By Vishvanath

An election year in Sri Lanka is characterized by a surge in political protests, which prompt the government in power to flex its muscles, causing clashes between the police and Opposition activists. Protests help political parties mobilize their members and the public against the ruling party. The morale of the Opposition supporters tends to sag due to protracted inaction. This may be the reason why the SJB held a protest march in Colombo on Tuesday.

The police lost no time in obtaining a court order against the SJB protest on Tuesday, but the SJB leadership decided to go ahead with the march, and the police carried out water cannon and teargas attacks to disperse protesters. Former SJB MP Mujibur Rahman suffered injuries and was rushed to hospital.

SJB and the Opposition Leader made use of the opportunity to boost his image. Leaders like his late father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga took part in numerous street protests, braving teargas and even baton charges, before achieving their political dreams.

Political parties and civil society organizations do not consider their protests complete without police attacks, and the SJB leaders and their supporters must have been more than happy to face water cannon and teargas and thereby grab media attention. Police crackdowns on political protests are counterproductive.  

The UNP is all out to engineer some more defections from the SJB and eat into the latter’s support base. The SJB is experiencing some internal problems, the latest being its MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka’s protest against former Army Commander Gen. Daya Ratnayake pledging his support for the SJB.

Fonseka has lashed out at both Ratnayaka and the SJB leadership, in public. He did not mince his words when he said on Wednesday that since the SJB had welcomed Ratnayake, it should be able to accommodate former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well. One need not be surprised even if Fonseka leaves the SJB in a huff.

Speculation rife in political circles is that some SJB MPs are likely to defect to the UNP, which is said to be offering massive inducements to the Opposition members. When political parties experience dissension in their ranks and face the prospect of their support bases eroding, they resort to shows of strength to drum up public support.

Having learnt a bitter lesson from Aragalaya, the government leaves nothing to chance where street protests are concerned. It goes all out to nip agitations in the bud. It ordered the police to disperse a group of civil society activists who tried to occupy the pavement opposite the CID Headquarters Colombo, demanding the arrest of Minister Keheliya Rambukwella over alleged pharmaceutical rackets in the Health Ministry on his watch as the Minister of Health. On Tuesday, they put up a banner, which read ‘Go Keheliya Gama’. They gave the government a real scare.

It was a peaceful protest on the Galle Face Green that snowballed into a countrywide uprising, leading to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2022. The name given to the Galle Face protest site was ‘Go Gota Gama’. It is popularly said in this country that a man who was beaten with a firebrand is scared of even a firefly. So, it was obvious when the ‘Go Keheliya Gama’ was set up that the police would be ordered it remove it forthwith and arrest the protesters. The police swooped on the agitators and took four of them into custody. The Fort Magistrate released them on bail the following day.

The SLPP finds itself in an unenviable position with its MPs breaking ranks; some of them are openly backing President Wickremesinghe and they include MPs Nimal Lanza, Minister Prasanna Ranatunga and State Minister Shehan Semasinghe. It cannot even decide whether to field a candidate at the next presidential election or throw in its lot with a candidate of some other party.

Whenever the SLPP leaders are asked who their presidential candidate will be, they give evasive answers. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is reported to have said there are several presidential hopefuls in the SLPP and one of them would run for President, and even the possibility of the party not contesting the presidential election cannot be ruled out. He usually answers questions with equivocation. He has been a newsmaker throughout his political career.  

The SLPP is in a bad way although it claims that everything is under control despite some serious setbacks. There is no way it can hide the fact that its approval rating has dropped drastically. One of its presidential aspirants, MP Dhammika Perera, has admitted that there has been a severe erosion of its vote base.

In an interview with Hiru TV on Monday (Jan. 29), MP Perera said that according to the findings of an opinion survey, the SLPP’s electoral strength had dropped to 30%. The SLPP polled 6,853,693 votes (59.09%) at the last general election. Its presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, secured 6,924,255 votes (52.25%) at the 2019 presidential election. Perhaps, the SLPP’s share of the national vote has dropped below 30%. Politicians cannot be expected to be truthful when they speak of the electoral strengths of their parties.   

Perera, a well-known business leader, said in the above-mentioned interview that if the SLPP nominated him to contest the presidential election, his task would be to increase the SLPP’s votes by 20% plus one vote to secure the presidency in the first round. He would contest only if he was certain that he was equal to that task. That goal would be unattainable unless the SLPP remained united, he said. There’s the rub. The SLPP has already suffered several splits, and nobody will be able to reconcile them. The SLPP, according to MP Perera, will announce its presidential candidate in late April or early May.

MP Perera, who has evinced a keen interest in e-government, and launched an educational programme to teach schoolchildren and the youth Information Technology countrywide, lamented that Sri Lanka was still an analogue country, and digitalization would help solve most of its problems. He stressed the need to reform the education sector and thereby lay the foundation for the development of the country.

It believed that MP Perera stands a better chance of securing the SLPP’s nomination to run for President because he is without a political party of his own and therefore will be dependent on the SLPP for parliamentary support in case of his victory. The SLPP will prefer a presidential candidate it can control in the event of his victory. In fact, when the Executive President does not lead the party with a parliamentary majority, the Prime Minister becomes more powerful than him or her for all practical purposes, as we saw from 2001 to 2004, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe undermining the authority of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, whose coalition, the People’s Alliance had lost its parliamentary majority at the 2001 general election.  

The government will continue to be on the offensive in months to come because it has developed a siege mentality. It is feared that the SLPP and the UNP are likely to make use of the newly-passed Online Safety Act to suppress social media, which has turned hostile against them. Tuesday’s police attack on the SJB protest march could be considered a foretaste of what is to come.


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