Ranil puts his foot down



Monday 1st April, 2024

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have said there will be no election until the conclusion of the external debt restructuring process under the IMF programme; it will be over before the next presidential election to be held later this year. He has said so amidst pressure the SLPP is cranking up on him to dissolve Parliament. Some of Wickremesinghe’s close associates have said in no uncertain terms that the UNP does not want a general election held before the presidential polls. Thus, the efforts of Basil Rajapaksa, who is the leader of the SLPP in all but name, to cause a parliamentary election to precede the next presidential contest have come a cropper.

Wickremesinghe would not have flown in the face of the SLPP in this manner if he had not been fully confident that Basil would not be able to muster the support of 113 MPs for a resolution calling for the dissolution of Parliament. Several SLPP MPs have already switched their allegiance to the President, and it will be quite a gamble for Basil to try to have Parliament dissolved.

The Rajapaksa family cannot field any of its members at the coming presidential election for obvious reasons or find any other person loyal to it to run for President. It cannot back President Wickremesinghe because it is the UNP which will benefit in the event of his victory in the presidential race. The SLPP finds itself in a dilemma.

A parliamentary election preceding the next presidential polls will upend the election strategies of the UNP, the SJB and the JVP-led NPP. These parties have been busy marketing their leaders aggressively in the hope that they will be able to capitalise on securing the presidency to win the general election. Only the SLPP wants to face a general election first.

Basil says that if the presidential election is held first, the party of the winner will obtain a huge majority at the parliamentary polls. But this argument is flawed. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won the presidency for a second time in 1999, but her coalition, the SLFP-led People’s Alliance could not secure a parliamentary majority at the general election held the following year. Her weak administration collapsed in 2001, and the UNP made a comeback. In 2015, the UNP-led UNF could not obtain a majority of seats at the parliamentary polls, which came only a few months after the Yahapalana camp’s stunning victory in the presidential contest. In fact, if President Maithripala Sirisena, who won with the help of the UNP, had not queered the pitch for the prime ministerial candidate of the UPFA, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and ruined the UPFA’s chances of winning in the process, the UNF would not have been able to form a government in that year.

The fact, however, remains that the party which secures the presidency has a better chance of winning a general election. Similarly, a party that wins a general election has the edge over others in a subsequent presidential contest. The PA won a general election in 1994 and defeated the UNP in the presidential race that followed about three months later. Kumaratunga became the President. It is a case of sour grapes when Basil says no party should be able to obtain a steamroller majority in Parliament.

Basil is all out to have a general election held first to safeguard the interests of his family, and therefore one thinks that the opposite of what the Rajapaksas wish for is good for the country. Crooks in the SLPP might gain if a general election is held first, and their counterparts in other parties will benefit from a presidential contest held before parliamentary polls.

However, some benefits may accrue to the country if a general election is held first. The UNP is full of political dregs notorious for inefficiency, corruption and other malpractices waiting until their leader Wickremesinghe wins the presidency to crawl out of the woodwork and contest a general election. These elements will have to come out and face the public earlier if a general election is held first. The success of a President hinges on the capability of his or her parliamentary group to a great extent. A general election will provide the public with an opportunity to see what kind of persons the leaders of the UNP, the SJB and the NPP are going to rely on in Parliament to honour their pledges to resolve the present crisis and usher in progress. It could be argued that a leader is known by the candidates he nominates to contest elections.