Chairman of the National Election Commission (NEC) Mahinda Deshapriya is in an unenviable position. Earlier he came under fire for his alleged failure to push for the Provincial Council (PC) elections; now, he has drawn heavy flak from the SLPP for asking the government to hold the PC polls before the next presidential election. He is accused of conspiring with the government to postpone the presidential polls though he has made it very clear that the NEC is ready to conduct both elections before the end of this year. The UNP and the SLFP are wary of facing the PC polls, and the SLPP should make its position known. Does it also want the presidential election to precede the PC polls?
The UNP and the SLFP are not ready for the presidential election though they have launched their presidential campaigns. The former cannot decide on its candidate as there are three contenders—Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. The SLFP has no such problem; it wants President Maithripala Sirisena to seek a second term, but he is in two minds. He cannot be unaware that odds are stacked against him. Chances of the SLFP succeeding in coalescing with the SLPP and having Sirisena fielded as the presidential candidate are remote. The SLPP wants to forge an alliance with the SLFP on its terms; it says it will name its candidate next month. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is widely thought to be its choice. Having fared well at last year’s local government polls, the SLPP is confident of winning the next presidential election as well, but in psephological studies the extrapolation of the results of a local level electoral contest to a national election is not usually encouraged.
The challenge before the SLPP candidate won’t be just outperforming his UNP counterpart; he will have to prevent other candidates from eating into the anti-UNP vote bank so as to prevent a run-off. The JVP has said it is disillusioned with common candidates and will field its own presidential candidate. This will make the SLPP candidate’s task even more difficult because the JVP has a block vote.
The JVP’s entry into the 1982 presidential race adversely affected the SLFP as it caused a split in the anti-UNP vote. JVP candidate Rohana Wijeweera polled about four percent of the total number of valid votes. SLFP candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa could secure only 39 percent and President J. R. Jayewardene won comfortably by polling 52.9 percent. Even if the JVP had not contested, Kobbekaduwa would still have lost because the SLFP was divided at that time and a section of it wanted him to lose. However, the fact remains that the JVP inflicted heavy damage on the SLFP politically and secured a sizeable chunk of the anti-UNP vote.
The JVP contested a presidential election again in 1999 and managed to poll as much as four percent of the votes, but President Chandrika Kumaratunga won the race. Her victory was mainly attributed to the sympathy vote she got due to a terror attack on her at her final election rally in Colombo. Having skipped three presidential elections thereafter and supported three different presidential candidates—Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005), Sarath Fonseka (2010) and Maithripala Sirisena (2015)—the JVP is left with no alternative but to face a presidential contest if it is to remain relevant in national politics.
The SLPP candidate will also have to vie with a couple of anti-corruption activists who are desirous of entering the presidential fray to get their message across to the public and offer an alternative to the electors, especially the youth, who are disillusioned with the main political parties. With the proliferation of social media networks, the youth vote will be a deciding factor in the presidential contest.