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.