• by Vishvanath

The deployment of the police and the armed forces in large numbers in Colombo, last Friday, caused quite a stir, and brought the entire country under a pall of uncertainty. Political circles were abuzz with speculation that the government was going to appoint former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, and therefore had adopted extraordinary security measures in anticipation of public protests. Social media, true to form, had a field day, spreading stories of all sorts. But the police and the defense authorities said they had responded to an intelligence warning of a possible attempt to cause social disturbances. The rumors about Mahinda’s appointment as the PM turned out to be false, and the past few days have been without incident, but tight security remains in the city.

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, on Monday, lashed out at those who had spread rumors on Friday, and claimed that Mahinda would never have himself appointed the PM, on the sly. Has he forgotten that in October 2018, Mahinda was suddenly sworn in as Prime Minister by the then President Maithripala Sirisena, as part of what has come to be dubbed a constitutional coup to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP-led government? Mahinda had to resign a few weeks later when a Supreme Court decision went against Sirisena; the 52-day-old government collapsed, but the rift between the SLFP and the UNP became permanent with Sirisena closing ranks with the Rajapaksas, whom he had vowed to throw behind bars.

It may be true that there was no government plan to appoint Mahinda as the PM on Friday, but the fact remains that Mahinda is trying to secure the premiership and his loyalists are egging him on.

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has sought to dismiss speculation that the government is trying to appoint a new PM as baseless, and said he will not step down. But he is at the mercy of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and has no way of holding on to his post if the President wants him to step down.

President Wickremesinghe is dependent on the SLPP for parliamentary support, without which he will become a mere figurehead. So, he is not in a position to turn down a request from the SLPP to make Mahinda the PM and antagonize the SLPP.    

It is not likely that the Rajapakasas will continue to play second fiddle to President Wickremesinghe indefinitely. Their support base is eroding rapidly, and even some of their staunch supporters have already thrown in their lot with President Wickremesinghe. Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatunga has publicly offered to back Wickremesinghe if the latter contests the next presidential election. State Minister Dilum Amunugama has also said something similar, and some other SLPP seniors are expected to follow suit. The Rajapakasa loyalists in the SLPP parliamentary group have been demanding ministerial posts, without any success. SLPP chief strategist Basil Rajapaksa himself has expressed concern about their situation. President Wickremesinghe is under pressure to accommodate those MPs in the Cabinet; the Constitution allows him to increase the number of Cabinet ministers up to 30, but he finds himself in a dilemma. There are already 22 Cabinet members, and the SLPP MPs demanding ministerial posts number more than eight, and all of them cannot be made ministers unless a national government is formed. President Wickremesinghe knows that he will incur much public opprobrium in case he expands the Cabinet while curtailing government expenditure and urging the people to make more sacrifices amidst the worst-ever economic crisis the country is facing. He cannot afford to be unmindful of public opinion because he is planning to contest the next presidential election, and the UNP has to recover lost ground on the political front. More importantly, President Wickremesinghe may not be able to exercise control over some of the Rajapaksa loyalists who are demanding ministerial posts in case they are appointed to the Cabinet; they are likely to rebel, undermining his position. It may be recalled that President Chandrika Kumaratunga (2001-2004) and President Maithripala Sirisena (2015-2019) had to work with hostile Cabinets with the UNP led by Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister having parliamentary majorities. President D. B. Wijetunga (1993-1994) was also left without a parliamentary majority after the UNP’s loss at the 1994 general election, but he had to work with the People’s Alliance Cabinet only for a couple of months and had no political ambitions with only a few months to go until his retirement.

President Wickremesinghe has made it abundantly clear that he will contest the next presidential election, and the UNP seems to think there will be no formidable contender and the SLPP will not be able to field a candidate. But odds are that the presidential race will not be a walk in the park for Wickremesinghe. He will have to rebuild the UNP, which failed to have even a single candidate returned at the last general election, and make it combat-ready within a year or so. He will have to do so with or without the SLPP’s support. If the SLPP does not throw its weight behind him, he will be in serious trouble, politically.

If anyone other than a member of the Medamulana family wins the next presidential election, with the help of the SLPP, the Rajapaksas will lose their hold on the party and face an existential problem in national politics.   

It will be an uphill task for Wickremesinghe to win the presidency even with the SLPP’s support, given the government’s ever-increasing unpopularity. This may be the reason why he is trying to woo the SJB, but Sajith Premadasa is too ambitious to forgo his presidential candidature. Most of all, the UNP is engineering defections from the SJB, and several SJB MPs have already switched their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe, Suresh Vadivel being the latest SJB defector. This approach will make the SJB turn even more hostile towards the President, but the UNP seems to think that it will help tame the SJB.

Thus, reviving the economy is not the only problem that President Wickremesinghe faces. Gratitude is not a trait that most electors possess in this country. So, not many will be thankful to Wickremesinghe if he succeeds in stabilizing the economy, but if he fails to do so, everybody will blame him. The success of his economic mission and efforts to win the next presidential election hinges on his ability to retain parliamentary support. He has to rebuild the UNP and consolidate his power to win the presidency, and at the same time he has to remain in the good books of the Rajapaksas, who have neither permanent enemies nor permanent friends in politics, and are ready to go to any extent to further their own interests at the expense of anyone else. They will not hesitate to demand that Mahinda be appointed the PM so that they can gain control of the government.



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