With the SJB Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Sajith Premadasa, tactically bowing out of the contest, Wednesday’s vote to elect a stop-gap President for Sri Lanka has become as much challenging as it is interesting for the contestants and onlookers, respectively. Those who had concluded that with a three-cornered contest Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe was in a comfortable position are not tabbing figures to add up the ‘unknown’ numbers in the second round, which is where the election may now be decided.
In the race now is a ‘ruling’ SLPP rebel, Dullas Alahapperuma, a one-time acolyte of two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose chances have improved after Sajith’s SJB promised to support him. The SJB has 54 MPs on its rolls, but four of them have already ‘defected’ to the ‘ruling’ combine as it exists.
Second Round Holds the Key?
Ranil stands a safe and better chance in the first round. He is a one-member UNP parliamentary group and is dependent entirely on the largesse of the SLPP’s Rajapaksas. But there is again a problem there. The Rajapaksas, including Mahinda and his one-time strategist-brother and discredited former Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa, are silent.
An SLPP official, believed to be speaking for the Rajapaksas, claimed that they would back Ranil, and also reiterated the same when challenged. But party chairman and Foreign Minister GL Peiris has been backing Dullas Alahapperuma, pointing out that the latter had been elected MP on an SLPP ticket.
The other side is yet to respond to Peiris’ charge that the party parliamentary group had not met thus far to make a decision, and hence, unilateral announcements were not binding. But his also seems to be one of the same kind.
Sri Lanka Needs International Aid, and Ranil Is the Man for It
The SJB has openly declared that in return for their voting for Dullas, the latter would name Sajith his Prime Minister. GL Peiris, too, has endorsed the view, as if it were the SLPP’s decision, couching it in moderate terms that they were doing so to form a ‘national government’ with the nation’s two biggest parties, in this hour of economic and political crisis.
This is only half-true.
Even without it, Ranil is still seen as a better manager of international players – as Sri Lanka is excessively dependent on them now to make ends meet – and then take the first few but firm steps towards economic recovery, which could take a decade, if not more.
Indications are that if the winner is not chosen in the first round, the MPs’ second preference vote would be taken in to see who among the top two of the three candidates obtains a combined majority of 113 in a House of 225. It is expected that Dullas may get more SLPP second-preference votes than Ranil may get from the other side.
But then, if Ranil gets a respectable number of first preference votes, say, above 100, he would require fewer second-preference votes than Dullas, who would have swept if and only if all non-SLPP, non-JVP players voted for him without abstention or boycott.
On paper, the figures add up thus: SLPP 115, SJB 50, three groups of SLPP rebels, totalling 40, and JVP 3. Then, there are the minority party members, divided along three ethnicities and with multiple party identities.
Will the Protests End?
Clearly, a victory for Ranil Wickremesinghe is not good news for the protesters who had demanded and obtained the exit of all Rajapaksas over the past months. A centre-left section of the ‘Aragalaya’ struggle in Colombo’s beach-front and elsewhere in the country has reiterated its resolve to have Ranil ousted the same way if elected President as they see him only as a ‘Rajapaksa stooge’ imposed on the nation to protect the family from criminal action under the next government.
This section is often identified with the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the breakaway, self-styled ‘revolutionary’ section of the one-time militant JVP, since mainstreamed to ensure that the ‘people’s wishes’ are followed to the ‘t’. It has reportedly held on to the presidential secretariat that they had occupied after vacating the president’s official residence and the prime minister’s office.
The armed forces had foiled the protesters’ attempts to ‘occupy’ Parliament last week. This was followed by them parading their might through the streets of the capital.
Can the Power of People See the Light of Day?
FSP leader Premakumar Gunaratnam has been repeatedly pointing to the ability of the ‘people’s power’ to achieve their goal outside of constitutional means and parliamentary processes. He has indicated that they wanted other solutions, including a new Constitution and attendant policies, to be decided by the people and implemented by the nation’s constitutional leadership, as approved by the people.
This is typically ‘revolutionary’ in form and content, yes, but then Gunaratnam has since seemingly moderated his position to declare at a news conference that they were against armed insurgency of any kind.
Taken at face value, it raises the question, who, then, was behind the well-plotted arson in which the homes and properties of 78 SLPP leaders, from the Rajapaksas downwards, were gutted in one-and-half hours all across Sinhala South, on the evening of 9 May, hours after Mahinda Rajapaksa had quit as Prime Minister? And who was behind the 9 July arson attack on Ranil’s private residence in the heart of Colombo, hours after he had assumed informal power when Gotabaya fled the country?
Come Wednesday, these are also questions that would haunt individual MPs as they vote to choose a President from the three who are also one of them. A few leaders had reported receiving telephonic threats for them not to vote for Ranil Wickremesinghe, with the Speaker seeking police protection for individual MPs. But for how long is what Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena did not clarify.
(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & commentator. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)