Sri Lanka’s Upcoming Presidential Election: Navigating Political Crossroads
Dr Anchita Borthakur, Research Associate, VIF
Introduction

On 09 May, the Election Commission of Sri Lanka ended the long-drawn speculation and declared that the upcoming Presidential poll in the Island nation will be held between September 17 and October 16 this year. With this announcement, Sri Lanka has finally entered the election season with different political parties yearning for public support in its first election after the Aragalaya protest that rocked the country in 2022. Therefore, this election, which is to be conducted against the backdrop of several socio-economic challenges faced by the South Asian nation, is expected to play a pivotal role in shaping the country’s future trajectory.

May Day Musings: Poll Aspirations of Major Political Parties

The major political parties had already showcased their strength and electoral aspirations on May Day (1 May) with rallies being held across the country which seemed a “prelude to their poll campaigns.” [1] While addressing a Colombo rally organized by his United National Party (UNP), President Ranil Wickremesinghe said that his government took few stringent measures for economic recovery with assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and Asian Development Bank which was the need of the hour; but challenged the main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People's Force) and the center-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP or People’s Liberation Front) on their responses regarding these pertinent issues. [2] On the other hand, speaking at SJB’s May Day rally in Colombo, the leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa stated that "a government led by us [SJB] would establish a national wealth fund with the goal of ensuring a more stable economy.” [3] A massive rally was organized by the JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP) coalition in the capital where its popular leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake had highlighted that his party’s supporters should create “Sri Lanka’s biggest people’s movement, in order to bring in a new era” [4] in the political landscape of the country. It is reported that among all the gatherings, the attendance was highest at the JVP/NPP rally. [5] Similarly, speaking at the SLPP’s (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) May Day rally, former President and incumbent SLPP Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa had claimed that the ruling “SLPP is the only Party to date with the capacity to build the country and therefore any Presidential candidate who wants to win the upcoming Presidential Election must have the support of SLPP.” [6] Interestingly, SLPP Parliamentarian Dr. Gayashan Nawananda has reportedly joined the May Day rally of the UNP in Colombo[7] leading to the speculation of broad-based alliances between different political parties as the country gears up for the forthcoming election.

Steadfast Steps: Sri Lanka’s Economic Recovery Journey

Sri Lanka is undergoing an economic transition after the island nation was hit by a devastating economic crisis in June 2022—the worst since its independence. According to a World Bank report published last year, Sri Lanka’s economy is expected to grow by 1.7% in 2024 after contracting by 3.8% in 2023. [8] Inflation fell from a peak of 70% in September 2022 to 4.0% in December 2023. [9] However, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka has projected a more optimistic growth of 3% for this year. [10] According to Sri Lanka's central bank, the inflation rate in the country decreased to 2.9 percent in April from 3.8 percent in March of 2024. [11] The World Bank also raised its forecast for Sri Lanka's economy at the beginning of April this year, projecting a growth of 2.2% for 2024. [12] In March this year, the IMF team reached a staff-level agreement with the Sri Lankan authorities on the second review under the economic reform program supported by a 4-year Extended Fund Facility (EFF) arrangement. [13] In the same month last year, Sri Lanka secured a $2.9 billion bailout from the IMF, helping it to control inflation, increase state revenues, and rebuild foreign exchange reserves after its economy collapsed in 2022. [14] The tourism sector, one of Sri Lanka’s largest foreign exchange earners, has achieved much growth fetching USD 342 million in January 2024, an impressive 122 per cent jump from last year. [15] But despite economic improvements, the opposition and sections of the public have opposed the government’s economic reforms including its tax reform measures, accusing them of catering to the needs of the elite class, leading to further polarization of the domestic politics. [16] Therefore, in this election, repairing/rebuilding the economy of the country will be the main agenda for all the political parties.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Electoral Playbook: Tactics & Strategies

