Colombo, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Presidential hopefuls and escape-routes for the ‘hopeless’

The buzz in political circles these days is the possibility of there being a ‘common candidate’ (CC) to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for a second term in the event that a Presidential Election is called before he completes his term, most likely in January 2010.  Among the names thrown around for the CC post are those of former Chief Justice Sarath Silva and General Sarath Fonseka.

Of the two, the former’s name was spoken of in CC terms some time ago, but he has since been sidelined more or less by the latter, with wide publicity being given to probably exaggerated claims of a spat with the President.

All we know about Sarath Fonseka’s presidential ambitions is what the JVP has been saying.  The JVP, currently deep in the political wilderness, needs some oxygen and perhaps believes that Fonseka might provide some.  The JVP is caught in a bind, as many have pointed out.  It has to oppose the Executive Presidency. It cannot contest not because it is against the office but that it can ill afford to reveal its true and diminished political strength among the masses.  Hambantota, they probably understand, is not Sri Lanka and a JVP candidate getting anything less than half a million votes would see that party sink even further come a General Election.

Sarath Fonseka gives them the opportunity to have the cake and eat it.  The man will probably lose if he contested but will certainly get a decent percentage of the vote (provided that the UNP supports him or at least does not put forward a candidate of its own).  Sarath Fonseka will have to go home empty-handed if he loses and the JVP would get to keep the numbers (of votes he would poll).

Sarath Fonseka as a CC would help Ranil Wickremesinghe too.  Wickremesinghe, if he contests, will most certainly lose and lose badly.  If the UNP opts for an alternative candidate from the party, such as Karu Jayasuriya or S.B. Dissanayake, he runs the risk of conceding the leadership of the UNP to the candidate.  He keeps party and symbol (the JVP will not want to support any candidate who contests under the ‘elephant’ and with the colour green), someone else gets to lose and at the end of the day lives to fight another day.  Convenient!

Will Sarath Fonseka win, though (assuming he comes as a CC without a UNP candidate in the fray as well)?  It will be a tough.  CC Sarath Fonseka is not exactly Army Commander Sarath Fonseka.  Whereas Ranil Wickremesinghe might have a nod from the Tamil community in the North and East this time (Prabhakaran undermined him in 2005 and he’s not around now), that block-vote is not available to Sarath Fonseka.  Indeed, if we factor in Mano Ganeshan’s reservations as indicative of general Tamil sentiment regarding Fonseka, then the SLFP’s historical disadvantage with regard to that community would become a non-factor.  It will boil down, essentially to the Sinhala vote.

There is great admiration no doubt of Sarath Fonseka and the crucial role he played in executing the military offensive against the LTTE.  On the other hand, there has been very little denting in the popularity that Mahinda Rajapaksa enjoys for having given the leadership to ensure that the security forces will not be tripped somewhere down the line. The general public is aware that under any other President, the courage, commitment and skill of Sarath Fonseka would have yielded nothing.

Is the reverse true, one might ask?  That is, would Mahinda Rajapaksa had succeeded if not for Sarath Fonseka?  The truth is that while Fonseka played a crucial role, the Navy and Air Force Commanders as well as the Defence Secretary played an equal or even more important role in the overall offensive and it was the President’s leadership that gelled it all into a cohesive and successful effort.

A fresh face is always welcome, but freshness alone will not ensure election.  A second-place finish would take away much of the gloss that has accumulated around the persona of Gen. Sarath Fonseka and a second place finish is what he will probably get given the realities of the JRJ constitution, the political ground realities and the fact that as CC, he is ‘General’ only in name and without troops.

These are issues that Sarath Fonseka should worry about and I have no doubt that he will weigh the pros and cons of coming forward as a CC.  What is interesting to note in all this is what it says about the JVP and the UNP.  Well, let’s leave out the JVP out of kindness – it is destined to be an also-ran lagging way behind the contenders in a Presidential Election.  What of the UNP?

The whole CC-business indicates that the UNP just does not have what it takes to offer a reasonable challenge to Mahinda Rajapaksa.  This is not a good thing for democracy of course, but that’s how things are. Part of the blame can be laid at JRJ’s doorstep but a lot of it has to do with the kind of leader that Ranil is (or, more accurately, the kind of leader he is not!).   By opting for a CC, the UNP admits ‘we can’t defeat you Mahinda; our party doesn’t have a decent candidate and moreover our party is woefully out of touch with the sentiments of the general public’.

