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Sri Lanka: State Of The Presidential Race – OpEd


When Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was formally nominated to be the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate for the upcoming presidential election, I wrote an essay titled, Sri Lanka: State of the Race. This essay adds to the discussion initiated in the first piece. The field has been further defined with the United National Party (UNP) announcement that it is fielding Sajith Premadasa, deputy leader of the party.


Bipolar Contest

As a general rule, Sri Lankan national elections attract a lot of attention. Presidential elections bring in too many candidates. For example, there were 13 and 19 candidates in the 2005 and 2015 presidential elections, respectively. However, presidential elections in Sri Lanka are mostly bipolar-contests where candidates of coalitions headed by the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) compete to win the office. This time also, there will be a multitude of candidates, but the contest will be between Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the UNP candidate. In other words, we will witness another bipolar-contest.

Therefore, when Gotabhaya’s name was announced in August, characteristically, the attention turned to the UNP. People wanted to know the UNP candidate. However, the party took 49 days (since the announcement of Gotabhaya’s name) to make the decision finally. The conventional wisdom is that the internal struggle within the UNP instigated by Premadasa’s quest to be the UNP candidate delayed the decision.

Wickremesinghe Strategy

In my first article on this subject, I pointed out that “Wickremesinghe will prevail if he is serious about contesting the presidential election.” I still believe that Wickremesinghe would have prevailed if he really wanted to contest. My theory is that he was not sure about his victory, and by delaying the decision, he was able to extract concessions from the Premadasa faction. According to reports coming from Colombo, the Premadasa faction has agreed to allow Wickremesinghe to continue as party (UNP) leader and the prime minister.

Also, conceding immediately to Premadasa’s demand to contest on behalf of the UNP would have conferred too much legitimacy on him. Moreover, Wickremesinghe cannot be blamed if Premadasa fails to win the election on November 16. Therefore, it was not surprising that Wickremesinghe himself proposed the name of Premadasa in the Working Committee meeting that was convened to decide on the candidate. Thus, the outcome of the internal struggle within the UNP was a win-win formula for both Premadasa and Wickremesinghe.


Premadasa’s nomination certainly has the potential to produce a close race. Under Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP-led coalition won about 33 percent of the national votes in the 2018 local authority elections. With the possible assistance of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has transformed into a UNP proxy, Wickremesinghe could have garnered only about 40 percent of the total votes. Hence, a contest between Gotabhaya and Wickremesinghe would have been a one-sided affair. Premadasa’s realities are different, which could threaten Gotabhaya’s chances in the election.


Nonetheless, it is imperative to note that against the backdrop of a relatively well-defined election, Gotabhaya has started the campaign with two relative advantages. One, he has kicked-off the campaign on a solid foundation as his party seems to have 45 percent of the national votes. These are the votes the SLPP gained the 2018 local authority elections.

There is no reason to believe that this chunk of votes has deteriorated. Therefore, his challenge is to win another six percent of the votes as the winning candidate needs only 50 percent plus one vote. His problems could be resolved if he could woo president Sirisena to back him officially with adequate concessions. If the SLPP could convince Sirisena to back him up, Gotabhaya could win the election with about 55 percent of the votes.
Two, he had about a month and a half additional time to campaign as the UNP was extremely slow to make a decision. He has been meeting with significant social groups and also encouraging eligible voters from abroad to return to Sri Lanka to vote for him. These strategies could pay off in the final count. Now, Premadasa needs to catch up.

Complicated Strategy

Premadasa starts the race with about 33 percent of the total votes. Therefore, he is about 17 percent short of the required 50 percent votes. His challenge is to build a coalition that could deliver 17 percent of the votes. This could be achieved by undertaking three specific tasks: (1) convincing President Sirisena to officially endorse Premadasa, (2) persuading the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to drop out of the race, and (3) geting the TNA to support Premadasa’s candidacy.

President Sirisena had been negotiating with the SLPP to make him the common candidate of the SLFP and the SLPP. The tag “common candidate” ensured his victory in 2015. Nevertheless, the SLPP disappointed Sirisena by nominating Gotabhaya unilaterally. Although disillusioned, Sirisena’s party continued the discussions with the SLPP, and the talks continue to-date.

However, while negotiating with the SLPP, Sirisena promoted Premadasa as an alternative to Wickremesinghe, leading to the notion that he might support Premadasa if he is nominated. Now Premadasa has been nominated. Therefore, it is “theoretically” possible that Sirisena would support Premadasa. This would add about 10 percent of the national votes to Premadasa’s tally.

The JVP desisted from contesting the presidential election in 2015, which ensured the victory of Sirisena as all pro-democracy force were mobilized against Mahinda Rajapaksa. This time, however, the JVP has already nominated Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The JVP has about six percent of the total votes. If the JVP does not contest, the pro-JVP votes could go to the UNP candidate. To win, Premadasa must convince the JVP to withdraw its candidate and support him.

One of the political objectives of the JVP is to abolish the executive presidential system. The party is the only political entity that consistently works on this project. Hence, one way to convinced the JVP to withdraw its candidate is to promise the abolition of the executive presidential system. In the past, the JVP had been taken for a ride on this issue. Hence, it will not be easy to get the JVP to withdraw its candidate. Nonetheless, Premadasa could consolidate his position if he could win over the JVP before the election. This will be the most challenging task for Premadasa.

Winning the president and the JVP would place Premadasa close to the fifty percent votes required to win, but, perhaps not enough. This is where Tamil votes could become handy. In the last election, Tamils overwhelmingly voted for the candidate (Sirisena) fielded by the UNP. Therefore, with a little bit of convincing, the TNA would directly or indirectly endorse Premadasa and fetch some votes from the Tamil community. Convincing the TNA will not be cumbersome if Ranil Wickremesinghe is involved. Successfully executing these three strategies will most likely help Premadasa to win the election.

Rural Sinhala Heartland (RSHL)

One of the potential sectors Premadasa could target is the RSHL. The RSHL voters are profoundly pro-Rajapaksa, and this will be Gotabhaya campaign’s source of strength. Penetrating this segment of voters has the potential to weaken Gotabhaya’s campaign. Wickremesinghe did not have adequate support in the RSHL. His base is overwhelmingly urban and middle class. However, Premadasa has the capacity to penetrate this sector. He has a Sinhala nationalist outlook, and his father, former president Ranasinghe Premadasa also had considerable support and admiration in the RSHL. Hence, I am sure he will have a strategy to woo the pro-Rajapaksa voters in the RSHL.

Hence, at this point, Premadasa could not be underestimated. However, his success depends on a complicated set of factors and the effective execution of strategies. On the other hand, Gotabhaya has to secure President Sirisena’s endorsement.

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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