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This is my Nation


President will exploit disarray in opposition parties

And it is indeed the opposition which has been collectively debating the issue of presidential elections for some time now. This campaign has been spearheaded by the major opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) where a faction, urged on by its leadership has been agitating for a ‘common’ candidate to oppose President Rajapaksa who will undoubtedly stand from the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA)

Even as the current focus on the political landscape is in the Southern province where provincial council polls are scheduled in less than three weeks, there is definitely a build up towards the more significant elections that loom ahead: the general and presidential elections both of which will most likely be concluded in the first half of next year.

At first there appeared to be a guessing game as to which poll would come first. Theoretically, general elections are due first and have to be called by April 2010. Presidential elections are not due until November 2011. However, given the present political climate it is extremely unlikely that a parliamentary election will take precedence.

This is because President Mahinda Rajapaksa, unlike some of his cabinet colleagues, enjoys enormous popular support especially in the context of ending the menace of terrorism and overseeing the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Always the shrewd politician, he will be keen to cash in on this and to do so he would have to call presidential elections at the earliest available opportunity.

This comes in the form of a special provision in the Constitution where Section 31(3a) (i) states that: “notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the preceding provisions....., the President may, at any time after the expiration of four years from the commencement of his first term of office, by Proclamation, declare his intention of appealing to the people for a mandate to hold office, by election, for a further term.”

This provision effectively enables President Mahinda Rajapaksa to call for presidential elections in November this year just a few weeks from now. And, given the state of disarray that the major opposition political parties find themselves in at present, the President will be keen to exploit those weaknesses to the maximum by proclaiming elections as soon as possible.

And it is indeed the opposition which has been collectively debating the issue of presidential elections for some time now. This campaign has been spearheaded by the major opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) where a faction, urged on by its leadership has been agitating for a ‘common’ candidate to oppose President Rajapaksa who will undoubtedly stand from the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

At first, there appeared to be a lukewarm response to the call for a common candidate. The response from within the UNP itself was not convincing since most UNPers feared that this would entail sacrificing the elephant symbol and thereby losing the identity of the party at a time when its vote base was being compromised due to the gains made by the UPFA.

There was speculation in the party that this was merely a ruse engineered by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who wanted to avoid contesting a third presidential poll because the prospects of a victory are at their bleakest. Various names including those of high ranking judges and decorated military officers were being mentioned as likely candidates to take on the political might of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

To be fair by Wickremesinghe though, there were elements in the party who were prematurely proclaiming Wickremesinghe to be the candidate again simply because they believed that if Wickremesinghe lost a third time, that would be the surest way of seeing him off from the UNP’s leadership stakes.

Now, however, a new dimension has been added with the UNP’s National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake publicly stating that he was ready and willing to take on the President in a presidential poll. Also, there have been statements from many members of the UNP that a UNPer will enter the fray as a common candidate.

Why Dissanayake would want to contest an election that he is more or less certain of losing is not a matter of conjecture. Unlike Wickremesinghe, Dissanayake has nothing to lose from being the common - or UNP- candidate.

His political career dipped with the deprivation of his civic rights on charges of contempt of court and since then he is not even a Member of Parliament. In these circumstances, he would elevate his political profile on the national stage by being a presidential candidate and also propel himself up a notch or two over the other potential future leaders of the UNP and this is precisely what Dissanayake would want by being a presidential candidate albeit a loser.

This is the state of play in the opposition camp at present. There is no clearly anointed candidate, potential hopefuls are still marking time and there appears to be no personality capable of mounting a serious challenge to the President on the political horizon.

The other issue at stake is how successful this call for a common candidate would be. This depends principally on whether the UNP would be able to rope in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) on to its platform at least on the common issue of opposing President Rajapaksa.

The difficulty here is that the JVP has already painted itself into a corner by calling for the abolition of the executive presidency. Whether a UNP candidate contesting the poll would wholeheartedly endorse such a call is debatable. And the JVP would also be wary of any such promises being made to them because they were once duped on this very same issue by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Those within the UNP who oppose any form of alliance with the JVP would argue that the leftist party now commands only a negligible percentage of the popular vote. While there is some truth in this contention, it is also a fact that the JVP brings with it a considerable degree of organisational skill in pulling crowds and conveying a political message which would undoubtedly be an asset for a ‘common’ candidate.

Thus the stage is now being slowly but surely set for Sri Lanka’s sixth presidential election. Indications are that this poll will be even more lopsided than the contest in 1994 when Chandrika Kumaratunga battled Srima Dissanayake, the widow of slain UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake. But then, as Ranil Wickremesinghe would undoubtedly agree, there is many a slip between political predictions and the actual outcome of a poll and that is what the Opposition would be hoping for.