By Vishavanath

Marriages may be made in heaven, as is popularly believed, but political marriages are undoubtedly made on earth or perhaps even in hell, for they are uneasy, weak unions among self-serving politicians who act out of expediency rather than principle. They bring together strange bedfellows with competing interests, which often clash, threatening the unity of their fragile alliances. So, it is only natural that differences between the SLPP and the UNP have come to a head eventually and their political marriage of convenience is on the rocks. Its collapse is only a matter of time.

Bid to delay presidential poll

All chances are that the next presidential election will be held in a few months, despite an attempt by someone to delay it by moving the Supreme Court. Even President Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party, the UNP, recently called for the postponement of the presidential election, has said the next presidential election has to be held this year. However, that does not necessarily mean the UNP has had nothing to do with the fundamental rights petition a businessman from Moratuwa filed, on Wednesday, before the Supreme Court, seeking an interim order to prevent the Election Commission from calling the presidential poll.

The UNP has intensified its presidential election campaign, and sought to turbocharge it with the ‘successful’ external debt restructuring agreements, which have stood the country’s economic recovery program in good stead. However, its efforts to engineer crossovers from the SJB have not yielded the intended results so far. The SJB has proved more resilient than it was thought to be. Perhaps, this is due to its leader Sajith Premadasa’s aggressive campaigning, which has boosted the morale of the party’s parliamentary group members and rank and file.

President turns on soft target

President Wickremesinghe may be able to lure a few more SJB MPs into defecting and supporting his presidential bid, but mass crossovers are not likely. Therefore, he has turned on a soft target to gain a boost for its election campaign; the UNP has made some SLPP Ministers and MPs throw in their lot with its presidential candidate, Wickremesinghe. The dissident SLPP members, who have however not burnt the bridges yet, were seen at President Wickremesinghe’s election rally in Matara on June 30. They included Ministers Prasanna Ranatunga, Ali Sabry and Dr. Ramesh Pathirana.  

President Wickremesinghe may not have succeeded in achieving his goal of engineering crossovers from the SJB, but he, who initially had only a single MP on his side—Vajira Abeywardena—now has more than two dozen SLPP MPs (including those representing the SLFP). This is no mean achievement for a leader whom his rivals left for politically dead about four years ago.

When dissident SLPP ministers appeared at President Wickremesinghe’s election rally, which was organised by Minister Kanchana Wijesekera himself, on Sunday (June 30), in Matara, it was obvious that there would be a backlash from the SLPP leadership. There is no way the SLPP can prevent more of its MPs siding with the President.

Kariyawasam’s ire

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, speaking to reporters, after an internal meeting, did not mince his words when he condemned the participation of some of its ministers in Sunday’s rally. Visibly exasperated, he sought to cast the party’s dissidents in a poor light as a bunch of politicians without scruples and popular support. He did not spare President Wickremesinghe.

Asked by reporters whether the SLPP would throw its weight behind Wickremesinghe in the presidential race, Kariyawasam audaciously said it would do so only if the President obtained its membership! In other words, the SLPP has decided against supporting Wickremesinghe in retaliation for winning over its MPs, and it is planning to field its own candidate. Obtaining SLPP membership will be a surefire way for any candidate to lose whatever public support he or she has managed to muster.

Can dissidents deliver votes?

Kariyawasam either thinks or pretends that defections will not take their toll on the SLPP’s vote bank, which, he says, the party leadership has total control over. But he is mistaken. The SLPP leaders are not so popular as to garner enough votes to win elections under their own steam, unlike in the past, when Mahinda Rajapaksa could rally the people behind his party almost single-handedly. That is why it has not been able to field one of its leaders, meaning the members of the Rajapaksa family, as its presidential candidate.

Some SLPP MPs have their block votes and are confident of their re-election. Otherwise, SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa would not have striven to have a snap general election held before the upcoming presidential poll with a view to ensuring the re-election of some SLPP MPs.

The next Parliament is expected to be hung, and Basil’s strategy was to have a considerable number of SLPP candidates returned at a snap general election and form a coalition government with the help of some other parties. This shows thatthe SLPP leadership believes that its parliamentary group members command popular support. 

It is the other way around where the UNP is concerned; UNP leader Wickremesinghe has regained lost ground to a considerable extent while his subordinates are still not in a position to face a general election. Hence Wickremesinghe’s refusal to hold a snap parliamentary election first.

Thus, the argument that all SLPP MPs do not command enough popular support to win elections themselves or ensure the victory of a presidential candidate of their choice from a party other than the SLPP does not hold water. President Wickremesinghe is likely to gain from the defection of some prominent SLPP politicians, including ministers. That serves his purpose. A formal electoral alliance between the UNP and the SLPP under the leadership of the Rajapaksa family is likely to be the kiss of death for Wickremesinghe’s presidential bid. This is why Minister Ranatunga, an erstwhile loyalist of the Rajapaksas, said at a recent meeting in the presence of Basil that the President should be backed by an alliance without the Rajapaksas in its leadership positions. Basil reportedly lost his temper and launched into a tirade against Ranatunga and other dissidents supporting the President.

Political fallout of FR petition

President Wickremesinghe lost no time in declaring that neither he nor his lawyers had been consulted by the person who filed the above-mentioned fundamental rights petition seeking to delay the upcoming presidential election. He also supported the EC’s position that his term ends this year, when the next presidential election should be held. But the fact that UNP General Secretary Bandara has reiterated that the presidential election should be postponed will be held against the President. The Opposition parties, especially the SJB and the NPP, have said they will go flat out to defeat the FR petition.

In politics, perceptions do matter as much as facts. The Opposition has already launched a campaign to have the public believe that the UNP is behind the FR petition as it cannot face the presidential election. They are sure to flog the issue very hard to gain as much political mileage as possible in the coming weeks. President Wickremesinghe will have his work cut out to counter this kind of adverse propaganda.