It is in Ranil Wickremesinghe’s interest not to contest and to have the UNP refrain from putting forward a candidate.  The UNP can support Sarath Fonseka as a CC but it is against Ranil Wickremesinghe’s interest to have the man win because that would be the end of his political career.  IF Sarath Fonseka comes forward as CC, rest assure that the UNP support for his candidacy will be lukewarm in that you will not find Ranil Wickremesinghe spearheading the campaign.

‘Sarath Fonseka as CC’ then says very little about the man, but a lot about the UNP, the JVP and Ranil Wickremesinghe.  It points to an interesting next few months though.  If that’s all we get from this foregone-conclusion affair (as of now), we’ll take it.  Elections might as well be fun events, after all.

  • james

    I think Sarath Fonseka will appeal to a certain segment as the victorious army commander and also to another segment as a non-political figure. All in all, I do believe if he is supported by a strong campaign, he has a decent chance of winning.

    Neither MR nor SF have much support from the Tamil community, so it will be interesting to note where the blocked votes from the last presidential election will fall this time around.

    We must not forget that if Ranil does support SF, he does have quite an influence with the north eastern voters.

  • Rukmankan Sivaloganathan

    What people seem to forgetting in this excitement over a possible challenger to MR is that SF is no enlightened statesman. In fact, if all the statements attributed to him over the past few years are true, then the man has a fascist, and maybe even racist, streak to him.

    If SF does enter the fray, then the Presidential election would certainly be interesting but that would be the extent of his contribution. I don’t think he’ll win. If he does, then hold on folks….and brace yourselves for the jump from the frying pan to the fire!

  • Disgusted

    First MR as Prez, then Sarath Fonseka. Who/what will be next candidate down the line? A real-life bomb, maybe? Any country that chooses a military man for Prez needs to have its head examined. A judge (for justice, for the rule of law) would be my choice.

  • ericsor

    One thing is for sure.
    If SF comes as CC then all those who bashed him as war monger has to do some major white washing.
    Remember one UNP MP Kiriella said “Any fool can wage the way”
    Will it become “Any fool can become our CC” then?

  • justice

    SL population should consider any candidate who supports speedy constituional change to
    1.accept all religions and Languages practiced in SL as state religions and languages.
    2.Implement meaning ful devolution of powers to the provinces in a symetrical manner to manage education,health and social service,land ,revenue and law & order.
    3.Accept democratically elected village level bodies to manage their local affairs.
    4.Fully implement 17 th ammendment to free the country of nepotism,independant judiciary,police force and civil service from political control.
    4.Who accept to encourage parliment to bring these constitutional changes along with a second chamber of house of parliment with equal representation from all provinces to have checks and balances of power to prevent presidential,parlimentary and provincial bodies.
    This should be the blue print for new ,modern,united SL With true participatory democracy without any discrimination or special treatment to any section of people.

  • It’s really quite simple.

    How do you beat MR and regain SL’s solidarity as a democracy?

    Ranil Wickramasinghe and the UNP despite all the setbacks have a clinched vote of 40%. This is for sure as all previous elections have proven.

    So how do we break the mass vote for MR of 60%?

    The Tamils must vote UNP and for Ranil.

    Sarath Silva competes as a JHU candidate breaking MR’s Sinhala Buddhist vote.

    Sarath Fonseka becomes JVP or independent candidate winning votes in all important Southern SL.

    Managala and Sajith campaign heavily in the south for Ranil. I am sure they can get at least another 5% of floating vote for Ranil.

    With the minorities vote Ranil now has scraped through to 50%.

    It’s a win win situation.

    It’s now or never. Ranil, the UNP, and it’s hierarchy must now spend all their funds to ensure their victory.

    I am no political strategist, but I think I do make some sense?

  • Das Appuhamy

    Sri Lankan politics cries for good wholesome leaders who can replace the current band of largely self seeking, corrupt, abusive, doubletongued, highway robbers who have nothing to show in their areas of responsibility.
    Sarath Fonseka, the gentleman achiever of highest order, is like a breath of fresh air in the arena of our politics

  • kusal bandara

    Agree with Das Appuhamy.

