By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, September 12: It appears that United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is ready to support the candidature of Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa for the Sri Lankan Presidency, if the latter agrees to abolish the Executive Presidency and makes him the Prime Minister in a parliamentary form of government, in which real power would lie with a Prime Minister enjoying majority support in parliament .
From the body language of Sajith and the brief statement he made after he emerged from talks with Wickremesinghe late on Tuesday, it appeared that the talks had been on the right track and that the consultations will continue. In other words, the indication was that the two sides were moving towards a meeting point.
Consultations will continue because a number of issues have to be settled. It was also reported that the minority parties and others in the Democratic National Front (DNF) would also be consulted.
Sources say that Wickremesinghe’s side had apparently out forward three conditions for support: 1. The Executive Presidency must be abolished by the next parliament to be elected in mid-2020. 2.Wickremesinghe should be retained as Prime Minister after the Presidential election at the end of this year with powers to function as per the 19 th.,Amendment of 2015. 3. The leadership of the UNP should continue to be vested with Wickremesinghe.
Since there is a widespread feeling within the UNP and its allies that Wickremesinghe cannot win a Presidential election, he ought to be happy if he is allowed to be Prime Minister and that with adequate powers. He is used to being Prime Minister, having been one for several terms. Though not a public figure who enjoys meeting people, he is an active parliamentarian and a knowledgeable leader well qualified to run a government in the modern world.
Therefore, being Prime Minister under Sajith’s Presidency may not be a bad bargain for him, besides being a practical solution to the current conflict in the party stemming from the need to win a Presidential election.
As for Sajith, a parliamentary system will enable him to become Prime Minister with executive powers any number of times. This is in contrast to the Executive Presidency which has a two-term limit. Sajith is only a little above 50 years of age, and therefore has many years to go before retirement from politics.
That Sajith’s followers are open to this arrangement was clear when one his top supporters said that many changes can be brought about, but the first task is to win the Presidential election, which can be done only with Sajith as the candidate.
Though Sajith had brazenly nominated himself as the candidate bypassing the official party process, in his heart of hearts, he knew that he needed the party’s stamp of authority. Only recently he said that he wants to be President with the blessings of Wickremesinghe.
In the past, several times, a ginger group of Young Turks in the UNP had pressed him to revolt against Wickremesinghe and take over the party. But he would always back out, sometimes at the last moment. He had always wanted to be in the good books of Wickremesinghe, the senior-most and the most experienced leader of the UNP. Quintessentially, Sajith is not a rebel, his recent utterances notwithstanding.
In the coming Presidential election, the minority parties will be playing a critical role as Sajith, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the JVP candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayaka will have divided the votes of the majority community, the Sinhala-Buddhists.
Sources in the minority parties say that their first choice for President is Wickremesinghe, but knowing that he will not be a winning candidate, they are ready to support Sajith though Sajith has not shown any interest in their problems and has on occasion, even portrayed himself as a dyed-in-the-wool, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist.
But for the minorities, he is UNP, and UNP has been their traditional ally among the mainstream Sinhala-Buddhist dominated parties. As one observer said, the minorities’ main aim in the coming election will be to defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is seen as being quintessentially anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim.
Gotabaya has been talking about economic development as the panacea for Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious conflicts. But the minorities say that the problem is not economic deprivation but a growing attitudinal hostility of the majority towards the minorities. This is why Gotabaya’s economic model of reconciliation does not appeal to the minorities.
But an essential condition for the minorities to vote against Gotabaya and for the UNP, is the unity of the UNP. Unity is seen as an essential condition for winning the election. A divided UNP may lead to many Muslims voting for the JVP or not voting at all, one Muslim leader said. The Tamils too will be less motivated to vote if the UNP does not close ranks backs one candidate.
In their talks with the UNP factions, the minority parties will of course bargain hard as each one of them has a list of demands, those of the Tamils being the longest. The Tamils’ wish list includes devolution of power beyond the 13 th.Amendment; investigations into and accountability for war crimes; release of occupied lands and political prisoners; and the tracing of the disappeared.
The Muslims want hate speech, physical attacks and harassment by the law enforcing agencies to be stopped. The Catholics want an independent inquiry into the April 21 blasts and adequate compensation for the life and limb they had lost. The Indian Origin Tamils want electoral constituencies to be re-drawn to give them greater number of seats in representative bodies. They also seek better working conditions and opportunities for education and advancement.
Minorities For Abolition of Executive Presidency
All minority parties want the Presidential system to be replaced by a parliamentary system. As Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman M.A.Sumanthiran once said: In a parliamentary system, the minority parties can influence the government every now and then as decision making will be in the hands of a cabinet responsible to parliament and not in an Executive President. While a Presidential candidate needs the support of the minorities in an all-Island election, he or she can very well ignore them after getting elected.
In case the UNP leaders agree to abolish the Executive Presidency as part of their deal for party unity, the minority parties will welcome it and lend support to the UNP Presidential candidate.
They would do this also because Gotabaya Rajapaksa is firmly wedded to the continuation of the Executive Presidency as he thinks absolute power is necessary for the execution of new policies and radical economic development and for ensuring national security from ethnic and religious terrorism.