The current President Wickremesinghe is assumed to use the card of his so-called courageous decision to accept the challenge of leading the country during a precarious time, when no one was willing to accept the responsibility, and guiding the nation on the road to economic recovery; although limited, yet a commendable achievement[17], as a part of his winning strategy. Moreover, it is speculated that Wickremesinghe intends to project himself as the ‘national candidate,’ without any party symbol, supported by the Sri Lankan people across ethnic, regional, and religious lines. [18] According to eminent journalist D. B. S. Jeyaraj, in the upcoming election, “Wickremesinghe would be an independent candidate backed by a coalition or alliance, but without officially being an alliance candidate. What is importantly noteworthy is that this coalition or alliance would not only be a collection of political parties alone, but would be an assortment of parties, segments of parties, and party individuals leading to many people joining forces cutting across party lines or political alignments." [19] Various sources reported that several SLPP ministers led by Prasanna Ranatunga[20] have already declared their allegiance to Wickremesinghe as the Presidential candidate. [21] Similarly another group of MPs from SLPP, despite being loyal to their mother party, have formed a loose alliance by re-aligning under Nimal Lanza to support Ranil. [22] Moreover, a group of dissenters of SLPP MPs, who declared themselves as independents, under Anura Priyadarshana Yapa are formally supportive of the incumbent President. Wickremesinghe’s projection of himself as the ‘national candidate’ demonstrates how the current President is not only in need of party support, but also requires the votes cast by the MPs at the individual level and mobilization of votes by them in support of him.

Last month, the Sri Lankan President and his visiting Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi inaugurated the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project (UOMDP) which is believed to be utilized by the former as a strategic opportunity to generate favorable publicity in the wake of the Presidential election. [23] In fact, it is alleged that some of the politicians had attempted to use the ‘success’[24] of this project to tarnish the image of the opposition NPP which had a substantial mass base and had objected to the project due to environmental concerns. [25] However, only time will tell how far they will be successful in this endeavor. Moreover, Wickremesinghe’s administration is also accused of suppressing dissent, committing human rights violations, and adopting draconian laws like the Online Safety Act, Anti-Terrorism Bill, etc. leading to the decline of his popularity among certain sections of the public. [26] In addition, Ranil’s election as President with SLPP’s support (despite UNP’s lack of numerical strength in the Parliament) after the protest in 2022 had allowed his opponents an opportunity to ridicule him as a Rajapaksa puppet. [27]

Fragmented Fronts: Sri Lanka’s Divided Opposition

However, the opposition seems as fragmented as ever. The country’s main opposition party, SJB, which was formed as a result of the split within Wickremesinghe’s UNP party, appears divided on the issue of economic reforms. Despite criticizing the current regime’s economic austerity measures and tax hikes, a recently unveiled economic policy document[28] by the same party stated that SJB supports engagement with the IMF which made left lenient MPs to accuse the SJB of being no different from the incumbent government, further strengthening divisions within the party. [29] Moreover, the inclusion of ex-SLPP stalwarts in the party has become another significant irritant among a few members and leaders of SJB. [30] Furthermore, it is believed that the present President of Sri Lanka is also trying to ally with a certain section of SJB members— especially the breakaway faction of UNP. Most interestingly, several Sri Lankan newspapers have reported that Sarath Fonseka, the chairman of SJB, with the support of a group of party MPs and MPs from other political parties, might split from the SJB to run for Presidency. [31]

NPP, probably the most popular political alliance especially among the youth and middle-class strata of the society, has also couldn't come up with an alternative economic model for the state. NPP Opposition Parliamentarian Dr. Harini Amarasuriya has stated that a future JVP-led National NPP Government will look into the best interests of the people when negotiating with the IMF according to a transparent program. [32] However, the alliance seems to lack a proper economic strategy to "increase local production, provide employment, and earn a trade surplus." [33]

However, the Institute of Health Policy’s (IHP) Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey (SLOTS) MRP conducted in March 2024 estimated that NPP/JVP leader AK Dissanayake had the support of 44% of all adults in the forthcoming Presidential election, ahead of Sajith Premadasa, the SJB leader, with 41%, President Ranil Wickremesinghe on 8% and a generic SLPP candidate on 7%.[34] NPP under Dissanayake rose to prominence during the aftermath of the Aragalaya protest, calling for a social revolution to get rid of corruption, and promising a new political culture to improve governance and ethnic reconciliation in the country. [35] But how far the party will be able to translate the dissatisfaction of the Sri Lankan people against the policies of the mainstream parties into votes is the biggest question mark at present. However, due to its growing popularity as a major political force in the country, even foreign governments including India have been trying to engage with the party in recent months. [36] This marked a significant shift in the once militantly Marxist JVP (currently a part of the NPP coalition), a movement that was violently anti-Indian in nature; but is now seemingly open to engagement with New Delhi[37] (despite asserting their opposition to the Indo-Lanka Accord signed in 1987).

