Sri Lanka: Whoever wants to become President?


N Sathiya Moorthy 10 June 2019 

It’s becoming increasingly clear that all things politics, the Easter blasts’ probe too has been mired in personalities and individual egos, leaving aside the genuine concerns of individual communities and Sri Lanka as a nation. Yet, the presidential poll due by early January and possible before end-December is increasingly and incessantly upon the nation.

No one wants to believe the Opposition SLPP charge that someone up there wants to use the current situation, including the emergency, to try and delay the presidential polls by a few months. Pre-blasts, some leaders of President Maithripala Siirisena’s SLFP-UPFA were publicly toying with the idea of his getting the Supreme Court’s opinion if he could stay on for a couple of few months, citing certain provisions of the 19th Amendment passed by their broken alliance with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP-UNF and allied parties.

Rather, Parliament passed 19-A unanimously, so did the resolution for the House to act also as a new Constituent Assembly. While no one seems to have read the 19-A after that, no one is now bothered about the work of the CA, barring the TNA, which will have to defend its unholy alliance from Elections-2015, before the Tamil masses, who are as rudderless as they are restless.

It is also hence that the TNA is resorting to belated breast-beating to whoever lands in Colombo and whoever is willing to listen. The latest is Michele Coninsx, heading the UN counter-terrorism secretariat head, in Colombo, recently. How counter-terrorism and TNA’s political demands would go together is anybody’s guess. One begins where the other end, and not the other way round – or, in any other way.

The post-blasts media discourses on presidential polls are finally catching up and catching up with the reality of the constitutional situation. The nation can forget a new Constitution at least until the presidential polls. Whether there will at all be a new Constitution or not may be known only after the parliamentary polls that are normally due by mid-August next year – but may be advanced by a few months.

Though not at present, the President — Sirisena or another — can dissolve the current Parliament after February next year, of six months before the full five-year term is set to expire.  The irony is if PM Wickremesinghe’s UNP-led candidate wins the presidency, they may consider dissolving Parliament to early, to catch up on the mood of the masses. If it is otherwise, they may be confused whether to encourage cross-over and have a PM of their own, if only to send a ‘forgotten message’ to the same masses, or order fresh elections early on, as sought by SLPP boss and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Forgotten message

If for long Mahinda R is talking about the dissolution of Parliament and early elections, and PM Wickremesinghe is not talking about any of the polls, it is not without reason. As the chief architect of 19-A Wickremesinghe remembers what he has written into it. As the chief beneficiary or loser, Mahinda R knows what he may stand to gain or lose, as the case may be.

The fact is the nation, starting with the incumbent President seem to have forgotten that 19-A provides for a PM-run Government reporting to Parliament, and not an Executive Presidency, which was diluted, not abolished by the hurried Amendment ahead of parliamentary polls in 2015. At the time, 19-A provided only for Sirisena’s present term to enjoy some of the inherited powers of the Executive Presidency, which would become extinct with the present term.

Under the constitutional scheme after the presidential polls this time, the President will not have any ‘Executive’ powers as now. He cannot also hold any ministerial position, and hence cannot appear in Parliament at will. Better or worse still, the President can only be the Head of State, not of the Government or the Cabinet. Sri Lanka by then would have converted into a conventional Westminster governance system, as it used to be before JRJ usurped all powers for the Presidency – but attested by Parliament.

The question may arise the time of actual implementation that if such a make-over or change-over would require a public referendum, as it otherwise changes the character of the Constitution and of the governance scheme. Possibly unsure of the legal and judicial position, and also of possible public support, Team Ranil seemed to had devised a devious means of sorts to delay the question. The hour of reckoning may be upon the nation.

In a way, it would have been better if any of the stake-holders, including non-political persona, had used the ‘Ranil dismissal case’ last October/November, to agitate the issue before the Supreme Court and get a clearer opinion. Maybe, expanding the scope of the pending case might have been made possible if the ‘Parliament dissolution case’ had been taken alongside or together. Once he had submitted to the public mood, and hence the Supreme Court case, ‘interim’ (?) Prime Minister Mahinda R did not pursue his own petition, which otherwise might have provided a legal opportunity for obtaining a judicial clarification in the matter.

Today, barring Sirisena and possibly Gota Rajapaksa on the other side of the political spectrum, no one seems too keen to contest the December polls. The reasons are many, starting with the chances of victory given the unsure public mood and/or conviction that parties and leaders promising support would actually back it up with field-work when required.

It is possibly thus that Parliament Speaker and UNP veteran Karu Jayasuriya has said that he was willing to jump into the fray if all leaders of the party want him to do so. If nothing else, with his dignity intact for most parts, Karu J does not seem wanting to get caught in the unforgettable UNP cross-fire, which seems to have been suspended for the past five years – and possibly not more.

Positive signals

If after the presidential polls, the forgotten parts of 19-A were to come into force, will the UNP consider giving away the presidency to TNA veteran R Sampanthan, as the party would need to get the Tamil votes and MPs more than in 2015? After all, Sampanthan is among the senior-most parliamentarians, and his choice (even if he were to lose) could send out a ‘positive message’ to all minorities nearer home and Ranil-UNP’s western backers and sympathisers.

