August 17, 2019 (LBO) – Noise. That is how one can describe the presidential aspirations of the most talked about candidates in Sri Lanka today. Whether it is UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa or even current President Maithripala Sirisena, the airwaves are blanketed with moves and counter moves from each who are all publicly positioning themselves to be Sri Lanka’s next President.
In contrast to this noise, there is almost deafening silence from one potential candidate. He is the candidate who is in reality the best positioned to be elected by 50%+ of the Sri Lankan voters come three months time. While the other Presidential players are making big moves, trumpeting their virtues, and projecting their dominance, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is cool, calm and collective.
As the Presidential card game moves forward, one thing will become more evident. The likely truth is, the other players are nosily bluffing, while the PM is holding the trump cards.
Trump number 1 – The UNP electoral college
There is a small group of people who will ultimately decide who the UNP Presidential candidate will be. This group consists of the UNP working committee combined with the party’s Parliamentary group. Of this group of likely just over 100 people, all we have seen in the media are the ones who make noise.
Although their bark seems loud, the voices consistently against Ranil Wickremesinghe are the same dozen names who seemingly keep repeating themselves. They shout that Sajith should be the Presidential candidate, they opine that Ranil should give way, they demand that the working committee should be convened and a vote taken on who the UNP should nominate for President.
The noise makers hold rallies, give press conferences, and appear on television and newspapers. All this yet nothing happens. The working committee does not convene and a vote is not taken. The most likely explanation is that they simply do not have the votes to procedurally move the issue forward. The votes are likely with the person who is not making any noise. He doesn’t have to.
Trump number 2 – The Minority Vote Block
Any political analyst would have to concede that Ranil Wickremesinghe is the potential candidate who enjoys the most confidence among minority voters. This confidence has been built over decades of positioning throughout his political career.
Mahinda Rajapaksa as a dominant executive President made countless efforts to win the confidence of the minority communities, however still he still preformed poorly among those voters in the 2015 Presidential election. This time it will be even more difficult for his hawkish brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa to make inroads with minority voters. Gotabaya’s position is made even more difficult considering that there are just next three months till the election. He simply does not have the time to gain credibility with minority voters.
Trump number 3 – The Advantage of Incumbency
Everyone in the country knows the name Ranil Wickremesinghe. Although he is not the President, Ranil is the closest thing in the Presidential race to an incumbent. He is the Prime Minster of a UNP government that is in power. His party controls many of the levers of power, and more importantly, those who would oppose the UNP do not. He is firmly entrenched as the leader of the most prominent political party in the history of Sri Lanka. Although not completely in their control, the state machinery this time gives a material advantage to the UNP.
The Winning Candidate
There has been a constant chorus of criticism of the PM saying that he is not electable. The promotion of Sajith Premadasa by many in the UNP has been on the contention that he is the UNP front liner who has the best chance of winning the presidential election.
One need not look too far back to see that current President Mathripala Sirisena, a candidate with poor name recognition outside of his electorate, handily defeated former President and political icon Mahinda Rajapaksa. MR was an incumbent President with firm control over the state machinery and not far from the apex of his political career.
Ranil Wickremesinghe today stands in a far more advantageous position than Sirisena found for himself at the last Presidential election. After he is elected by the party as the UNP’s candidate for President, all the naysayers in the UNP will unify and instruct their supporters to vote for the PM. When all the leading UNP politicians including Sajith and Co. tell their voters to support the PM, it is not realistic to say that they will stay home. They will vote for the UNP candidate.
Whatever anyone says about Ranil, one has to admit he plays the equivalent of political three dimensional chess. When observing his conduct running up to the next election, it appears he can play a serious game of poker as well. Today, Ranil Wickremesinghe is underestimated, holding a good hand, stoically silent, with no emotion, keeping his cards close to his chest.
The Presidency is his to lose.