By Kassapa 

Amidst great publicity and fanfare, Basil Rajapaksa, founder of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), its chief political strategist and also failed Finance Minister who presided over the country descending into bankruptcy- affirmed by no less than the Supreme Court- returned to Sri Lanka on Tuesday.

Much was made of Basil Rajapaksa’s return. Indeed, it must be an event to celebrate for the SLPP, given the circumstances in which he tried to leave the country at the height of the ‘aragalaya’ and was thwarted by officers of the Department of Immigration.

Moreover, there was a lot of hype surrounding Rajapaksa’s return to the country. He had left for the United States three months ago, soon after attending the annual convention of the SLPP. There have been many changes in the political landscape since the. Most of them have not been to the SLPP’s advantage.

For instance, the faction against the Rajapaksas within the SLPP, the so-called ‘New Alliance’ fronted by Nimal Lanza, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Susil Premajayantha and Nalin Fernando has been formed and has held two public rallies. For all intents and purposes, they are likely to extend their support to Ranil Wickremesinghe than a SLPP candidate.

On another front, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga is rallying the remnants of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and other like-minded groups in a bid to resurrect the Peoples’ Alliance under the ‘chair’ symbol. Given their chances of victory at a presidential election being virtually zero, they too would rather support Wickremesinghe than a SLPP candidate bearing the Rajapaksa name.

In another development, Prasanna Ranatunga who always maintains cordial relations with the Rajapaksas is taking every opportunity to proclaim that his support at the next presidential election is for Ranil Wickremesinghe. This week, he went a step further. If the SLPP is to put forward a candidate, he or she must be “more suitable” than Wickremesinghe, he said and added that that he cannot see such a candidate emerging- a slap in the face for both Basil Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa.

Ranatunga even to the extent of saying that, if the SLPP were to offer a candidate who is, in his opinion “less suitable” than Wickremesinghe, he would have to seriously reconsider his position within the party.

These are all indications that the SLPP, the country’s most powerful and formidable political party five years ago, is now falling apart from its foundations.

That is not surprising. The SLPP was formed, not with a particular political ideology, vision and principles as most political parties are. It was formed with the sole intention of retaining the Rajapaksas in power when it lost control of the SLFP after Maithripala Sirisena took control of that party while he was President.

Once the most marketable surname in Sri Lankan politics, the Rajapaksas have now descended to become the most detested. Therefore, politicians and lackeys who surrounded them in droves five years ago have to make a decision: stick with the Rajapaksas and sink with them or make their escape now and have at least some chance of re-election. Most of them are opting for the latter.

In this situation, can Basil Rajapaksa stem the tide and turn things around for the SLPP, like he once did after Mahinda Rajapaksa surprisingly lost to Maithripala Sirisena in 2015?

Basil Rajapaksa’s best strategy in this exercise is bargaining with Ranil Wickremesinghe. That is what we will see in the coming months. So far, Wickremesinghe, the cunning political animal that he is, has resisted Rajapaksa’s overtures, for instance, when a request was made to appoint more senior SLPPers as Cabinet ministers. Now though, with a presidential election looming, Wickremesinghe will be forced to listen Rajapaksa.

That is because Wickremesinghe, by himself and what remains of his United National Party (UNP), he has no chance of retaining the Presidency. So, he must rely on some degree of support from the SLPP.

Wickremesinghe can obtain this in two ways: he can take the SLPP, lock stock and barrel or he can entice individual SLPP members by promising plum Cabinet positions or similar privileges. It is evident that he is already wooing a significant number of SLPP members with the latter strategy. Ranatunga perhaps is the best example.

Wickremesinghe would prefer the SLPP to wholeheartedly endorse him as a party without running a ‘spoiler’ candidate. That will however come at a price. This is where Basil Rajapaksa would enter. It is almost certain that, if the SLPP as a party is to endorse Wickremesinghe, it would make demands such as the Premiership in a future government and key Cabinet portfolios for identified individuals.

It has been speculated that in such a scenario, Basil Rajapaksa may request the Premiership for himself. The Rajapaksas won’t allow that to go outside the family if they can afford it. Mahinda is a spent force, Namal is too young and Chamal is not keen, leaving Basil as the only contender. Whether Wickremesinghe, the autocrat that he is, will acquiesce to such a request remains to be seen.

The other issue is the ‘Namal’ factor. Reportedly the younger Rajapaksa has set his sights on becoming Leader of the Opposition after the next election and is not really keen on contesting the 2024 presidential election. The reason is clear: he is certain to lose by a massive margin and that wouldn’t look good for future attempts.

Thus, the next few weeks will see some tough negotiations between Wickremesinghe, Basil Rajapaksa, the UNP and the SLPP. All the lower ranks of the UNP and the SLPP can do is to watch and wait, hoping that there would be some kind of ‘deal’ that would enable them to return to Parliament after the next general elections.

The stark political reality is however very different. The Jathika Jana Balavegaya appears to have a head start on all other political parties already. If the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) can also get rid of their internal squabbles and get their act together, what Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa will be fighting over will really only be the third place at the next election.