By Kassapa 

It could be co-incidence but the return of Basil Rajapaksaw, strategist for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the launch of the United National Party (UNP)’s election campaign both occurred last week. Twenty months into his Presidency, the relationship between the two parties is being put to the ultimate test: elections.

After months of procrastination, it is crunch time for President Ranil Wickremesinghe, finally.

It is understood Rajapaksa, with elder brother Mahinda in tow, met Wickremesinghe soon after his return. Reports suggest the discussions were cordial enough but the Rajapaksas did not hide their concerns, especially about Wickremesinghe wooing SLPPers individually. With regard to the elections both sides were trying to test the other, so no consensus was reached.

Nevertheless, it is understood that both the SLPP and the UNP are actively considering the prospect of conducting general elections first. This will be disastrous for the country, if it results in an unstable government but what matters to both parties is not losing their grip on power, not the country’s stability.

Wickremesinghe can, if he wishes, dissolve Parliament now but he cannot determine the dates of the presidential election, which is the prerogative of the Elections Commission. However, the latter can only call for a presidential election two months prior to the expiry of Wickremesinghe’s term, at the earliest and one month prior to the expiry, at the latest. Therefore, the presidential elections will be held between mid-September and Mid-October, whether Wickremesinghe likes it or not. That can only be stymied by a constitutional amendment for which Wickremesinghe does not have the numbers in Parliament.

The fact Wickremesinghe has not declared his candidacy for the presidential election yet indicates that he must be having doubts about his prospects of victory despite being surrounded by those who sing his praises. That is why he is not hell bent on campaigning for a presidential election when the election is due in the next six months.

This is where a general election becomes an attractive option for Wickremesinghe. Rather than face a presidential election which he is sure to not only lose but also run the risk of finishing third, a general election offers an ‘escape clause’ with perhaps even the slightest of prospects of retaining the Presidency, if everything goes according to plan.

For this plan to come into fruition, Wickremesinghe must first woo and win the SLPP, either as the entire party with the blessings of the Rajapaksas or piece-meal, as individuals, the former obviously being the preferred option.

Then he must also recruit a significant faction from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). Given the current state of affairs in the SJB this shouldn’t be a difficult task. That is because its leader Sajith Premadasa is hellbent on a recruitment drive of his own, inviting SLPP dissidents to join his party while at the same time marginalising those who kept their faith him and defected from the UNP to join the SJB when it was formed. Wickremesinghe, it is understood, is maintaining a dialogue with potential SJB defectors, waiting for the right time to pounce and poach from the SJB.

Thirdly, Wickremesinghe must resurrect the UNP without wasting any time. There was a sense of this urgency at what was virtually its first ‘campaign rally’ at Kuliyapitiya recently. The Grand Old Party’s base vote, estimated at about 20 per cent at the very least accrued to the SJB at the last election. With turmoil in the SJB becoming more apparent by the day, the UNP could possibly reclaim some of that vote.

Even if Wickremesinghe manages to achieve all this and provides leadership to a broad coalition that brings together individuals from the SLPP, SJB and the UNP, it is still doubtful whether such an alliance could win more seats than the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB), the favourites to win any election at this time.

However, this is where the support of the Tamil and Muslim parties will become crucial. Historically, Wickremesinghe has related well to these parties and could provide credible assurances to them in return for their support, which may get this ‘grand coalition’ over the line, vis-à-vis the JJB.

If this can be achieved, that would provide a platform for Wickremesinghe to then contest the presidential election, telling the nation that he has united the country and brought it under one banner. It will certainly be better than running on his own with only a handful of loyalists to support him.

If Wickremesinghe was to go down this route, one can be certain that the SLPP will have many strings attached to ensure their backing. The SLPP leadership has been frustrated and annoyed by Wickremesinghe’s obstinacy in refusing to yield to its requests to appoint party seniors as ministers. At present, they are unable to do anything about this as they are reliant on Wickremesinghe for their political survival. That balance of power could change drastically, if Wickremesinghe were to seek the SLPP’s assistance to remain in power.

From the perspective of the SLPP, it is not a bad deal because the party has nothing to lose. Left to its own devices, it will be out of power, most of its stalwarts will be out of Parliament and the party will face a long stint in the opposition with the prospect that some of its leaders could be behind bars as well. As such, conducting the general election under a broad coalition of which it is a partner could be the lifeline it needs to reinvent itself.     

All this is of course, a hypothetical scenario and there are many ‘if’s in this equation. Yet, it is not impossible to ponder and certainly presents a more viable option to Wickremesinghe right now. That is why the possibility of conducting a general election first is receiving significant consideration in the highest echelons power.

This also feeds into the JJB’s narrative that the next election will be a ‘them versus us’ battle which the JJB extrapolates into being a tussle between the ‘corrupt’ and the ‘clean’ as well as ‘haves’ and ‘have not’s. Whether it evolves into that kind of contest, the next few months will tell.