Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd
With 2018 just about reaching its halfway mark, three of Sri Lanka’s major political players have already begun preparations for the 2020 presidential elections.
Although President Maithripala Sirisena announced last week he would not retire from politics, he has not openly stated he would not contest in the polls. However, seniors and ministers belonging to his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), have made no bones about who their candidate would be. In fact they have maintained right along that Sirisena would be their presidential candidate.
People are also under no illusion that Sirisena would not seek any political office in the future and confine himself to public work. There is no doubt he would like to remain in power.
Sirisena, who became President in January 2015 on the promise that he would abolish the executive presidency and a solemn declaration that he would not run for the post again, doesn’t touch on these two subjects any longer.
Last week, delivering his policy statement after the ceremonial inauguration of the Second Session of the Eighth Parliament, he took credit for whittling down powers of the executive presidency through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, but he kept mum on the resumption of the now stalled constitutional reform process or abolition of the executive presidency.
Likewise, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while addressing the United National Party (UNP) May Day rally in Colombo last week, stayed conspicuously quiet on the subject of the abolition of the executive presidency. Instead, he underscored the need to form a strong UNP government in 2020.
The UNP leader cannot visualize a scenario of avoiding contesting in the next presidential elections, knowing full well that the 2020 elections would decide his political future. But the dilemma he faces is that he cannot ask his party to support a common candidate for the third successive time.
Not unlike the SLFP, Wickremesinghe’s UNP colleagues have been saying he would be their party’s candidate for the 2020 elections. A few days ago, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera told UNP members of local bodies in the Matara District that Wickremesinghe was the ideal candidate and no person other than him [Wickremesinghe] would be able to win the elections. And when Health Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne, who is now the leader of a constituent-party of the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) for Good Governance, said he would talk to leaders of other constituent parties on fielding a common candidate, the tacit understanding was that he was referring to Wickremesinghe as the candidate.
As for the Sri Lanka Podhujana Peramuna (SLPP or Sri Lanka People’s Front) backed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, it is evident that the candidate for president would be one of the Rajapaksa brothers. After the SLPP’s stunning performance in the February local government elections, the nascent party is being promoted as the dominant political force in the country. Leaders of the SLPP have been exuding confidence that they are ready to face any election at any point of time.
It is quite likely that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, would be nominated as the presidential candidate by the SLPP, as he is said to be enjoying popular support among the Sinhalese people. Much of this support stems from that fact that he was defence secretary when the Rajapaksa regime had militarily defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.
Gotabhaya has been making intense efforts to project himself as a prospective candidate, but with a caveat, that is, he would contest in the 2020 elections only if his older brother asks him to do so.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, ever the consummate politician, when asked about the likely candidate of his new political front, said the name would be announced by him at an appropriate time.
Key figures of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist organizations are openly touting that Gotabhaya can easily win the presidential elections without the support of minorities as he enjoys the overwhelming support of the Sinhalese. By constantly intoning that the people have lost faith in traditional political leaders, Gotabhaya too is looking to justify the entry of someone who has not held any political office before.
Political novice Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential elections is not lost on the former defence secretary, who has been frequently using the victory as an example to showcase the likelihood that a person who has no political experience in government can become the president of Sri Lanka.
Events in Malaysia, which saw the opposition front, led by the 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, record a stunning victory last week, would have been a fillip for former president Rajapaska, who wasted no time congratulating the veteran leader immediately for his comeback as the Prime Minister. The former president’s son and Member of Parliament, Namal Rajapaksa, too congratulated Mahathir Mohamad immediately after the election results were released.
No doubt viewing Mahathir’s victory as something that could parallel in Sri Lanka, chairman of SLPP. Professor G. L. Peiris said Sri Lankans might emulate what happened in Malaysia. Describing former president Rajapaksa and Dr. Mohamad as respected statesmen, Peiris articulated the former had rendered a tremendous service to the country, just like Dr. Mohamad, and exuded confidence that when given an opportunity at an election, just like the Malaysian people, Sri Lankans too would oust their corruption-riddled government.
Stunning as the political turnaround has been in Malaysia, and the parallels the Rajapaksa supporters draw about possibilities in Sri Lanka, the longevity of the new government led by Dr. Mohamad rests on his relationship with recently pardoned Anwar Ibrahim, his ally-turned-foe-turned-ally, and the latter’s party. There are already reports of differences cropping up between supporters of the two leaders.
But, one aspect that Mahinda Rajapaksa and his party should keep in mind while equating himself with Dr. Mohamad, is that the veteran Malaysian leader, once known for not being responsive to legitimate aspirations of ethnic minorities in the southeast Asian country, won the election this time with the overwhelming support of the minorities – specifically persons of Indian and Chinese origin. Realizing the importance of reaching out to the minorities politically, Mahathir Mohamad changed his previous approach towards the ethnic minorities, and the results made headline news across the world last week. So will the Rajapaksas follow in the footsteps of the Malaysian leader in their attempt to stage a comeback to power?