By Kassapa 

The honeymoon between President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is now officially over. As the mundane business of wedded political life takes over, cracks are appearing in this marriage of convenience.

Last week Wickremesinghe met Basil Rajapaksa for a second time to discuss the best course of action in the coming months, given the reality of a presidential election in October. Already, in several media interviews prior to the meeting, Rajapaksa had prepared Wickremesinghe for his demand: to conduct the general election first.

This time, there was no uncertainty, at least from Rajapaksa. He made it clear that the SLPP wished for the general election to be held first and implied that the reward for that could be unequivocal support from the SLPP for the presidential election that would inevitably have to follow.

If Wickremesinghe had any doubt as to whether this was Basil Rajapaksa acting on his own initiative, that too was soon dispelled: elder brother Mahinda made a public statement saying that the SLPP preferred a general election first, dispelling notions that there could be discord between the Rajapaksa brothers.

It is well known that Wickremesinghe does not favour this idea. That is because he fears the prospect of a party other than the SLPP, his own United National Party (UNP) or the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) obtaining the greatest number of seats at the general election. More specifically, he fears the advent of the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) to pole position.

If general elections are held early and the JJB emerges as the single largest party in the new Parliament, Wickremesinghe will be a ‘lame duck’ President for the remaining few months of his term. Having waited patiently for four and a half decades in politics, contested two presidential elections and lost, presided over a party that was almost totally annihilated at the last election and then suddenly handed over the Presidency through a stroke of good fortune, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t want to abdicate the considerable powers at his disposal even for a single day.

More importantly, a JJB-led government would mean that Wickremesinghe will not be able to dictate the legislation that would go through the new Parliament, a task that he now regularly engages in much to the dismay of the opposition.

An example would be the proposed reforms to election laws that have already been endorsed by the Cabinet. These propose to abolish the dominantly proportional representation (PR) system and replace it with a ‘hybrid’ system where 160 MPs would be elected on the ‘first-past-the-post’ system and the balance 65 through the PR system. As a concept, this is a worthwhile amendment that will eliminate the need for candidates to spend massive amounts of money for their election campaigns which must encompass an entire district. However, it is the introduction of this amendment at this eleventh hour that is raising suspicion as to whether this is yet another ruse to postpone elections.

Wickremesinghe obviously believes that, rather than a general election, a more straightforward contest at a presidential election would be more advantageous to him. Right now, JJB leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is way ahead of him in the popularity stakes but six months hence is a long time in politics and Wickremesinghe has the inherent advantages of incumbency which he will certainly try to use to his benefit.

Wickremesinghe and his inner circle of advisers also believe that while the SJB enjoys the next best level of support among the masses, this is more as a reincarnation of the UNP and not because of any personal charisma attributed to its leader Sajith Premadasa. They strongly believe that in a head-to-head contest, Wickremesinghe will fare better than Premadasa. Unfortunately for the SJB, their party leader’s recent actions indeed do not reflect great political maturity or foresight.

The one factor that gives Wickremesinghe a slight edge over both Dissanayake and Premadasa is being able bank on the votes in the North and East. By virtue of being ‘minority friendly’ through most of his political career he is virtually assured of a lion’s share of the votes in these two provinces if he decides to contest, a factor that could be crucial to the outcome of a close presidential contest.   

What the opposition also does need to take into account though is the fact that Wickremesinghe, as a rule, fights shy of facing elections that he knows he will lose. This is why he ‘outsourced’ the presidential candidacy to Sarath Fonseka in 2010, to Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 and Sajith Premadasa in 2019. Therefore, if he does to run in 2024, that will be because he firmly believes he has a fair chance of winning.

If, at some point between now and the due date of the election, Wickremesinghe does feel that he will be an ‘also ran’, there is a high likelihood that he will try every trick in the book- and a few more that are not in it- to avoid that contest. For the wily political animal that Wickremesinghe is, such options do exist and could include, for instance, a new Constitution that abolishes the Executive Presidency or even a referendum. In fact, the ‘new constitution’ and the referendum are both tricks resorted to by Wickremesinghe’s uncle, that other wily political animal, J.R. Jayewardene, known in his heyday as the ‘Old Fox’.   

All indications are that, despite the façade that he maintains, Wickremesinghe has not made up his mind yet as to which election should come first or whether he will attempt some tinkering with the Constitution in a desperate bid to prolong his political career for a few years more. The latter will of course be a last resort but that is not to say that Wickremesinghe will be shy to do so, if the situation demands it. It will also be a difficult task to accomplish, given that a two-thirds majority in Parliament is required for these tactics and that will be hard to come by.

The stage then is set for Wickremesinghe to play his last cards. Only one thing is certain: he is not one to leave the stage gracefully, he will always want an encore even when his audience has clearly indicated they don’t want to see him at the helm, ever again.      


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