Opinion: Sumanthiran should seriously consider a run for the Presidency

Member of the Tamil National Alliance M. A. Sumanthiran looks on during an television interview outside the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in Colombo on November 13, 2018. - Sri Lanka's Supreme Court on November 13 overruled President Maithripala Sirisena's dissolution of parliament in a major boost to sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's fight to reclaim the post from an arch-rival. (Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP) ( LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

September 28, 2019 (LBO) – Sri Lanka’s Presidential election is set for November 16th, just 50 days away. At this juncture there are three significant candidates that are expected to poll a significant share of the vote. Gotabaya Rajapaksa (SLPP) will likely get 40+%, Sajith Premadasa (UNF) will likely get 40+%, and if the previous local government elections where the JVP polled 711,000 votes are an indication, Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) is likely to poll somewhere around 5%.

Count of Second Preferences

In the above three candidate scenario, it is more likely than not that no candidate will poll in excess of 50%. In this situation, for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka’s Presidency, there will be a count of second preferences.

During the count of second preferences, the top two candidates move to the next round. Then the second preferences of all the losing candidates are counted, and later added to the totals of the top two candidates. Then the candidate with the most votes wins. A candidate will be declared the winner after the second preferences are allocated, even if he or she has less than 50% of the total votes polled.

The JVP

The JVP is contesting the Presidential elections after a long hiatus. The last time they contested was 1999 where they polled 4% with 344,000 votes. The JVP is expecting an even better performance this time, coming off of the 2018 local government elections where they polled 5.75% islandwide with 711,000 votes. They are contesting in a unique environment where there seems to be voter apathy and discontentment with the major political parties. This election has presented a unique opportunity for them to show their strength. The JVP campaign is led by an affable 50 year old leader, who kicked off his Presidential campaign with a surprisingly well attended rally at Galle Face Green, the largest public space in the city of Colombo.

The UNP and the SLPP

These two major parties are both running candidates that are attractive to the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority. Sajith Premadasa (52) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (70) both have inherited family political legacies, and both seem to have embraced populism and nationalism. One of these candidates will almost certainly become the next President, although the road to get there is winding to say the least.

Liberal Voters and Civil Society

This influential voting block, with 50 days till the election, still hasn’t seemed to have found a comfortable home. Their candidate of choice was likely Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Jayasuriya had articulated a clear platform based on abolition of the Executive Presidency and Constitutional reforms. His platform was a continuation of the reform agenda that produced a significant margin of victory in the January 8, 2015 Presidential elections.

Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran PC

M. A. Sumanthiran is a 55 year old product of Colombo’s Royal College. He is a Tamil Methodist Christian who has held significant positions in the church hierarchy. A lawyer by profession, he is a President’s Counsel who has been on the forefront of several fundamental rights cases of national importance. Recently, he was a key advocate giving submissions in front of the Supreme Court, on the illegal dissolution of Parliament during Sri Lanka’s recent constitutional crisis.

Sumanthiran is the spokesperson of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest political party that hasn’t indicated where their support will go in the Presidential election. If he decides to contest the Presidency, it is almost certain that he will get close to 10% of the votes based on the loyal voting patterns of his own political party.

However, what if he could get more? What if Sumanthiran can poll votes from other minority groups who are disenfranchised with the two major political party candidates who are both politically moving closer to their Sinhala Buddhist electoral bases? What if he could poll votes from the Christian communities who have also been victim to ethno-religions tensions?

Sumanthiran’s credentials and track record also make him a natural candidate for liberals and civil society who are seeking a champion. Sumanthiran has embraced the issues of Constitutional reform and civil liberties that they hold most dear.

Second Preference

The fact that this election will be decided by a second preference makes a Presidential run by Sumanthiran even more meaningful. Voting for Sumanthiran would not be wasting a vote, as one can give a second preference to one of the other major candidates. If someone votes for Sumanthiran, it is not giving away the election to Gotabaya. The second preference of a Sumanthiran voter can deliver a victory to Sajith Premadasa, while protecting the influence of the liberal and civil society platform.

The Clean Campaign

Sumanthiran, unlike the other major candidates who will be attacking each other, can run a positive and clean campaign. He can focus on social media where his civil society support will be strong. He can be a voice of peace and unity during a campaign which is likely to me messy and divisive.

Ironically, it is a campaign with Tamil candidate Sumanthiran at the helm that can unify Sri Lanka under an agenda that strengthens the Constitution and protects civil liberties. If he does decide to throw his hat in the ring, he may surprise all by polling over 20%. A vote share of this magnitude will go a long way to ensuring the January 8th mandate is carried forward. The next President will be unable to ignore it.