Sundays are becoming more significant in Sri Lanka. It was on a Sunday that former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was declared as the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and just a week later Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has also thrown his hat in the ring to be the presidential candidate from the National People’s Power (NPP) movement.
This is the first time the JVP is contesting a Presidential Election in over two decades. Some could argue it is not under the best of auspices as the Presidential Election now looks set to be a three-horse race, which would splinter vote bases in unpredictable ways. Elections often boil down to a numbers game and given that it is unlikely hard-core Rajapaksa voters will deviate, it is possible Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s candidacy will draw votes away from a United National Party (UNP) candidate.
It is obviously too early to speculate on outcomes as many are awaiting an announcement from the UNP. There is also a possibility, albeit a slim one, that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) will announce its candidate or at least its decision on whether or not to field a candidate at the Presidential Election when it holds its party convention on 3 September. There is also the possibility that the Supreme Court could decide on holding Provincial Council Elections first, which would derail all preparations for Presidential Polls. But for now it makes sense to focus on what is confirmed.
Dissanayake’s candidacy is positive for many reasons. As JVP Leader, Dissanayake has led the battle to protect Sri Lanka’s democracy many times, most recently during the constitutional crisis. He has also steadfastly stood for the rule of law and has called out corruption in both the main parties with equal disdain. His speeches are legendary and attract a large cross section of society and are arguably more appealing than those of any other parliamentarian. Dissanayake, along with other key JVPers, has consistently been rated as among the most active in Parliament, demanding answers and pushing for accountability from the highest levels of Government. Dissanayake has quite a clean record and is a career politician, which is important as a president has to be able to navigate the complicated Sri Lankan political system. He is seen as a credible alternative by voters who are tired of broken promises dished out repeatedly by the major parties. If the crowds at Galle Face Green were anything to go by, his campaign is capable of drawing large crowds – but how many of them will be genuinely invested in building a fresh political movement? For that is the aim of the Dissanayake candidacy. It is the start of a movement that is attempting to create a new political culture.
The politically savvy will dismiss his chances of victory but it nonetheless opens up new options for voters. Even if Dissanayake comes last in the presidential race, it provides the momentum for the JVP to do better in the Parliamentary Elections expected early next year. If it can increase its seat numbers significantly, it will present a tough challenge for anyone attempting to roll back the 19th Amendment and other institutional safeguards.Dissanayake is probably the one candidate voters can depend on to complete the abolishment of the Executive Presidency. The JVP has also updated its economic agenda to be more market friendly and could find resonance with the private sector if its ideas are clearly communicated. But perhaps the most important thing that Dissanayake provides to thousands of disillusioned and desperate voters with moderate and liberal ideals is hope.