Role of Minority Parties in the Forthcoming Election

In this backdrop, it is assumed that the minority community voters will play a decisive role in the impending Presidential Election. Even though the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism will be a major factor in the election, the Sinhala vote is assumed to be trifurcated between three prominent candidates i.e. Wickremesinghe, Dissanayake, and Sajith (although their parties are yet to officially announce the Presidential candidates); therefore, the Tamil and Muslim votes, if delivered en bloc, may determine the winner of the next election. [38] The biggest Tamil political party, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), with its new leadership (considered to be a hardliner), will definitely play an instrumental role in the Tamil-inhabited areas of the country. While Wickremesinghe himself has made overtures to ITAK in the past; [39] the government and the opposition – be it the SJB or the NPP – are yet to officially form an alliance with the Tamil party. [40] In the 2019 election, for instance, the SLPP openly courted the votes of the Muslim community, even in the backdrop of the Easter attacks, while the then New Democratic Front (NDF) Presidential Candidate Sajith Premadasa[41] secured support from Sri Lanka’s main Tamil party. [42] Time and again, Wickremesinghe has re-confirmed his support for the 13th Amendment as a solution to address the minority Tamil community's grievances and their long-pending demand for political autonomy. [43] In March this year, as a positive gesture the President released 234 acres of land, previously held by the Jaffna Security Forces Headquarters, to farmers in Jaffna, the Tamil-dominated capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka[44] and once a major base of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Now with the election fast approaching, the major political parties are likely to form alliances with the minority parties in the coming days to secure their share of votes.

Conclusion

To conclude, amidst complexities and uncertainties, Sri Lankans are preparing to cast their ballots at the end of this year. However, neither of these major political party candidates is likely to have the full mandate and public support in the coming election. Therefore, election time political alliances/alignments/re-alignments will be significant. At the current juncture, the challenges faced by the country are manifold with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) recently stating that the uncertainty surrounding the next elections in the island nation may jeopardize the country’s economic recovery[45] process. Already, Sri Lanka's local body polls have been postponed indefinitely due to a so-called shortage of funds. [46] The parliamentary election is also scheduled to take place next year with few politicians vouching for the national election first, before the Presidential one. [47] In this polarizing scenario, the outcome of the forthcoming Presidential poll will be crucial with voters wanting a radical change in the socio-economic and political landscape of the country. No doubt, the next President of this Island nation will face a myriad of challenges; however, the results of this election will determine Sri Lanka’s long-term stability, its economic recovery process, and this geo-strategically significant South Asian nation's place in the regional and global world.

