Ranil’s Election Fright & The TNA’s Election Strategy

by Rajan Philips, Colombo Telegraph, June 8, 2024

It is tempting to ask if Ranil Wickremesinghe can electorally survive the referendum fast one that he got his cop-turned politico Party Secretary to pull on his behalf. Will Mr. Wickremesinghe even contest? Might his effervescent mind think of another pre-election ploy? Such as a special referendum to consult the people if he should contest the next presidential election for the sake of the economy? He could creatively interpret the constitution to justify such a referendum. But he will most likely not do it. It is not that he wants to absolutely make sure of his chances. It is only that he is not a natural for politics at the hustings. After forty seven years in politics, the man still lacks the fortitude when it comes to facing an election.

Rajan Philips

While President Wickremesinghe appears to be weighing his options: to run or not to run, like the proverbial Prince of Denmark, other potential candidates and political parties are publicly positioning themselves and outlining their platforms. The SLPP, now forced to wait on Ranil Wickremasinghe to make up his mind, is trying to launch a campaign without a candidate. Last week, the SLPP reportedly began its ‘battle from Rajarata’ (Satana Arambamu Rajaratin), for what and against whom no one knows. Not far away in Rajarata, the NPP responded in style a few days later. Anura Kumara Dissanayake went lyrical with a litany of people’s grievances and promising deliverance with the assurance of an NPP government just round the corner. 

In Colombo, Patali Champika Ranawaka made his own pitch at his Party’s (the United Republic Front) second convention, at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. It seemed well attended including outside personas who would not be otherwise seen together in the same place nowadays, namely, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena. The former is fighting for the soul of her father’s Party while the latter is fighting to turn it into a rickshaw for Wijeydasa Rajapaksha.

As for Champika Ranawaka, he has presidential ambitions and may not be in fear of elections, but he has no significant political organization to sponsor his candidacy. Yet the contents of his technocratic speech at the convention lend more weight to his considerable credentials as a candidate even though he has no viable campaign wagon of his own.

Absent in the pre-election posturing is the voice of Sajith Premadasa. A while ago I wrote comparing him to Rahul Gandhi in India, mostly for their ineffectiveness as political scions. The elections in India have proved many of us wrong, at least in the pre-election assessment of Rahul Gandhi. Contrary to predictions, Rahul Gandhi is the biggest winner in India’s mammoth election, and Prime Minister Modi is the biggest loser in spite of his threepeat success.

The Indian election results are more a pushback by the voters to the BJP’s hyper Modiyism than an endorsement of the opposition (INDIA) alliance. Yet the efforts and exertions of Rahul Gandhi in mobilizing the opposition to Modi’s dominance are now being acknowledged. Mr. Gandhi launched two cross-country marches in 2023 and again in 2024, covering over 10,000 miles in total, first going from south to north and then from east to west. The marches were laughed at, lampooned by his detractors, especially those in the pro-BJP media. Now, they are being credited for their mobilization success.

Maybe Sajith Premadasa could take a leaf from Rahul Gandhi and conduct his own marches in Sri Lanka – from south to north and from east to west. The journeys will be much shorter and far less arduous. But success cannot be assured, because in a presidential election there is no second place winner. The winner takes it all, unlike in a parliamentary election as in India, where Modi has been cut to size in spite of his winning, and Rahul Gandhi has made substantial political gains even though he could be nowhere near forming a government.

The TNA’s Hand

The TNA had its own marches – from east to north – not too long ago, and now it is reportedly getting ready to have discussions with all presidential candidates before deciding which candidate it can support in the election. The Daily Mirror (June 5) quotes TNA parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran articulating the TNAs position: “We will have to look at what the candidates come up with, and then we will hold discussions with them. Our final decision will be made only after this exercise.” 

He has also dismissed, as “dreaming,”  the apparent claim by the SJB that the TNA will be supporting Sajith Premadasa in the presidential election, while welcoming the “land distribution programme carried out by the government.” The government is Ranil Wickremesinghe. We cannot be sure if Mr. Sumanthiran is intentionally or otherwise tipping his hand about whom they might support. Supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe will not be without some controversy, but if Mr. Wickremesinghe opts to stay out of the race, the TNA will have to look for an alternative suitor.

In any event, evaluating the proposals of presidential candidates and deciding on one of them as worthy of support is a far superior approach to the lame brained suggestion to field a common Tamil candidate, or the dead end idea of boycotting the presidential election. And the top of the list questions to potential candidates should be about what concrete plans do they have to normalize the lives of the survivors and victims of war, how would resources be allocated to implement those plans, and what timing commitment are the candidates willing to make. Nothing less, of course. Nothing more, as well.

The people who are hurting on the ground need to have something on the ground that is material to their lives, and not some text about political structures over which there will never be any agreement between any two Sri Lankans. There is enough constitutional text to provide the framework for rehabilitating the surviving victims of war. The process of rehabilitation would in turn vitalize and revitalize the political texts and provide the scope for new actions and programs. That would be the approach of building from ground up, a surer political process, than the tortuous talk-down alternative of permanently tinkering with the constitution.

It would be interesting to see how the JVP/NPP would respond to the TNA’s intended approach. Will it dismiss it as ‘bargaining’ and, therefore, unacceptable to its political ethics? Or seriously engage with the TNA to see what meeting points there could be between them.

In fact, the exercise should not be limited to the TNA, and should be extended to include the political organizations representing all non-Sinhala-Buddhist sections of the Sri Lankan population. Even the Sinhalese Catholics have political grievances even though they do not have a political organization to represent them. All of this is not ganging up on the Sinhala-Buddhists, Sri Lanka’s natural majority, but seeking to expand the state, rather than divide, to equally include the island’s natural minorities.

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