By Visvanath

The SLPP had a meteoric rise in national politics and captured state power three years after its formation in 2016, but it failed to consolidate its electoral gains and is not a shadow of its former self. Has it ended up being an outgassing political comet nearing depletion? Will the SLPP be able to contest the next presidential election? If so, who will be its presidential candidate? Will the SLPP throw in its lot with President Ranil Wickremesinghe for want of a better alternative? These are some of the questions being asked in political circles with about eight months to go before the presidential election. Commissioner General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake has gone on record as saying that the Election Commission is empowered to hold the next presidential election between 18 Oct., and 18th Nov., 2024. So, the SLPP will have to make up its mind soon.

The SJB, the UNP and the JVP-led NPP have already announced that their leaders, Sajith Premadasa, President Wickremesinghe and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, respectively, will run for President. Some SLPP MPs close to the Rajapaksa family have been saying a person whose name has three Sinhala letters will contest the presidential election, and this has led to speculation that either Namal, Basil or Chamal will throw his hat into the ring. The Rajapaksa family is not likely to nominate any outsider as the presidential candidate for obvious reasons. They had Wickremesinghe elected by the parliament as President in the aftermath of the popular uprising in 2022 because they apparently thought that if a member of the SLPP secured the presidency, he would grab the party leadership as well much to the detriment of the interests of the Rajapaksas.

Media reports that Basil Rajapaksa, described as the chief strategist of the SLPP, is returning to Sri Lanka from the US, tomorrow (Feb. 05) have boosted the morale of his loyalists. SLPP MP Sanjeewa Edirimanna told the media on Wednesday that the SLPP would launch its counterattack on the political front soon after Basil’s return, and its plan for the presidential election would be revealed.

Meanwhile, former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Ukraine Udayanga Weeratunga, a close relative of the Rajapaksa family, has told the media that a general election will precede the next presidential election, and Basil will be the SLPP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. He has stopped short of saying whether Basil will relinquish his US citizenship to be able to enter Parliament; dual citizens cannot contest elections, according to the 21st Amendment to the Constitution certified on Oct., 31, 2022.

In 2020, Basil circumvented the constitutional provision introduced by the 19th Amendment, preventing dual citizens from contesting elections or being appointed to the parliament; he had the 20th Amendment introduced, after the SLPP’s mammon victory at the parliamentary election in that year, abolishing that provision, and became a National List MP. The 21 Amendment re-introduced that ban. So, it will not be possible for Basil to do what he did in 2020; he will have to relinquish his US citizenship. The SLPP is currently struggling to remain relevant in national politics let alone win elections.

If Basil could revitalize the SLPP by arresting its disintegration, shoring up its dwindling support base and enabling it to recover lost ground in the next few months, that would be nothing short of a miracle.

The SLPP has managed to retain a working majority in the parliament by engineering crossovers from the Opposition, but its support base has shrunk dramatically in the country at large so much so that it has failed to retain control over the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha, the only local government body, which has had elected representatives.; all other local councils stand dissolved.

The SLPP lost the budget in the Elpitiya PS in December 2023 in the run-up to its national convention, held in Colombo. It has since failed to secure the passage of the PS budget for the fourth time, and the PS administration is to be placed under a special commissioner appointed by the Southern Province Governor, who reports to President Wickremesinghe. The SLPP’s defeat in the Elpitiya PS has cast a shadow on Basil’s return.

What is more important than anything else for a political party at an election is the grassroots support, which can be gauged by its strength in the local government institutions. The SLPP, founded in 2016, scored an impressive victory at the 2018 local government elections, marking the beginning of the end of the Yahapalana government, which postponed the Provincial Council elections due in 2017 for fear of losing them as well. The SLPP also won the Elpitiya local government election, a few weeks before the 2019 presidential election. It won 17 seats in the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha, the election to which had been delayed due to legal battle over nominations submitted in 2018. The number of seats won by the UNP, the SLFP-led UPFA, and the JVP were 7, 3 and 2, respectively.

The SLPP has become so unpopular due to the collective failure of its leaders that reviving it is not a task that anyone can accomplish single-handedly. It has had a great fall like Humpty-Dumpty, and whether Basil can put it together remains to be seen. If he is a master political strategist, as his loyalists claim, they should explain why he failed to manage the crisis in the Elpitiya PS and help the SLPP retain its control, given its political significance.

A presidential election will be a huge gamble for the SLPP. Its chances of securing the presidency again are remote, and if it fields a candidate and he loses, it will face another humiliating defeat at the general election to follow. If it skips the presidential contest and backs either Wickremesinghe or someone else, it will still face an ignominious defeat at the parliamentary polls. So, it is likely to consider advancing the general election in a bid to overcome the problem of finding a presidential candidate and thereby avoid a crushing defeat in the presidential contest, which will ruin its chances of retaining at least some of the seats it has at present. In other words, the SLPP is without a popular presidential candidate but some of its MPs can get reelected. So, it may be less disadvantageous for the SLPP to face parliamentary polls first and then go for a presidential election than to do it the other way around. The UNP will be in trouble in case of having to face a general election first, for it does not have popular candidates to be fielded at a parliament election, and is riding on President Wickremesinghe’s coattails.

If the SLPP is keen to have a general election before the presidential contest, it can request President Wickremesinghe to dissolve the parliament, and pass a resolution to that effect in the House in case of the President’s noncompliance. The Constitution provides for such a course of action.

Whatever the SLPP is planning to do, it will have to regain adequate popular support to prevent a disastrous electoral defeat, and Basil will have to put Humpty together, first of all. It will be nothing less than a Herculean task, and whether he, who failed to retain the control over the Elpitiya PS, will be equal to it remains to be seen.