Did Sajith get his timing right?

N Sathiya Moorthy

With the all-important parliamentary polls only around a week away (5 August), no one is talking about who will come first. Whether it is the majority Sinhalas in the South or the Tamils in the North, the question is about who will come second….

Current indications are that the ruling SLPP combine of President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will be able to win an absolute majority. The question is if they will be able to get a two-thirds majority on their own, which looks a taller order still.

In the North, the TNA is expected to come on the top, but there are two other combines, which are fighting but for the second and third places. This is not to rule out the possible electoral presence and victory for the EPDP, an SLPP ally, and Muslim SLMC and ACMC, the latter two in the North and the East, together.

The UNP under predecessor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may still make the grade in the North, but not the breakaway SJB of Sajith Premadasa. Then there are the Upcountry Tamil parties, which are on either side of the Sinhala political divide.

Earlier understanding

Sajith Pemadasa was at unseating and replacing entrenched Wickremesinge from the UNP leadership position for long before giving up and walking out of the party only recently. Before him, many others had tried and failed similarly. Until months before the 2015 presidential polls, Sajith teamed up with later-day Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and others, but failed again – in the possible absence of clarity on the day-after.

To Sajith Premadasa should go also the credit of swearing by party, even if not personally by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, from before the 2015 presidential poll that brought then ally Maithripala Sirisena into office. He remained so even when Sirisena sacked the Wickremesinghe Government, and later dissolved Parliament.

Not only did Sajith not try to upstage Wickremesinghe during that crisis period. Instead, he sort of went out of the way to become the public face of party unity at such a point in time. Whether or not their lawyers were present at the Supreme Court, as the joke at the time went, Premadasa was there. He was also the one to brief the media outside the court – and carefully avoided any controversial political statement from within the party.

It was not unlikely that before Sajith declared what should now sound as a unilateral truce on Wickremesinghe. If so, it was not unlikely that either Wickremesinghe or someone on the latter’s behalf had said that in the next round of elections, beginning now with the presidential polls of last year, that Sajith would be put up in the frontline.

As the events and developments within the UNP ahead of the presidential polls suggested last year, either there was no commitment of the kind, or either or both sides had walked out on whatever was agreed upon. Yet, the Sajith camp’s decision to force the issue with his candidature in the presidential polls last year, is indicative of more than a rebellion of the kind.

Now or never

Going by the fact that Sajith wanted to be the party’s presidential candidate and was still ready to break the party just over that issue, without being able to project any ideological or organisational issue as central to the show-down, should indicate that like most anti-SLPP parties and leaders, he too had given up on winning the presidential polls against the Rajapaksas.

Likewise, his even greater determined pitch to oust Wickremesinghe from the party leadership, now or never, would show that he was fighting for the Ranil’s place in the party, and not necessarily parliamentary poll. It defies logic how his camp could have concluded that by splitting the party, that too an orthodox one as the nation’s GoP, Sajith stands to become Prime Minister.

Read in the context of Sajith’s presidential poll performance, his prime ministerial chances looked dim even otherwise. Of the 42 per cent vote-share that he got, 12-15 belonged to allies, especially from the three minority communities. Against this, of the 52 per cent votes of victor Gotabaya, 40 per cent was what could be described as the ‘Rajapaksa votes’. The remaining came from the parent SLFP-UPFA, which had polled 13 per cent in the local government elections of February 2018. Simple arithmetic, it would seem.

Personal view

The Sajith camp’s calculations for a post-poll future flows also from the very fact that his lowest vote-share in the presidential polls 25 per cent, came from native Hambantota district, from where the Rajapaksas too hail. It was very evident then and there that Sajith would shift out of Hambantota for the presidential poll, and possibly to the UNP’s once traditional stronghold, the national capital of Colombo.

The fact still remained that in the presidential polls, Sajith polled lower than Gotabaya in Colombo district too. His poll percentage in Colombo was supplemented substantially by the Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil votes. While the mainstay Muslim parties and Upcountry allies of the UNP are now in the SJB combine, the mainstay TNA is contesting alone in the North and the East.

It remains to be seen as to the kind of advice the party will give its traditional SLT voters in Colombo district, whether openly or otherwise. The TNA may be confident that their supporters in Colombo will not go t5he Rajapaksas’ way as was evident in the presidential polls, it is unclear if a direction to support the SJB combine in Colombo district would boomerang on the party in the Northern stronghold.

For now, the TNA has clarified that the appeal for SLT voters in Colombo to back Upcountry Tamil leader Mano Ganesan by the party’s member of the dissolved Parliament, S Sritharan, was his personal view and not that of the party. Even without it the Sajith camp needs to ask itself as to how many of its minority community allies would stay in the SJB combine, if the party did not fair as much as expected – whether in comparison to the ruling SLPP alliance, or even the Wickremesinghe-led UNP rump.

Holding on….

The UNP leadership, including the breakaway SJB second-line will be looking into the exact minority votes that came to the party in Western Province and to a lesser extent in the East, before they evaluate Sajith’s real pull among the UNP’s traditional Sinhala-Buddhist votes. That may also determine the future of post-poll negotiations on bringing the two UNP factions together – which may be unacceptable but which neither side can avoid.

In the final analysis, Sajith seems to have concluded, like Wickremesingh, that before seeking to become the nation’s President or Prime Minister, he will have to ensure that he beame the UNP ‘Leader’. This is because the UNP constitution dictates that the ‘Leader’ of the party, whatever that designation means, will be the party’s automatic choice for the Prime Minister’s job if the UNP is elected to power. Alternatively, he will be the natural choice for the Leader of the Opposition, if the party failed to make it.

Through the UNP’s bad years at polls, from 1994-2015, barring of course, 2001-04, when Ranil was Prime Minister under rival SLFP President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, he stuck on to be the party Leader if only to ensure his near-automatic nomination as party candidate for presidential / parliamentary polls. But then, Ranil was even more convinced of there being only two major political parties in the country, and did not provide for a Sajith Premadasa and his SJB….

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