It is becoming increasingly clear that especially after the blasts, and the simultaneous alienation of not only the Christians but also the Muslims, the UNP can do without facing a political rout in the presidential polls, that too ahead of the parliamentary elections that would be only months away. The TNA too can do with some face-saving for the ‘past sins’, as they have been losing their Tamil support-base to usurpers and upstarts, as they may want to believe and also want the world too to believe.

It was under fear of losing to war-victorious incumbent in Mahinda R that the UNP thought of inducing then armed forces chief Sarath Fonseka to turn against his ‘political mentor’ and challenge him in Elections-2010. Fonseka, as expected, lost and lost badly. Five years later in 2015, still unsure of the unpopularity of Rajapaksa and thus lacking the confidence for a face-off, for a second time since Independence, the UNP under Ranil W made his international allies to talk Sirisena to revolt against boss Mahinda this time, and also talk the TNA, too, not to boycott the polls. Sirisena won, and he alone has remained the ‘winner’, if there was any from the ‘historic election’.

Possibilities all the way

The present situation has thrown up possibilities for and after the presidential polls. If the presidency is not worth it, post-poll, Sirisena may still be interested as he may not want to remain idle if he quit as promised before Elections-2015 and what better job he could aspire for? If the PM’s job is going to be more powerful after the presidential polls, who will want to give it to Sirisena, who cannot win it on his own politico-electoral steam, if any.

If, likewise, the PM’s jobs is going to be more powerful, why should Ranil or Mahinda covet it, or even Sajith Premadasa or Ravi Karunanayake, both from the UNP second-line, want the presidency unlike they are sure that they won’t get the job six months after the presidential polls? If either of them had aspired for the PM’s job (as it remained pre-19-A) and had promised to stay quiet through Elections-2015 and beyond, the question now is would they want the same job post-December, or would they be willing to settle for a ‘toothless’ Presidency? Was it also why either or both or all of the PM/presidential hopefuls in the UNP backed 19-A, interpreting it to their convenience, if only to convince the self at the time?

Less confusing and more confounding is the situation in the Opposition SLPP-JO – or, so it seems. It’s Rajapaksas and Rajapaksas and some more of Rajapaksas, all the way. So prima facie there is no chance or hope for another, nor is there going to be any rebellion of any kind. They all know that all the steady 45-percent vote-share is for Mahinda R, transferrable if at all, to Gota R, and none else, including the former’s son Namal R, now MP.

The irony is that even if none of the front-line leaders want to contest the presidency, their parties and alliances cannot afford to lose it, either. Much as Sirisena may want to aspire, even Mahinda R cannot ‘transfer’ his votes for the former to be able to cross the 50-percent mark, either in the first round or through the disturbing mechanism of ‘second preferential vote’. Hence is possibly the need for Gota to throw his hat into the ring, as brother Mahinda cannot defy 19-Aand contest the presidential polls again.

A Rajapaksa, especially Gota, in the ring means the UNP-UNF cannot throw it away to non-starters. In their estimation, Sirisena might have fitted the bill if only he had not turned against the party and the Ranil leadership, almost from day two, if not day one. The problem for UNP leaders is if they lose the presidential polls, the chances are that the party would want to dump him. Rather, the long queue of self-styled second-liners would cite his non-acceptance by the voters to dump him.

It is thus not unlikely that everyone from Ranil W downwards would not want to contest the presidential polls unless they are promised that their failure would not count in future parliamentary scheme. The question might arise if a presidential candidate, even if a failure, could contest a parliamentary seat, the polls separated only by a few months. This could mean that the party may have to give an advance commitment to the presidential candidate about a senior party post, including that of the ‘Leader’, which Ranil W may loathe to give up, now or ever.

Rajapaksa regime…

If conversely, it’s a Rajapaksa who is winning the presidential polls, and it is Gota, after the US of A favourably disposes of his application for surrendering American citizenship, the chances are that the President may dissolve Parliament in February, when constitutionally due. The chances under the circumstances would be that the SLPP-JO could win the parliamentary polls, with or without Muslim party support from inside or outside, but most definitely without TNA backing, still…

It could be that Mahinda would appear as PM and Basil, Namal, et al, would have ministerial jobs to fill in. Who knows, Chamal could return as Parliament Speaker, as earlier. It’s not that the Sri Lankan voter was upset over ‘family rule’ but was even more about ‘family mis-rule’, involving high-handedness, corruption and nepotism, which they could touch and feel as far away as native Hambantota and beyond.

Could it then mean that Gota may want to take up a more active role, this time as Defence Minister with the Police department, too, attached to him? If so, who will be the family’s new presidential candidate? It’s all interesting speculation for the media and the masses to comment about and whisper, but then it is also the stuff that is going to push the Easter blasts’ probe and controversies under the carpet – with some spill-over showing up every now and again, influencing or insulating the minority voters, the Muslims and Christians, especially, and possibly in that order.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University