Every country, it has been said, gets the government it deserves. That may be so in democracies because people do vote their governments in but Sri Lanka now finds itself in a curious situation: it has got neither the government nor the opposition it deserves!

Sri Lankans did not vote for their current government. They voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa en masse. Facing a revolt from the masses, Rajapaksa fled. Now they have got a government headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe who no one really voted for.

Wickremesinghe contested the August 2020 general elections from the United National Party (UNP) but failed to get elected to Parliament, ending a 43-year run in the legislature. Ten months later, he was nominated to Parliament as its sole National List MP. A further thirteen months down the track, he was chosen by Parliament to be President. It is a curious combination of good fortune and opportunistic politics that got him to where he is today. Sri Lanka did not deserve him but the constitution dictates that we tolerate him, at least until the next presidential election.

This is where the role of the opposition comes under scrutiny. The collective opposition is an unholy mess of political parties splintered into smithereens. Among them are the fragile egos of many a presidential hopeful. It is this factor that keeps them from uniting and forming a common front against their common enemy, Wickremesinghe.

There are aspiring presidential candidates in every camp: Sajith Premadasa and Sarath Fonseka from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), Anura Kumara Dissanayake from the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB), Maithripala Sirisena from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and an array of assorted ‘independents’ ranging from Champika Ranawaka and Dullas Alahapperuma to the less likely G.L. Peiris and Kumara Welgama.

Among them, only Premadasa and Dissanayake have any real prospects. Being seasoned politicians, other potential nominees cannot be unaware of this. However, they have refrained from closing ranks at least for now, preferring instead to push their own personal agendas hoping that they will prevail.

The ground reality is very different. At the beginning of this year, there was palpable momentum in favour of the JJB and SJB, perhaps slightly more so for the former, in the lead up to the local government election, the poll that was never held, being craftily postponed by Wickremesinghe. He knew that should the pendulum of public sentiment swing in favour of the SJB or the JJB, it would be carried through to the next general or presidential elections.

That momentum in favour of the opposition has all but vanished now. No one can hazard a guess as to how much support the JJB commands today. Their immediate economic hardships alleviated to some extent, the selfish middle-class voter, or some of them, are singing Wickremesinghe’s praises as if he has performed an economic miracle.

The plight of the SJB is equally perilous. It is constantly being threatened with defections. It is no secret that Wickremesinghe has cast the net far and wide to poach whoever he can from the SJB. The idea is to create the impression that SJB MPs are about to cross-over to the UNP in droves and trigger a mass exodus. Rajitha Senaratne still heads that list although it is a tribute to the loyalty of SJBers and Premadasa’s powers of persuasion that no one of significance has left yet, the inconsequential P. Harrison being the only ‘rebel’ so far. Nevertheless, the hunt is on and it is uncertain as to how long this status quo will last. Faced with this situation, the party’s popularity has plummeted and is at an uncertain level right now.

There is every indication that Wickremesinghe will call for an early presidential election. To do so, he requires an amendment to the Constitution. It is quite likely that the SJB will support such an amendment because it too feels it can win such a poll. Even if the SJB does not endorse it, Wickremesinghe, who polled 134 votes to win the Presidency in Parliament will dangle enough carrots before MPs to secure the 150 votes needed to push that amendment through. That may be when the much awaited and never materialising Cabinet reshuffle will eventually occur.

If polls are held now there are three front-runners: Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Dissanayake. It is anybody’s guess as to who will emerge in the lead but it doesn’t a political genius to predict that no one will muster the required fifty per cent plus one vote required to clinch the Presidency. For the first time since the first presidential election was held in 1982, a preference vote count is likely.

It is everyone’s interests to avoid such a scenario. The only way this can be done is for the opposition field a ‘common’ candidate. At present, both Premadasa and Dissanayake see themselves as ‘common’ candidates and will not hear of sacrificing their candidacy for the sake of the other. Such a strategy can only be divisive for the opposition and be advantageous to Wickremesinghe.

If the opposition wishes to learn from history, they only need to look back at the presidential election in 2015. Underdog Maithripala Sirisena beat the much fancied and seemingly invincible Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena polled just over 51 per cent of the vote. In that contest, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), while not endorsing any candidate, tactfully decided not to field one either. Had they shaved off even three per cent of the ant-Rajapaksa vote, the contest would have gone in to a second count.

We are not suggesting that the JJB, the new incarnation of the JVP, do so again and sacrifice their candidacy to the SJB. However, it seems obvious that, in a scenario where a decisive victory for either the SJB or the JJB is unlikely and in a political climate where the credentials of both Premadasa and Dissanayake are being questioned (the former, for his leadership qualities and decisiveness and the latter for the policies he would enact), a different ‘common’ candidate is a much better option.

Or else, Sri Lanka might yet again get a government and a leader it did not deserve.



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