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Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka political update: Presidential race begins

    Lakshini Fernando
    Asia Securities
    20 September 2019
    Published by

    Presidential election on 16 November; up to 18 candidates likely to contest

    The election commissioner called for Sri Lanka’s much-awaited presidential elections to be held on the 16 November; nominations must be finalised by the 7 October. According to the commissioner, there could be as many as 18 candidates for the upcoming election.

    Notably, as a result of the 19th constitutional amendments, the new president will have fewer powers than predecessors; the prime minister and overall parliament will have more power.

    In our view, some of the key themes all candidates will address are 1) national security, 2) slow economic growth (2Q 2019 growth came in at 1.6% YoY), 3) corruption and 4) rising ethnic divisions.

    Controversy unfolds with unsuccessful move to abolish the executive presidency

    In a surprising turn of events, Mr. Wickramasinghe who was key to passing the 19th amendment, attempted to fast track a move to pass the 20th constitutional amendment. If passed, this would create a figurehead president, while executive powers will essentially be passed onto the parliament. In our view, this is a controversial move just after elections were called by the election commissioner. This also indicates the heightened friction within the United National Party (UNP). Notably, for such a vote to be passed, Mr. Wickramasinghe would need a 2/3 majority in parliament, which would require the support of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP).

    This was further highlighted given that this initiative was primarily met with opposition from his own party members who have been in support of Mr. Premadasa being named as the UNP candidate.

    UNP and SLFP yet to name potential nominees

    With less than three weeks to go for the nomination deadline, the UNP is yet to announce its party candidate. While media reports indicate that Prime Minister Wickramasinghe will make an announcement on the 25th of September, it is noteworthy that this announcement has been postponed in three separate occasions so far. The UNP was scheduled to announce the commencement of the Democratic National Front (DNF) in early August, which was postponed as a result of opposition by the UNP working committee. This clearly indicates ongoing friction within the party going into elections.

    Recent media briefings and discussions indicate that there are three possible candidates from the UNP, 1) Mr. Wickramasinghe, 2) deputy leader of the party, Mr. Sajith Premadasa and 3) the current speaker of parliament, Mr. Karu Jayasuriya.

    While Mr. Premadasa has been actively engaging in country wide rallies despite not being officially nominated, not all senior members of the party are behind Mr. Premadasa to be the next presidential candidate.

    The SLFP of which President Sirisena is still eligible to contest through, is also yet to name a candidate. While no dates are set for an announcement, it is widely speculated that the SLFP could back the SLPP or Mr. Premadasa given the lack of popularity in the current setting. However, the SLFP secretary has informed that the party will announce its candidate for the 2020 elections.

    SLPP ahead of the game in naming candidate

    Ending days of speculation, the SLPP was the first party to announce its candidate, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa by mid-August. Mr. Rajapaksa’s main election promises revolved around 1) heightened national security, 2) creating an environment for private sector growth and 3) quick implementation of government plans. It was also revealed that if Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is elected, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa is likely to become Prime Minister.

    However, one of the main questions remain on Mr. Rajapaksa’s eligibility to become President in the event he is elected given his dual citizenship in the United States. While Rajapaksa claims he has the necessary papers to prove his withdrawal of citizenship, this has not been clarified by the Election Commission. Our discussions with political analysts indicate that despite the status of his dual citizenship, Rajapaksa can still be nominated. However, being elected in the event of winning the Presidential elections will depend on the outcome of the renunciation of his US citizenship.

    JVP announces nominee for the first time in 20 years

    Meanwhile the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) under the National People’s Power Movement announced its leader, Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake as its presidential candidate for the upcoming elections.

    Interestingly this is the first time in nearly 20 years that the JVP has nominated a presidential candidate. During the 2015 elections, the JVP supported the United National Front which ultimately led to the Wickramasinghe-Sirisena victory.