Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa has, in a televised media statement, said that the Opposition is willing to cooperate with the government to resolve the current crisis. His offer, made on Saturday, came close on the heels of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appeal for the Opposition’s cooperation. Speaking in Parliament recently the President invited the Opposition to work with the government for the sake of the country.

Premadasa, in his statement, said among other things: “The country is in deep crisis. We are facing a prolonged drought. About 5,000 school teachers have migrated, and a large number of doctors and other professionals, too, have left for foreign employment. The country requires a comprehensive national plan to resolve the crisis. The government is without one, and the SJB is prepared to offer its expertise and support to the government if the latter acts in good faith. We are ready to assist the government in implementing a national plan that addresses the challenges faced by our nation. However, we request that it refrain from engaging in political games. We will not support the government if it continues to prioritize political gamesmanship and the pursuit of ministerial portfolios.”

Sajith making virtue of necessity?

Some SJB MPs have been calling upon Wickremesinghe and Premadasa to unite. Pressure is said to be mounting on Premadasa to do so. These MPs are thought to be grappling with torn loyalty, Wickremesinghe being their erstwhile leader.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, has already claimed that the SJB and the UNP are merging, and some SJB MPs’ efforts to ingratiate themselves with the President are indicative of their desire to throw in their lot with the President.

The only way the UNP can recover lost ground is by eating into the SJB’s support base and engineering crossovers from the SJB parliamentary group. However, it is too early to say whether Premadasa’s offer to cooperate with the government will lead to the formation of a political alliance between the SJB and the UNP, or if it is a ploy. SJB National Organizer Tissa Attanayake has said the SJB has offered to cooperate with the government only on a temporary basis. However, “never the twain shall meet” is an idiomatic expression that has no relevance in politics, where forces and persons align in an unpredictable manner. Adversity makes strange bedfellows. So does expediency. In politics, self-interest takes precedence over everything else and is the driver of political alliances. Besides, seismic changes in the polity generate immense pressure for the fusion of political parties including antithetical ones characterized by their vast ideological differences.

Megathrust upheavals

Last year’s Aragalaya was the political version of a megathrust earthquake; it led to the occurrence of the unthinkable—the coming together of the SLPP and the UNP.

During the Yahapalana government, the SLPP leaders made the UNP out to be a dragon of sorts that had to be slain to save the nation, and asked for public support for their mission. It succeeded in its endeavor and scored three impressive back-to-back mammoth electoral victories in 2018 (local government), 2019 (presidential), and 2020 (parliamentary). The UNP lost badly and was left with only a single National List (NL) seat. But two years later, they closed ranks; UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who entered the parliament via the NL, months after the election of the current parliament, went on to become the Prime Minister and President in quick succession, last year with the blessings of the Rajapaksa family. The rest is history.

About one year on, the economy is believed to showing signs of recovery; the pressure build-up in the polity is apparently dissipating; inflation has come down to a single digit, according to the Central Bank; State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya says the country’s foreign reserves have reached three billion US dollars; there are no fuel shortages or power cuts although the petroleum and electricity prices have increased, and essential commodities are available albeit at higher prices. The government has undertaken to do away with the QR based fuel rationing, claiming that there are enough fuel stocks in the country.

SLPP’s comeback efforts

The dissipation of pressure has had an unravelling effect on the SLPP-UNP alliance with the SLPP attempting a comeback and undermining President Wickremesinghe’s authority. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam openly strikes discordant notes as regards vital policy decisions that the President makes. He has openly questioned the President’s wisdom of trying to devolve more powers to the Provincial Councils, and reiterated that the SLPP’s support for the President is conditional. Namal Rajapaksa, MP, has said in no uncertain terms that the SLPP will not support anything that it considers inimical to the interests of the country; he has taken exception to the privatization of state ventures. Signs are that differences between the SLPP and the UNP are coming to a head.

The SLPP is redoubling its reorganization efforts. It has been holding a series of meetings in various parts of the country, and the most recent ones were in the City of Colombo. It seems to be trying to boost the morale of its ranks and file as well as the parliamentary group, some of whose members have already switched their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe.

Now that the law and order situation has improved and the government activists can venture out without fearing mob attacks, the SLPP seems to be confident that it is in a position to contest future elections including the presidential polls, on its own.

It is not only the SJB that is in the UNP’s constriction coil, which is tightening around the SLPP, as well. The executive presidency constitutes a formidable power centre in any government and exerts a tremendous pull on other political parties represented in the parliament. The SLPP will have to extricate itself from the UNP’s grip if it is to regain political vitality and be in a position to win elections. It will be doomed if it cannot field its own candidate at the next presidential election. However, it will be extremely lucky if it can prevent another split or two with some of its MPs siding with President Wickremesinghe and the UNP.

SLPP MP Nimal Lanza has severed his links with the Rajapaksa family, for all practical purposes, and is reportedly planning to form a new alliance together with some SLPP MPs including two or three ministers with a view to backing President Wickremesinghe at the next presidential election. This is a disconcerting proposition for the SLPP and the Rajapaksa family.

President Wickremesinghe, as it stands, is likely to secure the backing of sizable sections of the SJB and the SLPP in time for the next election. Both Premadasa and SLPP’s chief strategist Basil Rajapaksa will have their work cut out to keep their parties intact.