‘Ranil factor’ in presidential polls

By N Sathiya Moorthy

In what has begun as an ‘issue-less’ election, the upcoming weekend presidential poll is turning up with possibilities, as much on campaign-points as the possible result. If the outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena kicked up a minor storm in a small tea-cup in the last week, his estranged Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has become a ‘silent issue’ befitting his own character and political personality of the previous decades,.

The early dominance of the Rajapaksas in the campaign even before the Election Commission had announced the poll schedule did kick up comparisons between national security and individual’s security and different interpretations and perceptions of the same. – nothing new about the issue. When the UNP finally picked up party deputy leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa over the claims of his Prime Minister and party boss, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the candidate added ‘corruption’ as an election issue – and there may have begun a problem for his own strategy team.

One, Premadasa Js, is a relatively new issue for the first-time voter, he having kept to himself mostly throughout the turbulent four-plus years of the Government of which he was a part – though a seeming side-kick, if at all. Earlier generations, which had voted up to Elections-2015 alone knew the fighter in him, but all those fights were confined to within the UNP, where he was always seen as over-ambitious, impatient and inexperienced when he wanted Wickremesinghe’s job for him, as party Leader.

By kicking up corruption, first as an intra-party issue for winning over the presidential nomination, Premadasa was hurting his own senior colleagues and even some of the camp-followers. He was defending his case with back to the wall, yes, and it may have come with a price for the party and the UNP and UNP-led combine. The ‘Central Bank bonds scam’ and others of the kind may have ensured as much, making what otherwise is a ‘stale issue’ in the rival, Rajapaksa context, an electoral embarrassment for the Premadasa campaign, instead.

Sirisena ‘exposed’

Ahead of laying down office, Sirisena has blotted his copy book more than already by granting presidential pardon to a death-row convict, after campaigning for restoration of the same over the previous year and more – both at the national level and international level, the latter if only at times. True, the President’s camp can say that Sirisena favoured death sentence only for drug-offenders, if only to make Sri Lanka drugs-free, and stopped being a major transhipment locale for international cartels – and not for murders and other acts of criminal law offences.

Maybe because Sirisena is not in the fray, the issue may not attain as much electoral importance, but the fact that he has made a U-turn without seeking to convince anyone around should show the unilateral way in which presidential decisions and money spent on his personalised campaigns on issues such as this. The larger constitutional and human rights issues pertaining to death sentence are before the Supreme Court, but that does not absolve the moral and political responsibility of Sirisena hurriedly granting presidential pardon to convicted Jude Shramantha Anthony Jayamaha in the famous ‘Royal Park murder’ of Swedish national, Yvonne Johnson (2005).

Losers’ final

Sirisena has thus been exposed on one more front after all the presidential games he played while in office, check-mating at times and restraining on other occasions, the otherwise empowered decisions of the Wickremesinghe Government, and under the 19-A cover, now it is Wickremesinghe’s term to settle scores, if he chose – but not against the former, but his successor, whoever it be – if only chose to do so.

It was Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was seen as setting the ball roll by declaring on the eve of brother Gota’s presidential nomination that he would be the Prime Minister for, if not under the latter. He needed to protect the ‘personalised’ 40-per cent vote-share standing in his name from the previous set of polls, and also be able to transfer the same to the party’s presidential nominee. Only the results and details would show if he could do so, but Gota was also the only candidate to whom Mahinda R could have been able to ‘transfer’ his vote-bank, thus.

Once Sajith was named UNP-DNF candidate after a lot of hiccups and consternations, it became incumbent Wickremesinghe’s need to declare himself as Prime Minister if the former was elected President. Though it was a ‘losers’ final’ of sorts between Mahinda and Ranil, it also meant that Ranil had to protect and transfer all committed UNP votes and ground-level leaders at his command to the lesser-known Preamadasa.

In driver’s seat?

It is here that Sajith Premadasa’s more recent reiteration that he would have a new Prime Minister of his own that has made the difference to the UNP campaign. It should also send Premadasa’s campaign managers scrambling for cover, and for right reasons – only that they are not doing anything about it.

