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Sri Lankan election preview

22 May 2019 Asad Ali

On 21 May 2019, the chairman of Sri Lanka's Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya, announced that a presidential election would be held between 15 November and 7 December 2019. The country's main political parties - the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) - have not yet announced their candidates. The deadline for nominations is 20 October.

The powers of the executive presidency were diluted in a constitutional amendment in 2015, but the office remains influential, with the president retaining the ability to dismiss parliament, appoint senior members of the judiciary, declare states of emergency and to run government ministries. Since 2018, President Maithripala Sirisena has used his powers to challenge the UNP-led government and its policies, including a failed effort to dismiss Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in October 2018.

Significance

Sirisena, who leads the SLFP, has indicated that he intends to run again. However, we assess that he is increasingly unlikely to be nominated given the widespread criticism of both Sirisena and the UNP over the government's inability to prevent the 21 April Islamist attacks. Former defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is best-placed to secure the SLFP's nomination, or alternatively, run as a candidate for Mahinda's new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, which comprehensively defeated both the SLFP and the UNP in the February 2018 local elections.

A Gotabaya presidency, which would be likely to emphasize a strong stance towards national security and countering Islamist militancy, is unlikely to end recent policy paralysis and government infighting as we would expect him to continue a confrontational relationship with the UNP-led government. A comprehensive victory for Gotabaya, however, would indicate a fundamental move in popular support away from the UNP-led government over its handling of the Easter attacks.

In turn, this would indicate increased likelihood of SLFP regaining power in the 2020 parliamentary election. Such an outcome would be a clearly-positive indicator for subsequent government stability and its ability to formulate and implement policies. As a less favorable indicator for companies operating in Sri Lanka, an SLFP-led government would be likely to move towards closer relations with China and oppose broader economic engagement with the international community.

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Posted 22 May 2019 by Asad Ali, Senior Analyst – Asia Pacific, Country Risk & FCM, IHS Markit

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