The Elections Commission is expecting about 20 candidates to contest the upcoming Presidential Elections and has called on political parties to submit their intention on whether or not to field a candidate. The surprising inclusion in that, at least to some extent, was the decision by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to put their own candidate into the ring despite ongoing talks with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
The announcement came on Thursday night and prompted a fresh round of talks between the SLFP and the SLPP. The SLFP informing the Elections Commission of their intention just days after the national convention when President Maithripala Sirisena made no mention of plans for the Presidential Elections came as a shock to many political observers.
During the talks on Friday the SLFP and the SLPP attempted to play down the curve ball decision with SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera insisting that the option of a separate presidential candidate was just a backup plan in case their negotiations with the SLPP fail. This appeared to substantiate speculation that President Sirisena was looking to bolster his chances of getting a better outcome from the coalition talks.
SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also present at a separate meeting with the SLFP and told media he was confident the latter would back him at an upcoming election. However, reporting over the weekend has suggested that the SLFP may be playing a tougher game than initially indicated. Reporting suggests that the SLFP is leaning on the SLPP to adopt the chair as their symbol, which would be difficult given that the latter has been using the flower bud as their publicity symbol for years. A second challenging demand has been deciding the quota of SLFP parliamentarians before the Presidential Elections.
During his speech at the national convention Sirisena skipped over the Presidential Elections completely and focused on the Parliamentary Polls instead. Whatever the outcome of the Presidential Elections, many are expecting a Parliamentary Poll to be announced in the first quarter of 2020 as the winning party attempts to build a clear path to power by getting Parliament on its side as well.
At that point President Sirisena believes the SLFP will play a significant role in deciding the party that will hold Parliament. He also told the convention gathering that, thanks to the 19th Amendment, powers of the Executive Presidency would be stripped to the extent that the Prime Ministerial post would become more important and the central point of power.
He then counselled the party rank and file to focus on building a Government in 2020, clearly referring to the Parliamentary Elections. Therefore it would seem that President Sirisena has not given up hope of using the SLFP vote base to get himself an influential position in the next Government.
On the other side of the divide the meeting between Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe and UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa did not take place as expected yesterday and it is unclear what path the latter will take after Wickremesinghe had said he will take his application up before the UNP Executive Committee.
Obviously of the 20 possible candidates only two or at best three will really matter to the voter and this is what the general public is focused on.