Sri Lanka: State Of The Race – OpEd


Sri Lankans will face a presidential election in about four months. However, no major political party was in a hurry to announce its candidate for the race. Now, the first name is out. On August 11, 2019, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) announced that it is fielding Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as its presidential candidate. Although it was apparent that Gotabhaya will be the party’s nominee, unnecessary suspense was built up until the party’s national convention. At the convention Mahinda Rajapaksa, while accepting the leadership of the party, formally announced Gotabhaya’s name.


First, the announcement was a setback to President Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena was adopted by the United National Party (UNP) and fielded as the presidential candidate in 2015. He won. The president was striving to repeat the same model in 2020. This time around, he targeted the SLPPfor endorsement and support as the UNP would not support him again. His party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), does not have the capacity to win the presidential election in 2020. He initiated negotiations with the SLPP to get its endorsement for his reelection bid. 

From the inception, the SLPP was not going to back Sirisena because the party was confident that its candidate could win without Sirisena. The SLPP, however, continued the “negotiations” because Sirisena could spoil the chances of the SLPP candidate if he decides to contest the election on behalf of the SLFP. When the parties started negotiations, in an article entitled, Presidential Election and the President’s Spoiler Power, we pointed out that the best option available for the SLPP is to “talk but not concede.” That is precisely what the SLPP did, and it seems to be interested in continuing the “negotiations” even after officially declaring that it will not back Sirisena for reelection. This was the first blow. 

The president took a double blow this week. The second blow was delivered when Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that he would be the prime ministerial candidate of the SLPP in the general election that will follow the presidential poll. Most likely, Sri Lanka will go for the general election in mid-2020. If Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wins the election, he will be able to dissolve Parliament in February. 

Although President Sirisena was aiming for SLPP’s endorsement for his reelection bid, he seemed open to the idea of accepting the prime minister’s office in return for his support for the SLPP candidate. Now, even that option is gone. Mahinda Rajapaksa will be the SLPP prime ministerial candidate. Therefore, this was a bad week for President Sirisena. 

Nevertheless, SLPP cannot completely ignore the president. As the leader of one of the premier political parties in Sri Lanka, he still has control over about 10 percent of the total votes. These votes are crucial for the victory of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. In order to win, the SLPP will and should be able to accommodate Sirisena in some way, shape or form. The SLPP should not have problems in accommodating him at the ministerial level. 

Hence, as of today, President Sirisena has two options: (1) endorse Gotabhaya’s candidacy and settle for a ministerial portfolio in an SLPP administration, and (2) contest the election from the SLPP and hurt Gotabhaya’s victory. Which option will he choose? In the last four years, Sirisena has proved that he is extremely unpredictable and inconsistent. So, he could go with either one of these options. One has to wait for his reaction. 

UNP Candidate

The equally significant question is, who will be the UNP candidate. Although the UNP has not officially declared its presidential candidate, party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had already started the campaign. For example, he has been going around unveiling development programs, some of which are electorally motivated. Hence, the assumption was that Wickremesinghe’s name would be announced soon. He is also in the process of forming a new alliance called the Democratic National Front (DNF) by bringing friendly, especially minority parties together. 

Nevertheless, an internal challenge has emerged. The party’s deputy leader Sajith Premadasa and his loyalists are claiming that Premadasa should be nominated to contest the election. They argue that he is the only person who can win in 2020. The implication being that Wickremesinghe cannot win a presidential election. A crisis has been brewing. 

However, if one goes by the experience, Wickremesinghe will prevail if he is serious about contesting the presidential election. Premadasa is unlikely to break the party over this issue. He has time. Hence, the issue is likely to be resolved amicably. 

Premadasa Power

An initial assessment undertaken after the SLPP announcement indicates that Premadasa couldpose a considerable challenge to Gotabhaya. Premadasa fully backed by Wickremesinghe could win. 

Given the dissatisfaction that prevails in the country against the incumbent government, anyone nominated by Mahinda Rajapaksa could easily win the presidential election. However, Gotabhaya’s selection reflects the overconfidence of the Rajapaksa family. Gotabhaya has been known as a tough man who finished off the LTTE. This history could alienate three specific groups: Tamils, Muslims, and liberal-minded pro-democracy Sinhalese.

An overwhelming majority of the Tamils would not vote for him. They would not have forgotten the fact that Gotabhaya provided leadership to the last phase of the war that was proven catastrophic to the community in term of humanitarian consequences. A majority of the Muslims would also hesitate to vote for him due to his association with anti-Muslim nationalist groups, especially militant monks. For example, it is believed that Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhala nationalist entity that spearheaded several campaigns against the Muslims, worked with Gotabhaya. There will be a mobilization of pro-democracy Sinhalese who mostly reside in urban areas, against Gotabhaya. 

A sense of fear will be ignited within these three groups, which could undermine Gotabhaya’s victory. The SLPP is aware of this challenge. In a recent interview, Basil Rajapaksa, the chief strategist of the SLPP, stated that “people need not fear former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and he would not become a strict leader” (Daily Mirror, August 13, 2019). Therefore, Gotabhaya has been fielded, knowing well that he will have a relatively narrow field.  

Nevertheless, what these facts suggest is that Gotabhaya’s electoral strength is in the Sinhala rural heartland. To be effective, the UNP candidate should be able to break the SLPP’s grip over this segment of the voters. Sajith Premadasa has a Sinhala nationalist outlook and has influence among rural Sinhala voters. He will be able to fetch adequate votes from rural Sinhala constituencies. In the absence of minority votes, losing rural Sinhala votes will be costly for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The electoral arithmetic indicates that Gotabhaya cannot win without overwhelming support from Sinhala voters.   

Premadasa’s problem is that he does not have adequate appeal among minority groups, especially the Tamils community. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe has a considerable following among the Tamil and Muslim communities. He could also appeal to liberal-minded pro-democracy groups within the Sinhala community. Therefore, Sajith Premadasa fully endorsed and sincerely supported by Wickremesinghe could win the forthcoming presidential election

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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