Photo courtesy of Newswire

Sri Lanka’s independent Election Commission announced late last week the conducting of a presidential election in accordance with the Constitution and the relevant statute between September 17 and October 16 2024. The announcement comes as no surprise since the term of office of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa being served out as president by his second prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, ends on November 17. The next president needs to be elected at least one month before the end of the term, giving the newly elected president a maximum of one month in which to transition to office.

The presidential poll has become a genuine three way race for the first time in our history with Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) being a surprising but genuine contender for the nation’s top job, along with incumbent president Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa. While political party or alliance names and symbols are constantly changing with every election cycle, the political forces they represent are largely the same from our recent political history.

Firstly the JVP or its newly minted NPP alliance would be essentially Sri Lanka’s old leftist tradition previously represented by parties such as the LSSP and the CP and now dominated by the JVP/NPP. The fact that the JVP or its leader is a credible presidential contestant has to do with the fact that the floating voter constituency deserting the Rajapaksas have initially looked to the JVP as the radical alternative to Rajapaksa populism rather than the more traditional and conservative opposition SJB. But for the JVP/NPP public support seems to have peaked. Moreover, a close look at its political messaging seems to indicate attractive rhetoric which empathizes with popular pain but which is thin on policy specifics and especially on solutions.

For the SJB and Sajith Premadasa, the 2024 presidential poll is still theirs to lose. They face a Rajapaksa administration that self-imploded and a reconfigured successor Wickremesinghe Administration, which has merely gone back to the status quo ante as its policy framework. The SJB and Sajith Premadasa need to articulate a radical reformist agenda which captures the heart and essence of the political ethos of the aragalaya. The Wickremesinghe Administration’s heavy handed crackdown on the aragalaya did not make its anti-incumbent and reformist politics go away; it merely created a two year, caretaker administration of Ranil Wickremesinghe until the real popularly elected presidency would come into office by before end 2024, much like the electorate waited patiently from 1975-77 when Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike postponed elections to boot out the SLFP in 1977. The SJB and Sajith Premadasa needs to articulate a clear, radical and reformist agenda as its vision for the future. As one foreign analyst of Sri Lankan affairs stated, “It is difficult for the SJB to be consistently on message, since it is not clear what its message is”. This may be rather unkind but there is a popular perception of a lack of clarity of what the SJB stands for, which is broadly articulated as reforms with social justice.

The hype and buzz in the popular press is about incumbent president Ranil Wickremesinghe, hoping and claiming that his technocratic stewardship of the bankrupt economy from mid-2022 to date would prompt a grateful nation to entrust the next five years also to a Wickremesinghe presidency, albeit this time with a popular mandate. Seems a tough ask from a real politick standpoint. Here is a president from a political party, the UNP, which couldn’t elect a single MP from any district at the last general election including Mr. Wickremesinghe from Colombo and was fortunate to get a single national list seat to enable him to re-enter parliament. His administration governs with the parliamentary support of the Rajapaksa SLPP, which lost its mandate in 2022 and whose public support is likely in the single digits.

The game changer for Ranil Wickremesinghe is supposed to be his stewardship of the national economy from its nadir in 2022 and indeed we do now have fuel in the petrol stations, no queues, low interest rates and manageable inflation as the president pointed out in parliament recently. However, this superficial analysis belies some basic realities. The Wickremesinghe Administration’s economic policy program has been no more than a return to the status quo ante or what existed before the madness and mismanagement of the third Rajapaksa term. There has been absolutely no attempt at governance reforms. On the contrary from the human immunoglobulin scandal to the e-visa fiasco and numerous unsolicited proposals to government, mismanagement has been more the norm. There has also been a regrettable backsliding on democratic freedoms from the Online Safety Act to the administration’s choice of IGP. The administration is now locked in stalemate with the Election Commission on its citizens committees and with the Constitutional Council over the appointments to the superior courts. Hardly the kind of thing we want for the next five years. Further the economic “stabilization” has occurred after a collapse of the currency and a decimation of the life savings and purchasing power of the vast majority of the country’s populace. According to UN and other independent estimates about sixty percent of the country’s populace have seen real incomes erode, living standards drastically fall and growing malnutrition among vulnerable sections of over half the population. There is unlikely to be much gratitude for the reconfigured SLPP administration nor its single seat UNP face.

The Wickremasinghe Administration is a UNP and SLPP combine and neither of these political parties likely have much public support in the country at the moment. The Rajapaksa support for Ranil Wickremesinghe will only have currency and value if the voters have given up on the ethos of the aragalaya and desire a fourth Rajapaksa term by proxy, which is highly unlikely. But we will know for certain before the year end.