Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Sri Lanka Gearing Up For Presidential Polls

Like the weather in Sri Lanka this season, its political landscape has been marked by similar vagaries. The country is gearing up for the forthcoming Presidential elections on November 16th. The overall campaign scene in Sri Lanka so far has been quite muted, if not dull. Considering that at stake in this exercise is the election to the most powerful office under the country’s constitution, it is unusual, but not surprising. One reason for the lack of sufficient public interest is that the country is still coming out of the dastardly terrorist attacks of Easter Sunday. Many Sri Lankans feel that the two main political parties have little to offer that is new or exciting.

Former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse, who is also the former President Mahinda Rajapakse’s younger brother, was quite prompt in throwing his hat in the ring. As early as the beginning of the year, he had announced his plans to forego his American citizenship and resume Sri Lankan nationality to be able to contest for the top post. He has since changed his citizenship, but still questions have been raised regarding the legality of the process under the laws related to Sri Lankan Citizenship and other issues. Some of the points raised remain to be clarified, and are still pending before the courts.

Gotabaya Rajapakse had played a key role during the war against the LTTE. Analyst feel, he could follow in the footsteps of his elder brother’s policies. Mr. Gotabhaya has said that he would pursue the path of neutrality and work for the development of the country. He, however, could bank upon support from the Sinhalese community particularly in the south of the country.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe might have emerged as the candidate of choice for the right of centre ruling United National Party. Apart from Mr. Wickremasinghe’s own long-pending presidential ambitions; he could also be the most experienced candidate. Having held the office of Prime Minister five times, he has been a parliamentarian for four decades and leader of his party for 25 years. And yet, most people—including many in his own party—are not too enthused about him running for the presidency. They feel he has missed the bus, and instead would prefer someone younger and more dynamic. Sajith Premadasa, currently a Minister in the Sirisena government, and son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, seems to fit the bill. But with Mr. Wickremasinghe around, the party has not been able to come to a firm decision. That partly explains the rather dull and late start to the presidential campaign. Mr. Sajith Premadasa is expected to announce his candidature soon. It is only after that—and with two credible and strong candidates in the field, that the election campaign is likely to gather momentum. As against Mr. Wickremasinghe’s image representing the Colombo’s ruling elite, Mr. Sajith Premadasa commands a stronger base in the Sinhalese south. That, he partly derives from his father, Mr. Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had been a principal proponent of Sinhalese nationalist sentiment in his time.

On the whole, the stakes in the presidential race are expected to be even higher than would normally have been the case. That is so because early next year, the country is scheduled to go through fresh parliamentary elections. As in the past, the outcome of election to the all-powerful office of the Executive President in November is surely to have a strong bearing on the island nation’s parliamentary elections as well. It would be followed by the deferred provincial council elections. It is thus that despite the generally low tone of the campaign so far, it is expected to pick up momentum sharply in the coming weeks. It might even set the campaign mood for parliamentary polls that runs into the New Year.

India’s as Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour and friend would like to see free and fair polls. New Delhi had expressed her solidarity with Colombo in the aftermath of the Easter terror strikes. A democratic, pluralistic Sri Lanka could be an oasis of peace and development in South Asia too.

Script: M. K. Tikku, Political Commentator

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