Wickremesinghe’s UNP Still Divided Over Presidential Pick as Gotabaya Rajapaksa Gears Up For Crucial Race

Bengaluru: The Mahinda Rajapaksa clan has already declared its candidate for the Presidential elections due in November/December this year. The former president’s party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) — a breakaway faction of President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — named Rajapaksa’s younger brother and former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the nominee.

The nomination of Gotabaya, a former military strongman who is credited with ending the 30-year long civil war with the separatist Tamil guerilla group — Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — in 2009, has evoked both excitement and fear across the island nation. The Finance minister Mangala Samaraweera has called him a barbarian and urged voters to reject Rajapaksa family terming them as “corrupt and criminal rule”.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), which is still grappling with intra-party rivalries, is finding it rather difficult to decide on a presidential nominee.

52-year-old housing minister Sajith Premadasa is said to be the front runner for the top post and has already launched an unofficial campaign. The son of slain President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sajith, is a popular figure across Sri Lanka. He has won every Parliamentary election from the southern port town of Hambanthota since he entered politics over 20 years ago.

On Friday at a huge public meeting in the southern coastal town of Matara, Sajith declared that he is certain to be the Presidential candidate. Mangala Samaraweera, who also attended the meeting endorsed Sajith's candidature describing him as an honest minister who won't steal public money.

The British-educated minister has garnered the support of many UNP MPs and leaders. However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to not be in Sajith’s support as he is still hopeful for the top post.

Party insiders have claimed that he may back the candidature of Megapolis development minister Champika Ranawaka if he fails to get the nomination for himself. Ranawaka, a good public speaker can take on Rajapaksa clan, News18 sources said.

The Speaker of the Parliament, Karu Jayasurya, may also emerge as a dark horse, party sources further suggested. His conduct during the two months of crisis that racked the government last October and December is said to have won the hearts of Sri Lankans. Even after the Easter Sunday attacks in which almost 300 people were killed, Karu had appealed for calm and brotherhood attacking the majority Sinhala chauvinism.

A senior UNP minister on condition of anonymity said that Sajith nomination for the presidentship and Karu for the Prime Minister’s post would prove to be a lethal combination for the Rajapaksa clan in the elections.

However, Wickremesinghe, a Colombo elite with little grassroots level connect, is driving anxiety among the UNP supporters by delaying the decision.

A senior minister explained the dilemma that the party is facing and the scenarios that are likely to play out.

“In Sri Lanka, 70% of voters are Sinhalese Buddhists, 12% are Tamils, 10% are Muslims and 7% are Christians. Except for some Christians, all minorities are non-Sinhalese. Whoever wants to be the President, has to have a sizable number of minority votes – mainly Tamilians (Hindus and Christians) and Muslims. Sirisena could secure a victory in the elections with the two communities’ full support. Gotabaya is unlikely to get any of these votes. He is banking only on Sinhalese votes. Because of his father’s strong-arm tactics, Sajith may not get these votes either. That’s why Ranil is of the opinion that someone like himself or Ranawaka would be ideal. He hopes they can get votes from all”.

After the Easter attacks, there has been an invisible, undeclared boycott on Muslims in some parts of Sri Lanka, which has further alienated them from the mainstream. They are even threatening to boycott the Presidential election raising the hopes of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

A leading Sri Lankan Tamil journalist based in Toronto DBS Jeyaraj feels that the delay on Ranil’s part might even force Sajith to quit the UNP and contest on his own.

The Marxist JVP has already announced the candidature of its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake for the President’s post. Some local political observers believe that JVP can eat into Rajapaksa votes and thus help the UNP candidate. Several others have, however, argued that this would be advantageous for Rajapaksa’s clan.

But any further delay on the declaration of its candidate will be harmful to the UNP, local journalists said. Others disagree saying that the Rajapaksa clan seems to have lost steam by declaring Gotabaya’s name too early.

A big section of the civil society is advocating for a third candidate, someone with little experience in politics, to help the island nation come out of the series of crises it has faced. They are floating the names of Dr Ajith Rohana Colonne, who is known for his immense unique contributions as a public servant, educator, and figure who has stood for people’s development. A few others are fancying the idea of fielding a top businessman for the President’s post.