Group dynamics are usually problematic and cause dissension and animosity, especially in organizations made up of individuals with competing interests and ambitions. Hence, they often lead to the break-up of political alliances, the collapse of the UNP-led Yahapalana coalition being a case in point. The current SLPP-UNP dispensation is also experiencing serious internal problems, which have shown signs of coming to a head with the SLPP heavyweights and their trusted lieutenants striking discordant notes on crucial issues such as the postponement of elections, and indicating that they will field their own candidate at the next presidential election. Such statements are thought to signal that the SLPP-UNP alliance will not last long.

Political vicissitudes

What makes politics so exciting is its unpredictable nature. It seems to have more dramatic twists and turns in this country than anywhere else. Last year, many SLPP politicians went into hiding, fearing mob attacks, but today they have come out and are moving about freely. Some of them are even playing friendly cricket matches! UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom many mistakenly wrote off as a spent force, about two years ago, has not only made a dramatic comeback but also is busy revitalizing his party with an eye to future elections. But he, too, is not free from the unsettling effects of political vicissitudes.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa turned down President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s offer of the premiership last year, because he was confident that the fall of the SLPP government was imminent and he would be able to become either the Prime Minister or even the President on his own, by contesting elections. In fact, not many expected the SLPP to survive last year’s mass uprisings, but, today, Sajith has his former boss, Ranil, who joined forces with the SLPP, overshadowing him, as a formidable contender for the presidency.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake may have thought he would be able to capitalize on the people’s growing resentment at the SLFP, the SLPP, the UNP and their offshoots to shore up his party’s political fortunes and realize his presidential dream. There appeared to be a groundswell of support for the JVP initially because the people were fed up with the major political parties, especially their unpopular leaders. But Dissanayake is no longer the only pebble on the beach. Some successful entrepreneurs are making their presence felt in national politics with a view to wooing the voters who prefer versatile personalities who are competent enough to manage the economy to traditional politicians sans such remarkable abilities to govern the country.

As for the next presidential election, President Wickremesinghe may have thought that it would be plain sailing for him, as one of the few experienced political leaders around, and he would be able boost his image and improve his chances of securing a second term by promoting himself as a capable crisis manager. But power politics is in a state of flux, and public opinion keeps changing. Signs are that his political journey is becoming something like a drive along an upcountry road during a spell of inclement weather, which triggers earth slips and rockfalls. He has had an unexpected problem to contend with—the prospect of two well-known entrepreneurs vying for the presidency.

Dilith Jayaweera has entered active politics as a political party leader and indicated his desire to run for President, and speculation is rife that Dhammika Perera will do likewise in time to come.

Dilith and Dhammika have been identified with the Rajapaksa family; the former is close to ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the latter to SLPP National Organizer Basil. Given such reputations, they will have their work cut out to project themselves as independent entrepreneurs and not the proxies of the Rajapaksas.

Erosion of vote banks

The next election, presidential or otherwise, is likely to be different from the past ones in that none of the political parties, save the ones representing the minority communities, have huge block votes as such. The UNP was reduced to about 250,000 votes (2.15%) at the 2020 general election. The SJB benefited from a protest vote against the UNP and polled 2,771,984 votes 23.9%), but it does not seem to have been able to expand its support base, which the UNP is leveraging Ranil’s presidency to eat into. The SLPP, which received 6,853,693 votes (59%), is facing a rapid erosion of its vote base. The JVP-led NPP’s share of the total number of valid votes at the 2020 parliamentary election was only 446,000 (3.84%), which will have to be increased substantially for significant electoral gains to be made.

Meanwhile, the number of swing votes has been on the rise, as Dilith has told the media recently, and the floating voters are likely to play a much bigger role in determining the outcome of the next election. The bargaining power of the parties such as the TNA and the SLMC is also bound to increase as their support will be crucial for the major parties seeking to form the next government or secure the presidency.

Wickremesinghe would have been the choice of the TNA and the SLMC if he had not closed ranks with the SLPP; he has come to be viewed as a defender of the beleaguered Rajapaksa camp, which the minority parties detest. Therefore, he will find it difficult to woo the minority votes, unlike in the past. The JVP-led NPP is trying to make itself attractive to the minorities, but it is unlikely that the political parties such as the TNA and the SLMC will throw in their lot with it. The TNA is preoccupied with devolution, which the SLFP, the SLPP, the JVP and the UNP have chosen to pussyfoot around. The SLMC usually hitches its wagon to the political party which, it thinks, is capable of winning the presidency or capturing power in the parliament so that it can clinch ministerial posts for its leaders, and diplomatic posts, etc., for others.

Bid to upstage Ranil

The members of the Basil faction of the SLPP, and the other prominent SLPPers who threw in their lot with Gotabaya only to be disappointed are on a campaign to recover lost ground. Having launched a low-key promotion campaign, they are trying to upstage Ranil, who is working towards freeing himself from the clutches of the SLPP and securing the presidency under his own steam. The SLPP seems to fear that some of its MPs and organizers will defect to the UNP at the behest of President Wickremesinghe, who already has more than a dozen SJB and SLFP MPs (elected from the SLPP) on his side.

Some SLPP Ministers have been speaking about President Wickremesinghe favorably, and this cannot be to the liking of the SLPP leadership. Therefore, if the SLPP consents to back Wickremesinghe in a presidential contest or coalesce with the UNP to contest a general election, its parliamentary group members, and the party’s rank and file will be further demoralized, and it will be easy for the UNP win them over. Hence, it is thought that the SLPP will field Dhammika Perera as its presidential candidate because he will be dependent on the SLPP for parliamentary support.

Macron factor

Some prominent Sri Lankans, including several political leaders, seem to have been inspired by the banker turned French President Emmanuel Macron, who is the first French President to secure a second term in two decades. Macron also steered his newly-formed party, En Marche! (‘Forward!’) to a stunning victory in the parliamentary election in 2017, but he failed to secure a clear parliamentary majority in 2022.

The election of a political novice as the French President also had some influence on other parts of the world. Ukrainians elected as their President a comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky in May 2019 because they were fed up with professional politicians who had let them down. A few months later, Sri Lankans elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President.

Presidential aspirants, Champika Ranawaka, who is no political greenhorn but said to be an admirer of Macron, and Dilith, who apparently believes in beginner’s luck, have formed the United Republican Front, and the Mawbima Janatha Party, respectively, a la Macron. Whether Dhammika will do likewise remains to be seen. If he so desires, he can always ‘buy’ one of the political parties for sale, and revitalize it.