Colombo, July 21: The Sri Lankan opposition candidate Dullas Alahapperuma was all set to win the Presidential election on Wednesday. Leaders of almost all opposition parties and the rebels from the ruling coalition, were confident of the victory of their candidate.
As a rebel from the ranks of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Alahapperuma was expected to split the SLPP. He was to take away all those who disliked its chief organizer Basil Rajapaksa and those who were conscious of the cost of sticking to the SLPP in the current unfavorable political scenario. Several SLPP leaders’ houses were burnt on May 9. And on July 9, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s house was burnt.
Several parties in the opposition had pledged support to Alahapperuma, including the six-member SLPP rebel group led by Anura Priyadarshana Yapa; the 10-party alliance which left the SLPP alliance due to differences with Basil Rajapaksa; the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by former President Maithripala Sirisena; the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (SLMC) led by Rishad Bathiutheen; the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauff Hakeem; and the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) led by Mano Ganeshan.
The opposition lineup was indeed very impressive and the Alahapperuma camp was smelling victory. In contrast, there was anxiety in the Wickremesinghe camp though Wickremesinghe himself exuded supreme confidence as did the operations management personnel in the SLPP camp. The latter had kept up the chant that they had cast iron assurances of support from 136 to 138 MPs and that there was no cause for worry.
But in the meanwhile, some undercurrents were apparent to keen observers of the parliament scene. There were murmurs of disapproval in the ranks of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJP) led by the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa. They were disappointed that Premadasa opted out of the race in favor of Alahapperuma, who till April this year, was a staunch supporter of the Rajapaksas. The question as to why SJB should put up an SLPP man when one of their party men could have been a candidate. The argument that Alahaperuma would split the SLPP vote and put the Rajapaksas out reckoning did not wash. Premadasa’s leadership qualities had come into question again. He had again failed to seize an opportunity which had come his way. He had been a reluctant leader right through.
Then came the news that Premadasa and Alahapperuma had signed an agreement with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to implement all the latter’s demands. These demands included: acting on the resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC); releasing Tamil political prisoners within three months; releasing all private lands seized by the military; stopping the acquisition of the Tamils’ lands by government institutions; repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act; rendering justice to the families of Tamils who had disappeared; and the drafting of a constitution that would meet the long-standing aspirations of the Tamils.
The Dullas-TNA agreement meant that a government headed by Dullas Alahapperuma and supported by Premadasa would implement some things which no government in the past had done for fear of incurring the wrath of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. The agreement would not have been acceptable to the MPs, most of whom are Sinhalese-Buddhists. Rumors about a foreign country trying to influence the voting decision of the TNA might also have triggered a nationalistic sentiment.
Three other factors were at play, according to sources. The first was a feeling among a growing number of MPs that, at this juncture, when Sri Lanka is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis, it would be prudent to have a President who would lead the government with a deep sense of conviction and firm resolve. The outgoing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was dithering and took no steps to bring a volatile situation under control. With the security apparatus deactivated by a lack of orders, it was only natural that a section of the agitators went berserk. Key symbols of the State were stormed like never before. The nation was racing towards anarchy. But Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had the conviction and the strength of mind to stop the drift. And he did act after taking over as Interim, and subsequently, Acting President.
The second factor working in the minds of the MPs was Wickremesinghe’s suitability for tackling the on-going grave economic crisis. Given his long standing contacts with the international community, he would be better able to negotiate with international financial institutions like the IMF.
The third factor is the secret ballot. It gave MPs the freedom to vote according to their thoughts, preference and interests. MPs freely defined their party’s official choice. Thus, Wickremesinghe’ victory was the result of a variety of factors.
Though Wickremesinghe is not an SLPP man, he was de facto its candidate. And the power structure in the SLPP is dominated by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family. Would Wickremesinghe be puppet? May be not. He is a fiercely independent-minded person.
As for the Rajapaksas, it cannot be denied that the they have retained much of their power and influence in the party and in parliament, despite the persistent campaign against them, portraying them in the ugliest manner possible.