    Elephants on Acid you are out of this world. As of now many UNPers will not vote for Ranil W. and that is the truth. Your analysis is a perfect day dream. Let’s hope for CC such as SF or SS to challenge MR. Still need a very strong campaign to beat MR.

  • Observer

    Unless he plans to run Sri Lanka like the army he won’t stand a chance. The man is too clear cut and to the point. Not at all sly enough to be a politician.
    I just find it amusing (if he really is thinking about politics) his aspirations especially after calling politicians a bunch of jokers once. Especially the nice things he has said about Ranil. lol
    Far as I know he will end up dead if he runs. Juts a hunch. Believe me it’s not even MR that will do the deed. 😉

  • Champion of a lion

    SF will win easily against Mahinda. Remember Mahinda won only 50.28% in 2005. Take away 5%of the JVP vote and a good chunk of Sinhala Buddhist vote (which will no doubt fall into the pocket of SF, i myself will vote for SF if he contests) that will make it almost impossible for MR to get 50% and thus win.

    On the other hand the UNP’s block vote of 35% plus the JVP vote (5%) and together with the floating vote SF has a very good chance of winning.

    But the question is will he come forward and contest?!

  • Eraj

    What we seem to have discounted is the political and state machinery available to MR. Reminiscent of 2005 when he “brokered” himself into power with alleged support of the LTTE, he and his “team” will ensure that all possible avenues are exploited to ensure he “obtains” the required 50% mandate.
    There is no way any challenger can defeat an incumbent president in this country unless there is a catastrophic degradation within the said president’s party and a social upheaval of epic proportions. Even this may not suffice due to the levels of corruption, tyranny and lawlessness prevailing in this country and the power wielded by an incumbent executive president.
    Having said all of this the incumbent looks the only plausible option amongst the field of shambolic candidates .. (RW, SF, exCJ- SS etc) which is sad indictment of the present political and social climate prevailing in this country.

  • Jackson

    This whole discussion is a bit too premature. MR is not obliged to hold a presidential election just now. Come Sunday and we will know or will we?

    Whether it is SR or any other common candidate – this will be an entirely new political scenario. That is the JVP and the UNP backing a common candidate, Add SLMC, Mangala, Mano Ganesan and (let’s not forget Thondaman and Chandrasekeram, more often than not with the UNP at election time and also depending on what advice they get from acroos the Palk Straits).

    Do not count the Tamils out whatever SR’s past history. Politics in this country is not a morality play. Most Sinhalese leaders have commitetd crimes against the Tamils and other minorities from 1948 by acts of commission or omission. The UNP marginalised and weakened the Tamils most of all.

    Remember the 1982 presidential election when the TULF remained officially neutral – a section of the party leaders in Jaffna swung a sizeable vote to Kobbekaduwa (perceived as communalist).

    Much will depend on teh election manifestos of the several parties.The JVP is the only opposition worth talking about in the country today – on a wide range of issues. They have failed in not taking a position on devolution. But at the present juncture the position of both the UNP nor the SLFP are evasive on this issue. History repating itself.

    Hence lets us not rule out the possibily of a large chunk of the Tamil vote going for a JVP-UNP combine – not based on trust but as a first step in entering all-Island politics and away from separatism. If this happens it will be a major step forward in the direction of genuine integration baded on equality and justice.

    Jackson Sinnathamby


    After the Presidential election results are announced, Ranil Wickremasinghe will have the honor to be the longest serving Leader of the Opposition breaking Anura Bandaranaike’s record for the same position. As for the next Presidential elections in 2015, Mr Wickremasinghe may still prefer not to contest himself, but opt to put forward another complete outsider as with General Fonseka for the current elections. Perhaps since his options might have shrunk by then, he could take a chance in asking the Ven Tibbotuwa to give up robes and contest the Presidantial elections hoping that all the Sinhala Buddhists will vote for him. If this fails, Mr Wickremasinghe will still have another chance to put forward yet another outsider candidate in 2020. We wish him well in his run up to the Guiness Book of Records as the longest serving Leader of the Opposition soon.