The political strategy of President Ranil Wickremesinghe is becoming clearer with every passing day: divide and rule.

Having been handed the Executive Presidency on a platter because he happened to be at the right place at the right time (being the Prime Minister when Gotabaya Rajapaksa ran for dear life), he is now keen to stay a further five years and is gearing himself for the next presidential election.

Wickremesinghe knows that winning that contest is a tough ask, given that his personal charisma is nowhere in the league of the likes of Mahinda Rajapaksa or even Anura Kumara Dissanayake and also because the party he leads, the United National Party (UNP), is in shambles.

So, slowly but surely he has set about cobbling together a coalition of unlikely allies. He is hoping to achieve his objective- win the next presidential election- with a group of politicians he is trying to rope in to his camp, dangling the rewards of Cabinet portfolios before them. The groundwork for this is being done in earnest these days.

Wickremesinghe has set his target firmly on two political parties: the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). He will, of course, accept others such as the latest avatar of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Nava Lanka Nidahas Pakshaya led by Kumar Welgama if they happen to join him.

Wickremesinghe’s approach is two-pronged. With the SLPP, he is using his position as President to cultivate Cabinet ministers. He is giving them responsibilities and encouraging them to be in the limelight. The end goal is the hope that, when the time comes, they will stick with him. Examples are Kanchana Wijesekera, Prasanna Ranatunga and Tiran Alles. Wijesekera recently publicly acknowledged that there was discussion in the SLPP about Wickremesinghe being their preferred presidential candidate.

Then there are others such as Susil Premajayantha and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who have their grievances against the Rajapaksas anyway who will readily abandon the former first family and join the Wickremesinghe bandwagon without the need for much persuasion.

This is also why Wickremesinghe has been careful enough not to offer Cabinet portfolios to the likes of Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Johnston Fernando and Mahindananda Aluthgamage. They are tainted with allegations of corruption and could become liabilities at an election. Therefore, despite many entreaties from Basil Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe keeps deferring a Cabinet reshuffle for another day.

It is not that the SLPP and particularly the Rajapaksas are unaware of Wickremesinghe’s ploy. However, they are also well aware that the SLPP has a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning the next presidential election on its own steam. Therefore, the Rajapaksas are content to play the waiting game, preparing for the 2029 presidential elections when Namal Rajapaksa will still be a good six years younger than Sri Lanka’s youngest President, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

It is a different scenario with the SJB. Wickremesinghe feels he is on home turf here. The SJB comprises mostly of former UNP stalwarts. He has had personal interactions with almost all of them as their leader when they were in the Grand Old Party. He feels some of them are ripe for the picking. He and his close advisors have decided to pursue a strategy of wooing SJB parliamentarians individually and in small groups.

SJB stalwarts, who previously believed that gaining power in the aftermath of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit and the SLPP’s fall from grace would be a certainty are now confronted with a different scenario: the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) has been snaring most of the anti-SLPP votes on the one hand and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s popularity has risen among a section of voters who are content with his economic measures and couldn’t care less about democracy or human rights.

It is in this context that Wickremesinghe has embarked on his ‘recruitment drive’. Stories are being planted left, right and centre both in mainstream print an electronic media and on social media by a team of dedicated ‘Sirikotha cadres’ who are burning the midnight oil dreaming up these ‘news items’. The idea is to create a general sense of insecurity within the SJB and a general feeling of lack of confidence in SJB leader Sajith Premadasa.

That is why we have seen, in the past week or so, stories of an imminent cross-overs from the SJB to the government mushrooming everywhere. They are not without a modicum of truth: Wickremesinghe’s closes advisors such as Vajira Abeywardena, Sagala Ratnayake and Ravi Karunanayake are maintaining a dialogue with SJB MPs in the hope that they can engineer cross-overs. Rajitha Senaratne is a name that keeps being mentioned as a possibility- although some in the SJB feel that given the allegations against the garrulous former Health Minister, they would be better off without him.

There are however other stories that are being ‘planted’, designed to create mistrust between Premadasa and his parliamentarians. These include tall tales of Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickramaratne and Kabir Hashim- the economic think tank of the SJB- joining the government after the deal with the International Monetary Fund and speculation that Thalatha Atukorale and Rohini Wijerathna joining the government because they are unhappy with Premadasa.

It must be said that the Premadasa’s leadership style has been a great asset to Wickremesinghe in this exercise. Premadasa has a record of baulking when opportunities or challenges present themselves. He hesitated when Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered him the Prime Minister’s job at the height of the political turmoil last year. He dropped out of the race to contest Ranil Wickremesinghe when Parliament had to elect a President shortly afterwards. That is why he is being ridiculed as ‘aasayi bayayi’ or ‘ambitious but afraid’.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is a man with a poor vision for the country and a terrible politician who has never been able to command the affection of the masses. Nevertheless, he excels in one tactic: pitting one against the other and plotting his way to the top. He may be an ‘accidental President’ but having got there, he has no intentions whatsoever of giving up that job.

Therefore, in the coming months we will see more of the same: dirty tricks from Wickremesinghe, the one aspect that he is a master of.








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