Refernces

[1] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-political-parties-flag-poll-aspirations-on-may-day/article68132338.ece
[2] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-political-parties-flag-poll-aspirations-on-may-day/article68132338.ece
[3] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-political-parties-flag-poll-aspirations-on-may-day/article68132338.ece
[4] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-political-parties-flag-poll-aspirations-on-may-day/article68132338.ece
[5] https://dbsjeyaraj.com/
[6] https://www.themorning.lk/articles/B5LAVQbwcwlnamcUTAWW
[7] https://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=98957
[8] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/srilanka/publication/sri-lanka-development-update-2024
[9] https://www.vifindia.org/article/2024/january/23/Sri-Lanka-Is-the-Worst-Over#_edn2
[10] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/senior-us-official-discusses-sri-lankas-imf-program-colombo-2024-02-24/#:~:text=Sri%20Lanka's%20economy%20is%20estimated,of%203%25%20for%20this%20year.
[11] https://www.cbsl.gov.lk/en/news/inflation-in-april-2024-ccpi#:~:text=Headline%20inflation%2C%20as%20measured%20by,from%203.8%25%20in%20March%202024.
[12] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/world-bank-raises-sri-lankas-growth-forecast-22-2024-2024-04-02/
[13] https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2024/03/21/pr2494-sri-lanka-imf-staff-level-agreement-for-second-review-sla
[14] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/world-bank-raises-sri-lankas-growth-forecast-22-2024-2024-04-02/
[15] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/rest-of-world/sri-lankas-tourism-sector-sees-122-per-cent-growth-in-jan-2024-compared-to-last-year-says-minister/articleshow/108179292.cms
[16] https://thediplomat.com/2024/03/in-sri-lanka-the-political-opposition-remains-as-fragmented-as-ever/
[17] https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Ranils-evolving-strategy-to-win-2024-presidential-poll/172-281445
[18] https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Ranils-evolving-strategy-to-win-2024-presidential-poll/172-281445
[19] https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Ranils-evolving-strategy-to-win-2024-presidential-poll/172-281445
[20] https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Ranil-Ralla-Will-Wickremesinghe-ride-on-a-winning-wave/172-281909
[21] https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Ranils-evolving-strategy-to-win-2024-presidential-poll/172-281445
[22] https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Ranils-evolving-strategy-to-win-2024-presidential-poll/172-281445
[23] https://thediplomat.com/2024/04/will-the-uma-oya-multipurpose-project-impress-sri-lankan-voters/
[24] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/inaugurating-a-new-political-culture-with-the-uma-oya-project/
[25] https://thediplomat.com/2024/04/will-the-uma-oya-multipurpose-project-impress-sri-lankan-voters/
[26] https://www.hrw.org/news/2024/02/14/under-ranil-wickremesinghe-sri-lanka-going-fast-reverse
[27] https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Ranil-Wickremesinghe-caravan-moves-on-despite-barking-dogs/172-281020
[28] https://economynext.com/sri-lanka-main-opposition-sjb-unveils-economic-policy-document-ahead-of-local-polls-112594/
[29] https://thediplomat.com/2024/03/in-sri-lanka-the-political-opposition-remains-as-fragmented-as-ever/
[30] https://www.dailymirror.lk/worldnews/breaking-news/Sarath-Fonseka-slams-Sajith-Premadasa-over-alliance-with-Daya-Ratnayake/108-276042
[31] https://www.dailymirror.lk/top-story/Sarath-Fonseka-to-split-from-SJB-to-run-for-President/155-283142
[32] https://www.themorning.lk/articles/30SAMUgZwJytGhjxeTT1
[33] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/aragalaya-effect-vs-imf-effect/
[34] https://www.ihp.lk/press-releases/sajith-premadasa-41-closes-gap-ak-dissanayake-44-presidential-election-voting-intent
[35] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/aragalaya-effect-vs-imf-effect/
[36]https://thediplomat.com/2024/02/sri-lankan-leftist-coalitions-india-visit-raises-its-profile/
[37] https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/anti-india-or-just-anti-tamil
[38] https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Tamil-and-Muslim-voting-trends-in-Presidential-Elections/172-282447
[39] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/as-talks-with-tamil-parties-drag-ranil-pledges-full-implementation-of-13th-amendment/article66383091.ece
[40] https://thediplomat.com/2024/03/in-sri-lanka-the-political-opposition-remains-as-fragmented-as-ever/
[41] https://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=58738
[42] https://thediplomat.com/2024/03/in-sri-lanka-the-political-opposition-remains-as-fragmented-as-ever/
[43] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-president-wickremesinghe-backs-india-mooted-13a-as-solution-to-tamil-communitys-demand-for-political-autonomy/article67709392.ece
[44] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lankan-president-ranil-wickremesinghe-releases-234-acres-of-land-in-jaffna-for-farmers-use/article67980134.ece
[45] https://www.businesstoday.in/latest/world/story/uncertainty-about-forthcoming-elections-may-jeopardise-sri-lankas-economic-recovery-adb-425388-2024-04-13
[46] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lankas-local-body-polls-postponed-indefinitely-due-to-lack-of-funds/article66725596.ece
[47] https://economynext.com/basil-wants-general-election-first-for-a-balanced-sri-lanka-parliament-154658/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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