They say death and taxes come to everyone. For most people living in a democracy, there is arguably a third – elections. Since the passage of the 19th Amendment in the first quarter of 2015, it was apparent that by the end of President Maithripala Sirisena’s five-year term, there would be Presidential elections. The expectation was that all the major political parties, indeed, even non-major political parties and candidates, would have to prepare for this eventuality.
The United National Party (UNP), which is the party that is currently in power and arguably should have been best prepared to make the strongest showing at the upcoming Presidential elections, nonetheless remains mired in internal power tussles. Every twist and turn in the fervently watched and breathlessly reported saga has been placed before the public for weeks with endless speculation of who will be the UNP’s Presidential candidate but there is little to no clarity on the matter.
At various times, the names of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya have been tossed about and debated. In the latest reporting over the weekend, Jayasuriya was presented as a possible ‘national candidate’ who could attract both the Sinhala Buddhist and minority votes at the upcoming Presidential election. Yet the direction of the decision-making process remains largely unclear and time is running out.
The Elections Commission has already indicated that, with Provincial Council elections out of the way, it is looking for a date in the second half of November. Since President Sirisena’s term ends on 8 January 2020 and elections have to be held at least a month before that, it was earlier speculated that a Presidential poll would be held in the first week of December.
However, given practical issues such as the Ordinary Level exams, peak tourist season, and an impatience among the public to see an end to the political stalemate, the elections could be pushed forward by a week or so. In any eventuality Sri Lanka will have a Presidential election within the next two months, which leaves the UNP, already late out of the gate, limited time to promote a candidate and carry out a strong national campaign.
Party leaders of the proposed Democratic National Front (DNF) are clearly feeling the contraction of time. They have requested the Presidential candidate issue to be resolved by the end of this week, which will present a rather tight timeline to the UNP. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had earlier stated it was up to the Executive Committee to make a decision and that he may present his name before the committee as well. But it is the UNP Leader who will have to convene the Committee and also accept the consequences of the decision they make.
The earlier deadline for forming the DNF was the end of August but that was a fortnight ago. The announcement of President Sirisena as common candidate in late 2014 showed that public momentum can yield unexpected results. But for this to become a reality, the UNP now has to make the most out of the time it has left. Declaring a Presidential candidate is the first step.