presidential election fixed by the Election Commission for November 16 has the
potential to bring about far reaching change to the country both in terms of
political parties and the leadership at their helms. It is therefore a
double transition that the Sri Lanka faces at the current juncture.
Change is generally resisted. Ironically, the last minute attempt to
abolish the executive presidential system, which is a radical change, can also
be seen as a manifestation of resistance to change. In a meeting with
civil society last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe cautioned that
unless accompanied by electoral reform that permits the establishment of
decisive majorities in parliament, the abolishing of the executive presidency
by itself could lead to unstable government.
Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who are the leading
protagonists in the bid to abolish the executive presidency have been
contradicting each other as to whose idea it was to summon the emergency cabinet
meeting. A statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office states that
the president made an early morning phone call to the prime minister regarding
holding a special cabinet meeting on the day that the meeting took place and
this led to the emergency meeting. However, whether initiated by the
president or prime minister, the purpose of the meeting was to decide on the
ways and means to abolish the executive presidency after the elections had been
emergency cabinet meeting occurred in a context in which the three leaders of
three of the main contending political parties have found themselves either
unable or unlikely to be able to contest the presidential elections.
There was a confluence of interests to abolish the most powerful and
prestigious elected office in the country that could have motivated the
meeting. However, the attempt failed because the move to abolish the
presidency was delayed too long, and particularly ill-timed as the move came
from out of the blue as it were after the Election Commission had fixed the
date of the elections and called for nominations to be filed. The timing
has also caused a doubt about the motivation of the move.
four main contending parties at the forthcoming presidential elections.
They are the SLFP headed by President Sirisena, the UNP headed by Prime
Minister Wickremesinghe, the SLPP headed by Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa
and the JVP headed by Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Three of these four leaders
either cannot contest or have no chance of victory if they do contest.
President Sirisena heads a party that has split into two leaving him with the
smaller part. He has been unable to make himself a contestant with a
reasonable chance of winning due to his inability to reach agreement with the
larger part led by the opposition leader.
leader Mahidna Rajapaksa who heads the SLPP, which demonstrated that it had
become the most formidable political party in the country at the local
government elections held in February this year faces a problem of transition
of leadership within his party. This is on account of the 19th Amendment
to the constitution that was passed by those who defeated him at the 2015
presidential election, which reintroduced the two term limit on the presidency
that existed in the original version of the constitution. The
presidential candidate put forward by the SLPP, his younger brother Gotabaya,
is today projected as the candidate most likely to win the forthcoming elections.
He would thereafter become a natural leader of the party.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake has become a popular choice amongst those who want to
see value-based change in the country as opposed to change that more narrowly
focuses on national security and economic growth, as does the SLPP. But
the JVP's constituency has traditionally been small, and this election is
unlikely to yield much of a difference. So the likelihood of
victory is remote. Out of the four leaders only Prime Minister Wickremesinghe
has a possibility to contest the elections and win. However, he finds
himself being challenged for the position of presidential candidate by a
substantial section from within his own party who see his deputy leader Sajith
Premadasa as being more likely to be a winning candidate. This also
corresponds to sentiment in the larger electorate.
condemnation of the institution of the executive presidency by many, and its
being a campaign promise at successive presidential elections, the presidency
continues to also have its supporters, not only from amongst those who are
self-interested, but also from the perspective of the national interest.
It is the one institution for which the entire voting population vote as one
electorate. The executive presidency continues to be an institution of
power that can dominate the course of government even with the reduction of its
powers due to the 19th Amendment. The internal conflict
within the ruling party regarding who should be its presidential candidate is
due to the recognition of the continuing legal and moral powers of the
minute attempt to abolish the executive presidency prior to the presidential
election was a leadership decision. Its failure was largely due to
opposition from supporters of Sajith Premadasa. This shows that the
problem of transition needs to be faced. It is important that the
transition that takes place corresponds to the interests of the country.
During the past four years there were many achievements that need to be
recognized and appreciated. These include improvements in the legal
framework for the protection of human rights, promotion of national
reconciliation and the strengthening of practices of good governance. However,
the changes on the ground are less visible, as compared to previous periods.
is about paying heed to the wishes of the people and especially about their
choice of leaders. In a liberal democracy, the leaders need to ensure
that they operate within the rule of law, which comprises respect for the
rights and aspirations of minorities. In the run up to the presidential
elections, the overwhelming desire on the part of both ethnic and religious
majority and minorities is that there should be change on the ground that
directly benefits the people. There is a desire that the policies and
plans of those at the leadership level should be translated into visible
actions on the ground. The SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa promises one
type of change on the ground. The UNP needs to present the electorate
with a candidate, or a team, who can match this.