Time was when President Ranil Wickremesinghe was seen to be kowtowing to the Rajapaksas, who made his ascension to the presidency possible, albeit to safeguard their own interests, and remained powerful enough to call the shots in the government by virtue of their hold on the SLPP parliamentary group. But political vicissitudes and some constitutional provisions stood him in good stead, and he consolidated his position slowly, and the signs are that he has caught up with the Rajapaksas.

President Wickremesinghe has now proved that it is he who holds the whip hand in the government though the Rajapaksas have a parliamentary majority, which he uses to shore up his image, and recover lost ground on the political front. He, no doubt, has a long way to go before being able to turn the UNP around, and making it ready for an election, but he is doing well politically at present. He has become so confident that he has even sacked three Rajapaksa loyalists as provincial Governors handpicked by his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa; they are Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, Anuradha Yahampath and Jeevan Thiagayaraja. When they recently defied a presidential directive that they step down immediately, as the Governors of the North-western, Eastern and Northern Provinces, respectively, they may have expected the SLPP leadership to come to their defense, but nothing of the sort happened, and they had to go. Obviously, the Rajapaksas were careful not to place themselves on a collision course with the President at least for the time being.

On Wednesday, President Wickremesinghe ensured that the SLPP parliamentary group would fully back the government’s resolution to remove Janaka Ratnayake from the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). Ratnayake clashed with Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera openly over electricity prices, etc., but he also ruffled President Wickremesinghe’s feathers by refusing to toe the government line. That the President wanted Ratnayake removed despite the latter’s strong ties to the Rajapaksa family is no secret. It was Ratnayake who provided Gotabaya with an office ahead of the last presidential election.

The Opposition claimed that the government was struggling to raise an absolute majority for the resolution, but the removal of Ratnayake was endorsed by 123 MPs while 77 opposed it. Twenty-four MPs were conspicuous by their absence. Among those who backed the resolution were some MPs from the SJB and the SLFP. Even SLPP MP and former Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who leads a group of party dissidents, also voted for the removal of Ratnayake! His volte-face has come to be seen as a sign of disunity among the SLPP dissidents.

President Wickremesinghe and the SLPP have demonstrated that the Opposition will not be able to topple it by engineering defections in the parliament—at least in the short term. But the government’s popularity is plummeting and it has sought to cover up this fact by postponing the local government elections, which it fears to face for obvious reasons. The ouster of Ratnayake, whose opposition against the power tariff increases struck a chord with the public, will make the government even more unpopular.

Initially, some members of the SLPP parliamentary group did not want to back the government move to remove Ratnayake because they knew Ratnayake’s campaign against electricity tariff hikes had gone down well with the people, and public opinion would turn against them if they helped sack him. They would have either abstained or even voted against the resolution if the government had allowed a conscience vote, but President Wickremesinghe insisted that all of them vote for it. He even contacted Basil Rajapaksa, who was in Dubai over the issue, according to unconfirmed reports. He apparently made Wednesday’s vote the SLPP’s problem. After all, there is only a single UNP MP, and the President has been able to win over only few SJB and SLFP MPs, and therefore it is up to the SLPP to deliver votes to ensure the passage of Bills, motions and resolutions in the parliament.

It was only the other day that former Minister S. M. Chandrasena went on record as saying that some SLPP seniors were very upset that their leaders had not cared to look after their interests despite their contribution to the party’s victory as the local government, presidential and parliamentary elections. Some of them topped the district preferential vote lists. The cause of their grouse is said to be that they have not been able to secure Cabinet posts. It must be paining them to see some members of the smaller SLPP constituents like the SLFP going places as ministers. There are said to be about 10 such disgruntled SLPP MPs, and speculation was rife in political circles that they would express their displeasure by refusing to vote with the government for a crucial Bill. But no such division was visible in the government group on Wednesday.

On the one hand, the SLPP cannot afford to lose a vote in the parliament, for the Opposition will make the most of such a situation, gain a great deal of political mileage, and, worse, use it to turbo-boost the ongoing campaign to pressure the government to hold elections. At present, the Opposition is only asking the government to conduct the delayed local government polls, and if the SLPP suffers a defeat in the parliament it would come under pressure to hold a general election, which is a dreadful proposition for the Rajapaksas and their loyalists more than the President or the UNP. On the other hand, President Wickremesinghe is now in a position to dissolve the parliament at a time of his choosing if push comes to shove even though it is a huge political gamble. Thus, the presidential power to dissolve the parliament is like the sword of Damocles, and the possibility of the President having to exercise it cannot be ruled out. This may also have been one of the reasons why there was no division in the ranks of the SLPP over the vote to oust Ratnayake though President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed him as the PUCSL Chairman in recognizance of his service to the SLPP during its Opposition days. There is no such thing as gratitude in politics and everyone is expendable. It may be recalled that a few months before the abrupt end of his presidential term, Gotabaya even chose to make his elder brother, Mahinda, without whose support he would never have been able to realize his presidential dream, resign as the Prime Minister.

Thus, it may be seen that the outcome of Wednesday’s vote in the parliament was a victory for President Wickremesinghe more than anyone else. It is a sign that he is asserting himself and will not hesitate to remove obstacles in his path.