Power perceptions

Thursday, 5 September 2019 00:56 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. For Sri Lankan politicians, one can argue, power is also in the eye of the beholder. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) National Convention that wrapped up on Tuesday was to be the platform where President Maithripala Sirisena was to make clear his future political ambitions, but the message from the podium was more nuanced than expected. 

President Sirisena made no mention of whether he would contest for a second term, nor did he say that there would be another candidate from the SLFP. He also stopped short of giving a direct endorsement of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa even though both parties have been engaged in extensive coalition talks for months with even Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa meeting with President Sirisena just last week. 

Surprisingly 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. 

President Sirisena has made clear on numerous occasions that he has no regard for the 19th Amendment, calling for it to be repealed as it creates two centres of power. However, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa while also censuring the 19th Amendment believes that it creates a role for him as well. This is why the SLPP has always championed the idea of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa governing together because between them they could potentially unify the powers that were divided by the 19th Amendment. 

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to also be considering the impact of the 19th Amendment when he addressed the Maldives Parliament on Tuesday, pledging to abolish the Executive Presidency. It is unclear which way Wickremesinghe will swing in terms of the Presidential Election but he undoubtedly sees the compromise of a presidency with reduced powers.

Be that as it may all major political actors are also acutely aware of the public optics of the Presidential Elections. In a Parliament Poll Sri Lankan voters typically vote for the party that wins the Presidential Elections, so regardless of the 19th Amendment, winning the Presidential Polls puts that party in the driver’s seat ahead of the Presidential Elections. This makes the upcoming Presidential Elections a game worth winning. For the key contenders the power that lies in the Presidency and the Prime Minister posts are attractive enough. It is not just the amount of power but what can be done with it that counts.