Clearly, Sajith seems afraid of working with Ranil. Under 19-A post-poll, the Prime Minister will have more powers than earlier – or, may even more than those of the President. The Rajapaksas may not have a problem with it, though there are also bound to be skirmishes within, but no one expects any of it to blow out of proportions. Not in the case of Sajith-Ranil duo, where their supporters and the nation have already experienced the ill-effects of the Sirisena-Ranil combination, whom they cheerfully voted in, on a power-sharing mode.

Despite Mahinda’s declaration of being PM for his brother, Gota is yet to acknowledge and assert it to be soBe it as it may, there are doubts about the constitutional powers of a new President to swiftly change the PM, as has been the case so far under the Second Republican Constitution of 1978.

The 19-A has ensured as much, and this position has been reiterated and upheld by the Supreme Court only months ago after Si8risena swapped his PM from Ranil to Mahinda, and citing the changing numbers after his own SLFP had withdrawn support to what used to be projected as ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) until then.

After the SC verdict and Parliament reiterating its faith in PM Wickremesinghe, now it is a settled principle that post-poll President too would have to follow the norm. Maybe, he has to initiate the process, directing his PM to seek the Parliament’s confidence once more, if only to make out a point. It is all a process of strengthening democracy, yes, but in the ranks of undecided voters, some of whom are already tired of un-kept poll promises, it could become a ‘deciding factor’ especially after the latter’s experience of the previous five years.

As things stand, Wickremesinghe commands parliamentary majority. It is not unlikely that even UNP back-benchers who had wanted Sajith for presidency, may not want to replace the other at least until after the parliamentary polls, due in August 2010 but may be advanced, otherwise. The less said about the UNP’s ‘minority’ allies from the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil communities, it’s better. They all may support Sajith in the presidential polls for one reason, but may still have sympathies forRanil for more than one reason.

All this goes for both Gota and Sajith or even for any of the other 33 candidates in the presidential fray. But there is an added problem for Sajith Premadasa, to have his way with the PM of his choice, if elected President. And that puts Ranil, not Sajith, on the pedestal, and personally at that.

According to the UNP by-laws, the party leader, if is also an MP, becomes the Leader of the Opposition, or of the party group, if in power. Ranil is the party leader and is also an MP. Thus he was first Leader of the Opposition for decades since SLFP’s Chandrika Kumaratunga became President in 1994 and continued being so under Mahinda R (2005-15). In between then (32001-04) and now, since 2015, he is Prime Minister by the same rationale.

So, under the Constitution (after 19-A and SC verdict), no post-poll President can automatically remove an incumbent PM, or have a PM of chis choice, without proving the Government’s majority in Parliament. Under the UNP by-laws, Sajith, if elected, cannot replace Ranil at will, as used to be the case (and about which his campaign team has not educated him, either, if at all they applied their minds to the issue).

What if between now and the last hour of the poll campaign on Wednesday, Wickremesinghe comments on Sajith’s statement on wanting to have his own PM? What Ranil says may impact on the ranks of ‘undecided voters’. If Ranil were to declare that he would quit as PM then or after the election of a new President, it could well be a relative advantage for Mahinda if Gota became President – still he too would have to prove his majority in Parliament at the first instance (which is not going to be easy).

Instead it could still be a disadvantage Sajith, if he were elected. Ranil would still be the party leader, and remain as an MP. So he still remains UNP parliamentary party leader. Unless Sajith begins manoeuvring within the party first and the allies alongside, diverting his energies and national attention in the first hours and days as President, and gets UNP internal bodies to amend the Constitution, he is not going to have his way. The tradition-bound GoP may not also let him have his way, at least so early on.

Whatever that be and whoever is elected President, there will be horse-trading for a parliamentary majority. While Sajith may still want to wait until after presidential elections to make the change, if at all, Gota cannot afford to wait – for more reasons than one. But as President, neither can dissolve Parliament and order early polls, weeks and months before the mid-August deadline, until six months before that date – or, mid-February, that is.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Chennai Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)