October 2, 2022

How Wickremesinghe Has Become Permanent Fixture in Sri Lanka’s Politics; Do Others Stand a Chance?

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The most feared and hated man in Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled under the cover of darkness on July 13. The ‘Aragalaya’ or ‘Aragalists’ (meaning ‘struggle’ in Sinhalese), who had led nationwide protests demanding his resignation, have achieved the impossible. But their fight is not yet over. They want an “honest” man, with a vision, to be the next President, opposing acting President and incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s bid for the top post.

Speaker of Sri Lankan Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has fixed July 20 as the day for the Presidential election where all 225 members of the House are eligible to vote and participate.

There are at least half a dozen claimants for the post of President. Ranil Wickremesinghe is leading the race with the support of majority Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party of the Rajapaksa family. His main contender is the leader of the opposition and his one-time deputy, Sajith Premadasa, of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). On paper, Wickremesinghe’s win looks easy but in reality, it speaks of a different situation.

The SLPP has 145 members in Parliament and the President should get a minimum of 113 votes to get elected. The winning President will be in office for the remainder of Gotabaya’s term (around 28 months). Gotabaya had a five-year term till November 2024.

But more than 40 SLPP MPs have already declared that they are no longer a part of the majority party and they can act independently. Since the Sri Lankan people are vehemently opposing Wickremesinghe’s nomination to the highest post, many more MPs are likely to back out on the day of voting.

Describing the protestors as “fascists”, Wickremesinghe has warned them not to obstruct the elections, which has angered them further.

Meanwhile, Sajith Premadasa has nearly 55 MPs of his own party supporting him. With the help of minority Tamil and Muslim MPs, he is expected to secure about 80 votes. He still needs another 33 votes to win the election and hoping that the breakaway faction of the SLPP will back him.

Whoever might win the election, the President is likely to be a lame duck until the next elections. The five-time PM, 73 years old Wickremesinghe may not mind that but Premadasa who is still in his mid-50s does not want his political career to end like this.

Since a Wickremesinghe- and Premadasa-combine sharing the power looks seemingly impossible at this moment, there are discussions in the political circle about dark horse Dullas Alahapperuma being the Presidential contender.

They feel that Premadasa might agree to be the PM if Allahaperuma agrees to abolish the executive Presidency, restoring the pre-1978 Westminster system in which the PM is the executive head of the State and the President a nominal head.

Allahaperuma, in his early 60s, is a likeable man and was a journalist before winning his first Parliamentary polls in 1994. Even though he was a Cabinet minister of Power and Sports in the previous Rajapaksa government, he maintained a healthy distance from them. That approach has now come to his rescue and he may agree to go with Premadasa.

Premadasa-Allahaperuma combine, if it clicks, could pose a huge danger to Wickremesinghe’s bid.

The ‘Aragalaya’ might also accept this combine just to keep Wickremesinghe out of power, whom they derisively call Ranil “Rajapaksa”.

If this combination works out, Premadasa will manage 80 of his votes and Allahaperuma will have to secure at least 33 votes from the other side.

According to some insiders, Wickremesinghe is trying to strike a deal with Premadasa promising him the post of executive PM. But Premadasa, who has launched a massive attack on Wickremesinghe calling him an illegitimate PM, is unlikely to accept that. The only son of assassinated President Ranasinghe, Premadasa has an old score to settle with Wickremesinghe, who has repeatedly denied him bigger posts in the past. Even his endorsement of Premadasa’s unsuccessful Presidential race against Gotabaya in 2019 was half-hearted.

The ‘Aragalaya’ is demanding early elections to both President and Parliament sometime in early 2023. But most of the MPs know that the going to early elections would be suicidal for them under the present circumstances and they want to buy time hoping the public anger will subside over a period of next two years.

Former Army Commander Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka is also bidding for the Presidency hoping both SLPP and SJB MPs will back him. But he is unlikely to get the support of any minority MPs, particularly the Tamils, as they hold him responsible for the genocide along with Rajapaksa clan during the final stages of Eelam war that ended in 2009.

The general mood in Sri Lanka is against military men holding top political and constitutional posts after Gotabaya, who is also from the Army, ruined the country and his family.

In all likelihood, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa will represent two powerful factions in Parliament and they will have the biggest say.

Sri Lanka is holding a mid-term Presidential election for the second time since it became a French Gaullist Presidential form of government in 1978 under Wickremesinghe’s uncle Junius Richard Jayawardene.

In 1993, after the May Day assassination of Premadasa’s father Ranasinghe Premadasa by a suspected LTTE suicide bomber, the Sri Lankan Parliament elected then Prime Minister DB Wijetunga to the post of President. Low-profile Wijetunga was a lame duck President and Ranil Wickremesinghe was first elected as the Prime Minister under him.

After taking charge as the President by quirk fate, humble Wijetunga had quoted from Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’. He had said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” He was modest to admit his small stature but neither Wickremesinghe nor Premadasa would do that because both believe that they are “born great”.

In Sri Lankan politics, most other players got changed but Ranil Wickremesinghe is the only permanent fixture.

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