It is crunch time for Ranil's political future; the dilemma is who will be his running mate for the 2024 presidency.


The cold war between President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had a public display of hostility last week, in what turned out to be a good barometer of the tensions between the President and his reluctant partner in government.

For several months now, the SLPP hierarchy has been pleading with Wickremesinghe to hand out Cabinet portfolios to its senior politicians, most of whom were ministers in the Cabinets headed by the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda and Gotabaya. In response, Wickremesinghe’s studied silence has been deafening.

Wickremesinghe has his reasons. He is already at the receiving end of a lot of flak for governing with the SLPP, a party rejected by the people with its President being hounded out of office and the other Rajapaksas in the Cabinet being compelled to resign. He has also attracted strong criticism for not taking decisive action against the corrupt elements within the SLPP.

With one eye on the presidential elections due by October 2024, just fifteen months from now, Wickremesinghe doesn’t want to blot his copybook anymore. This is why he has consistently shied away from appointing certain SLPP stalwarts to ministerial positions. If he does this, he feels he will irrevocably identify himself with all that is bad and ugly about the SLPP- and potentially cripple his presidential bid.

Wickremesinghe’s attitude towards the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) is very different. That too is understandable. Most of the SJB parliamentarians are his protégés who cut their political teeth under his guidance. They left him only because they believed he could not be marketed to the Sri Lankan electorate anymore.

Last week, at a ceremony to celebrate the political life of Mahinda Amaraweera held in the Rajapaksas’ home turf of Hambantota, Wickremesinghe called upon his erstwhile deputy and now leader of the SJB, Sajith Premadasa to join him ‘for the sake of the country’. He could offer protection for Premadasa’s position as Leader of the Opposition and could even help him to become President, Wickremesinghe said.

This was a statement that was more than mere rhetoric. Wickremesinghe was testing the political waters of the SJB. Even if he knew that Premadasa wouldn’t rise to the bait, he was aware that there were others in the party who wouldn’t mind joining the government, if their political futures could be ensured. This was his way of saying to them that the door is still open for them.

That there have been interlocutors working behind the scenes to bring about a rapprochement between Wickremesinghe and the SJB is well known. However, they have hit a stumbling block. The SJB, and Premadasa in particular, has insisted that if the party was to co-operate with Wickremesinghe, the President should crack down hard on the corrupt elements of the previous regime. This, Wickremesinghe is not willing to do, fearing the loss of his majority in Parliament. So, any ‘deal’ between Wickremesinghe and the SJB has not been possible. Hence Wickremesinghe’s teaser of an invitation to individuals in the SJB.

The President was not merely trying to woo the SJB. He was also sending a message to the SLPP: that he could call upon others to support him, if the SLPP was not willing to play ball with him.

This message was heard loud and clear by the SLPP. That is why its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam promptly called a media conference to declare that the party has not yet decided on its presidential candidate for the next election. The underlying message was that Wickremesinghe should not take for granted the party’s continued support, come 2024.

Kariyawasam is a political pygmy compared to Wickremesinghe and wouldn’t dare to take the President on publicly. He was only doing so because he was echoing his master, Basil Rajapaksa’s, voice. The latter was making it known to Wickremesinghe that although Executive President now, his 2024 bid for the Presidency could be spoilt if the SLPP fielded a candidate of its own.

It remains to be seen whether Wickremesinghe is game enough to call Basil Rajapaksa’s bluff. The political reality on the ground is that, while Wickremesinghe has some standing among voters because of his actions to stabilise the economy, the SLPP’s popularity is at an all-time low.

With Basil Rajapaksa remaining a United States citizen, their only realistic candidate is Namal Rajapaksa who, despite his political immaturity, is knowledgeable enough to understand that there is absolutely no chance of winning a presidential election in 2024. The younger Rajapaksa has great ambitions of doing so in 2029. So, would he want to finish as an ‘also ran’ at the election in 2024 to spoil his political curriculum vitae, when he applies for the top job in 2029? Most likely, not.

It is indeed a Hobson’s choice for the SLPP. With their chances of winning a presidential poll by themselves virtually zero, they will have to bite their lips, hold their tongues and support Wickremesinghe once more. They will also know that, should Wickremesinghe win a presidential election, his options increase considerably and will include calling a general election where he can field a team comprising of his own United National Party (UNP) as well as defectors from both the SLPP and the SJB.


For all the bravado displayed by both Wickremesinghe and Kariyawasam in their public utterances and despite the significant political undertones of their statements, it doesn’t mean that the alliance between Wickremesinghe and the SLPP is in tatters now and will end soon.

Both Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas- for whom principles and integrity in politics mean nothing- know better than anyone else that what matters above all is their survival. That is why they are hanging on to their positions of privilege and power, even when they are well into their seventies and have spent most of their lives dabbling in the dirty waters of politics. So, when it comes to crunch time, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas will each evaluate their options and, if staying together means surviving together, that is what they will do.

That is the moral of this story for the opposition, be it the SJB or the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB).