Presidential poll getting trickier

By N Sathiya Moorthy

There seems to be some good news for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghye’s ruling United National Party (UNP). From no-talk to long-gap talks and now to ‘final rounds’ of talks, he has been bringing down the gaps between two rounds of negotiations with party deputy leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, over the candidature for the presidential polls. Sooner than later, the party, and the nation, would know the course of UNP’s decision-making on a crucial issue, for which the rest of the world too is waiting for an answer.

Whether there is agreement between the top two in the party on the issue, they need to take some decision, even if it meant that they may go their separate ways. The chances in that case could well be that Sajith Premadasa may have to go his way, but that depends on if the party calls for an internal vote to decide the candidate, or if they break into factionalism, more than already.

If there is an internal poll and if the chances are that Wickremesinghe would win hands down, Preamadasa would want a patch-up, licking his wounds all the way to the parliamentary polls. He might then demand post-poll prime minister post, for past services and might even have sympathetic ears from a section. The other section, whether Wickremesinghe wins the presidential poll or not, might want Preamadasa rendered dysfunctional for good. A lot however would depend on if Wickremesinghe would become President.

If Sajith’s chances are better in the internal polls, then Wickremesinghe would have no place to hide, after quarter century of leading the party – and losing the confidence of the cadres more readily than already. It would then depend on the Premadasa camp to decide if they want a unified party for the presidential poll, or want at least some of the Wickremesinghe aide4s side-lined from the campaign if not sacked.

Wikckremesinhe too cold play spoil-sport after incumbent President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga and her late brother and SLFP’s prime ministerial nominee Anura B did after nominating then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa as the party’s presidential nominee in Elections-2005. In context, Mahinda R won the polls by the thinnest of margins against united UNP’s Wickremesinghe.

Third option…

There is a third option for the UNP if the two decided to contest an inner poll for party ticket. It is too much to expect warring factions to look for a third option, but that is what UNP’s cadres and apolitical sympathisers and financiers might hope for, and work on. They would need the party intact, whethe4r Wicklremesinghe becomes President or not, whether Premadasa does so or not.

It is then that people may be running around in circles, between the two camps, and then come up with the idea of a ‘common candidate’. it is not uncommon in such situations as facing the UNP just now that for the party to hope to win the presidential polls, they need a non-controversial third man who can keep the two other factions out in the cold, whether or not they accept him and campaign for him.

Just by keeping his counsels to himself, Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has kept himself away as the ‘dark horse’, if and when the hunt for the same begins. Barring the fact that he is a ‘defector’ from the SLFP, he has other credentials, barring of course, Sajith’s purported cadre-base and Ranil’s officialise of being the party ‘Leader’, who can decide things first and make the world believe that it is not so.

Karu J also got his moment at the height of the ‘twin constitutional crises’ late last year, initiated by President Maithripala Sirisena. Though his actions and statements caused eyebrows to rise, he did raise his acceptance-level among UNP cadres and sympathisers, as much inside the country as outside. There was the shadow slugfest between Karu and Sajith at one time, as if he alone was the man in shining armour, to save the UNP, to save democracy, and save also Ranil’s prime ministerial seat.

Yes, Karu J, for instance, may be charged with being a defector. But the question may arise that the choice before the party would be not if someone is a defector or not. It would boil down to the question if the UNP wanted the ‘Elephant’ symbol on the ballot and hope to make it to the presidency after 25 long years, or if they are going to talk about the blue-blooded nature of the party candidate.

It is then that the UNP might catch up with the inevitability of caste and class calculations, and commerce. That way, if Karu J could be the UNP’s Speaker, where he has lived down his SLFP days and image and proved his UNP loyalty more than the blue-blooded rivals in the field, why quarrel over things, which would have to wait until after the presidential polls first, and the parliamentary elections later on, to squabble over?

All this could well throw up a situation in which where there is not just the talk of a third option, but on who should be that candidate, too? There is quite a chance that ‘faceless’ candidates could emerge, prompted by third and fourth and fifth parties from around Colombo Seven elite clubs…. In which case, another round of compromise negotiations would happen, and would have to happen, testing their winning chances against that of a Karu J here, or even a Mangala Samaraweera, there…

In this, Ravi Karunanayake seems to be the unlikely chance just now, and President Sirisena may have signed the warrant on this one candidate, when he signed one for the extradition of Central Bank bonds scam chief accused, Arjuna Mahendaran, from Singapore. But who knows, if the SLPP rival could field a controversial Gota Rajapaksa from his ‘war crimes’ days, why not the UNP field a candidate, whose popularity is perceived and unproven notoriety if it is any?

Candidate fatigue?

For Gota R, whose name was doing the rounds for weeks and months before SLPP boss Mahinda Rajapakse formally announced his candidacy in early August, his campaign can cut both ways…. On the face of it, he has the early-bird advantage in campaign time and reach. On the reverse, it could help set a ‘candidate fatigue’ among the voters, and routine among the cadres, who could be rendered bereft of new ideas to take on the rival, whoever is there from the UNP.

By starting early, Gota campaign can address the irritants that JVP nominee Anura Kumara Dissanayake has triggered in their common stronghold in the ‘Sinhala South’. That is what the Galle Face Green campaign-start of the JVP should mean for the SLPP in particular, but equally so for Sajith Premadasa, who would have to bring in more southern votes than already for the UNP, if he and/or the party has to win.

By taking on the JVP in early campaign, and seemingly neutralising them at the voter-level in the South, the SLPP campaign can then strategise and focus on the Sajith/UNP card, whichever way the latter decides. Should Sajith walk out of the UNP and contest on his own – which is what he has been indicating over the past weeks, if forced – then Gota can hope to win relatively easier.

But that is also when the Rajapaksas’ southern votets could split more than otherwise. Issues would have changed, and a multi-corner contest could throw up possibilities than probabilities. As of now, given a free hand, SLPP’s Basil R is not incapable of planning and plotting for different situations differently. They would still need the candidate’s charm, which is what worked for incumbent Mahidna R, after he had lost the early bird advantage to common rival in retired Army commander, Sarath Fonseka in post-war 2010 polls.

Alternatively, the Gota campaign could fall flat if the cadres do not visualise a serious contestant from a united UNP. That could mean that the party without the JVP kind of cadres from the victorious 2005 polls, might find it difficult to get their voters to the booths. In such a situation, the traditionally non-Rajapaksa Sinhala voters, and the anti-Rajapaksa minority Tamil voters, might count even more than is believed to be.

In such a background, the question would also emerge if veteran cricketer Muralitharan could bowl a few googlies and win back at least his Upcountry Tamil voters for the Gota ticket is a million-dollar question. At the last count, a majority of the Upcountry Tamil voters were as much anti-Thondaman as they were anti-Rajapaksa, if not more. It is an equally trickier situation, for even the SLT Tamil and post-blasts Muslim voters could still be divided even as their votes might have greater value than even in 2015, when their votes alone decided the victor. Sirisena won as the common candidate against incumbent Mahinda R.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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