ethnic problem except for the solution, the Provincial Council system which was given by the JRJ Government under duress by India.
Therefore, track record of major political parties would haunt them, in the face of whatever the main candidates are pledging on the election platforms.
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