UNP’s Winning Formula For The Presidential Election

By Rasika Jayakody

With former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa projecting himself as the presidential candidate for the SLPP-led alliance, the battle lines for the next Presidential election are already being drawn.

Expressing his vehement opposition to weak and fragile governments, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stressed the need for a strong government that can “discipline” the country and usher in rapid development, in interviews with several newspapers recently.

But the former Defence Secretary’s concept of disicipline should be analysed: His background as a former Army officer and an all-influential official central to the Rajapaksa defence apparatus should not be taken lightly.

At recent ‘Viyathgama’ and ‘Eliya’ conferences, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s allies have been underscoring the importance of a “strongman” ruler able to ensure political stability in the face of ‘external factors’ influencing domestic politics.

His Presidential campaign, however, will continue to dogged by allegations: The unresolved mystery of enforced disappearances, the ‘white van’ abductions and brutal assaults on journalists are likely to haunt the campaign.

Those who are vociferous in their support of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Presidential candidacy are often inclined to prioritise economic development over freedom and democracy, suggesting that their candidate will work to realise the dream of a developed nation “at any cost”.

It seems like they also feel that the general populace should have no objections to living under an authoritarian ruler committed to bringing about economic prosperity, even at the expense of democratic values and human rights.

This group has also made no secret of their desire to reverse to some of the progressive reforms introduced by the ‘Yahapàlanaya’ government, such as the establishment of a Constitutional Council and setting up of independent commissions.

The next Presidential election will, therefore, be a decisive battle between the pro-democratic forces that came together to defeat the October 26 coup and the regressive forces backing a strongman ruler who is averse to the dispersal of powers and of democratic reforms.

For this reason, it is clear, the election will simply be a continuation of the same struggle launched by diverse political groups and civil society forces that formed a broad, united front against the purported 51-day government.

And despite criticism over the UNP’s complacent and lethargic approach on many critical issues, the UNP-led alliance will be the rallying point for these forces at the upcoming Presidential election.

The UNP’s candidate will be the face of the pro-democratic campaign, and while the jury is still out on who should be the UNP candidate, several players are subtly positioning themselves as potential aspirants within the camp.

Despite all his unique weaknesses, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is still the UNP’s best bet for the Presidential candidacy, as he has shown a natural ability to unify diverse forces for a common cause—the reversal of the recent constitutional coup is a prime example of his abilities.

And while other presidential hopefuls within the UNP camp are trying to make themselves appealing to ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks and crooked media owners with vested interests, Wickremesinghe has also proven that he is able to work with diverse civil society groups and minority parties.

The key challenge for Wickremesinghe will be to overcome what is perceived as detachment from the aspirations of the grassroots-level supporters who form the backbone of the party’s voter base—he is often viewed and vilified as a leader more at ease with Colombo’s urban middle-class than with villagers in the periphery.

To overcome this, Wickremesinghe must nominate a suitable Prime Ministerial candidate at the onset of his Presidential campaign, entrusting him or her with the task of drawing the support of the grassroots level voters. The Presidential and Prime Ministerial candidates should complement each other and form a strong nexus that will appeal to a wide spectrum of people.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa are the two obvious choices for Prime Ministerial candidacy within the UNP. Jayasuriya has high-credentials as a level-headed politician with a strong Sinhala-Buddhist background and a statesmanlike persona, while Premadasa enjoys formidable support from the party’s grassroots level voters.

The UNP rank and file also need to come to the realisation that the party’s Presidential candidate must bring to the table a ‘package’ that is diametrically ‘opposite’ to what the Rajapaksas will field, rather than looking for a Rajapaksa-style package within their own camp to counter the Rajapaksas’.


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