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Sri Lanka: Presidential Election And The President’s Spoiler Power – Analysis

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Sri Lanka’s major political parties have been making arrangements and strategic moves with the forthcoming presidential election in mind. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s highly publicized visit to the North last month was one of those strategic moves. Tamil votes are and should be a part of the United National Party’s electoral calculations. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has been meeting with Muslim groups, knowing very well that Muslim votes played a significant role in his defeat in 2015. Hence, we are already in an election season. Characteristically, the new budget will also reflect this reality.

Meanwhile, President Maithripala Sirisena faces a different set of problems. Despite his public pronouncement in the early days of the presidency that he will be a one-term president, he is keen to contest for a second term. It is with this objective in mind that he made Mahinda Rajapaksa the prime minister in October 2018. The project did not succeed, and Sri Lanka returned to the status quo within two months. In October, the decision to unseat Wickremesinghe was influenced by the fact that UNP votes will not be available for him next time.

This dilemma has forced Sirisena to look for votes in other parties. The natural option is the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. Hence, as confirmed by media reports, the president has been luring the SLPP for an alliance with him as the presidential candidate. The SLPP and Mahinda Rajapaksa seem to be reciprocating with meetings and consultation.

Is an SLFP – SLPP alliance with Sirisena as the presidential candidate possible? The answer to this question is, extremely unlikely. However, why is SLPP engaging Sirisena on this issue? It is because of the president’s “spoiler power.”

Presumably, all major stakeholders in this issue are operating based on the numbers generated by the 2018 local government election. In this election, Mahinda Rajapaksa headed SLPP gained 44. 69 percent of the total votes and Sirisena led parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United People’s Freedom Alliance garnered 13. 38 percent of the total national votes.

There is no evidence to suggest that Rajapaksa faction has gained any new votes in the last one year. Instead, it might have lost some votes due to the way in which the SLPP and its allies behaved during the 2018 political crisis. Undoubtedly, the crisis reenergized the UNP. Theoretically, some of the UNP defectors could have returned to the party in October 2018.

On the other hand, the UNP could also count on Tamil votes from the North-East, which went to the Tamil parties in the local government election. One cannot suggest that these votes will be enough for the UNP to win the presidential election. The UNP’s chances heavily depend on how it performs in the Sinhala majority areas.

Of significance is the fact that without an alliance with the SLFP (and President Sirisena), the SLPP is staring at about 45 percent votes, five percent short of the 50 percent (plus one vote) required to win the election. Therefore, the SLPP is undoubtedly interested in the SLFP votes and perhaps an alliance with the president. The question is, would the party sacrifice the “trophy” itself for the five percent votes? If one goes by the electoral strength of these parties, the bulk of the gains should go to the SLPP in an alliance between the SLPP and SLFP. Hence, the SLPP is unlikely to accept Sirisena as the common candidate.

The other significant reason why the SLPP would most probably not endorse Sirisena for president again is the recent experience. After the election, the SLPP would have no control over the president, and there is no guarantee that he will not go against the wishes and agenda of the SLPP after winning the presidency for the second time. This was a bitter lesson the UNP learned very recently.

However, President Sirisena’s decision to contest the presidential election would considerably diminish the SLPP’s chances of winning the election because he would take away a small number of crucial votes from the SLPP candidate. Hence, the president could spoil the game for the SLPP if he eventually contests without the support of the SLPP. This is President Sirisena’s spoiler power. Hence, when Sirisena seeks an alliance with the SLPP to win the next presidential election, the threat of spoiling is inherent in the offer.

It seems Mahinda Rajapaksa understands this predicament. Hence, the reciprocation. In relation to its dealings with the president, the SLPP needs to achieve two specific objectives: (1) not antagonizing the president, and (2) preventing him from contesting the presidential election on behalf of the SLFP. “Talk but not concede” is most probably the SLPP strategy at this point.

This perhaps explains the meetings the SLPP is having with the president currently while not conceding to his demand for an alliance with Sirisena as the common presidential candidate. It is not clear how long the SLPP would be able to preserve a cordial relation with the president based on this formula. President Sirisena could be unpredictable. The reality that the UNP could have an interest in encouraging Sirisena to contest without an alliance with the SLPP would compound the pressure on the SLPP. Ideally, the UNP should also be friendly with the president to the point of pushing him towards an independent run.

What is possible in relation to an SLFP-SLPP alliance? If the SLPP to conclude an alliance with Sirisena without conceding the candidacy, it needs to make other concessions. Many options are available. One of them perhaps is promising the premiership to Sirisena if the alliance wins the national elections in 2020. Undoubtedly, Sri Lankans have evolved to accept their former presidents as prime ministers. This is one of the options available for these two parties.

One has to wait and see how the SLPP deals with the problems generated by President Sirisena’s spoiler power. Would the SLPP go ahead and contest the election on its own regardless of Sirisena’s decisions? Would it be bold enough to gamble with the SLFP votes? We will know sooner rather than later.



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Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

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