Wijith DeChickera writes that while much is riding on the presidential contest, an election alone isn’t enough to shape the destiny of our nation…

I am lost for words. There are a record number of challengers vying for the executive hot seat. Since nomination day saw 35 of the 41 aspirants seal their respective deposits by signing on the dotted line at the Election Commission office, we can assume this plethora of contenders remain in place. Should a few more withdraw from the field – to add to the shock exit of Nagananda Kodituwakku, as well as the perhaps not so surprising failure to hand in nominations by Chamal Rajapaksa and Kumara Welgama – the pack will not narrow much.

There is much riding on this most contested and controversial of polls. First, each one of this large and diverse offering of candidates – a woman contender after a while, two monks, and several former and incumbent MPs among them – feels personally motivated to pluck the plum.

Then the throwing of his hat in the ring by a former army commander introduces a fresh spin to the usual equation of a showdown between the major parties. And last but not least, other frontrunners scrambling for preferential votes necessitate a second round count.

Should either of the two big guns be able to woo the demonstrable 17 percent of the voting population that comprises the swing vote, they’d be doing the near impossible.

Analyses of traditional voting patterns over the past four presidential elections suggest that an estimated 39 percent always plumps for ‘green’ (a combination of the United National Party – UNP – and its allies) while approximately 44 percent customarily ticks the box for the ‘blues’ – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its constituent alliances or breakaway factions.

The only wobble in this established pattern was when the blues and greens allied briefly in 2015. That alliance has seen its wheels come off since. There will be no repeat, as for the first time a sitting president has opted – as has the in-situ premier – not to contest a second term… for this relief, many thanks; and so say almost all of us!

CAUSE But seriously, there is cause for concern. On the one hand, the traffic clogging rallies on nominations day showcased how dismissively the main candidates’ supporters treated the Elections Commissioner’s solicitation of a peaceful and orderly election.

This may give rise to fears about fairness and freeness on election day. The larger than usual field may cost the taxpayer a whopping Rs. 5 billion but the greater cost may well be to civics and governance.

On the other hand, with the likely victor being either UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa or former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who is running from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – there is bound to be a raising of the populist temperature in the polity.

Our short-lived experiment with democratic republicanism may well be reduced to strongman showmanship of one calibre or another. That previous incarnations of populist regimes – the Premadasa and Rajapaksa presidencies – ended in tears is plain. Yet, their avatars persist in it.

PAUSE Then again, one might confess a certain unease about manifest destinies and mighty silences. While several candidates showed a commendable grasp of political and economic realities at a ‘public platform’ for presidential aspirants last month, few if any at all expressed a desire to drive the national reconciliation or transitional justice agendas.

And people with common sense as much as savvy political philosophers may well reflect that the problem with populism is it becomes so unpopular with the minorities as to cause rebellion and even revolt.

And in a milieu where national security concerns are foremost in citizen as well as contender minds, human rights activists could be forgiven for being transparently alarmed at the shape of things to come.

That civil society from media to the more civilised man and woman in the street are under a cloud (no matter who wins) is not alarmist. But only an active call to citizen vigilance against erosion of liberties won – yet, not entrenched enough in recent times.

CLAUSE There is also the vexed issue of political form. We face another presidential election with no clear indication as to the fate of the beleaguered executive. Both major candidates are likely to relish what’s left of executive power even under a presidency whose wings have been clipped by a 19th Amendment to the Constitution. And unless the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) garners a million votes at the presidential poll – boding big things for it in the parliamentary election to follow – the 20th Amendment goes down the tube.

Which reminds me that unlike in previous years (where the reverse held true), this time round it’s the case that the presidential will set the tone for parliamentary polls. Whoever wins the hot seat may well carry the house.

Therefore, it is to the legislative political culture – the president’s prime minister and the cabinet of ministers – that we must look. For it is there that the rot usually starts. However, given the chummy cordiality between the happy contenders while their champions are at loggerheads islandwide, I’m not sanguine about any sea change.