By Kassapa

The ‘News is good’ or ‘aaranchiya subai’ said the posters that suddenly emerged overnight. Perhaps President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s advertising gurus had taken a leaf out of Ranasinghe Premadasa’s book: he plastered the walls of the country overnight with posters saying ‘Who is he, What is he doing’ or ‘Me kawda, Mokada karanne’ in announcing his candidacy for the presidential election in 1988.

Wickremesinghe seems to be doing just that, albeit with a different slogan, thirty-six years later in a contest where Premadasa (Snr.)’s son Sajith will be among his rivals. He is banking on the Goebbelsian belief that a lie, repeated oft enough, will seem like the truth.

Wickremesinghe often projects himself as the person ‘who accepted the challenge’ of resurrecting the country’s economy when others shied away. The reference is to him becoming Prime Minister at the peak of political unrest in May 2022 when Sajith Premadasa reportedly spurned the offer. Premadasa did put forward conditions that included Rajapaksa’s resignation within a stipulated timeframe and that was rejected promptly.

However, that does not equate to Wickremesinghe ‘accepting the challenge’. When he agreed to become Premier, he was agreeing only to become Rajapaksa’s largely powerless Prime Minister in a government dominated by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Anyone with an iota of self-respect or political morals would have baulked at the prospect, just as Premadasa did.

At the time, no one could foresee that all hell would break loose on July 9, 2022, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would flee the country and Wickremesinghe, by virtue of being the Prime Minister at the time, would become Acting President.

Let us assume, if only for arguments sake, that Premadasa, or indeed someone else, accepted the offer of becoming Prime Minister. Even if that occurred, come July, would the SLPP close ranks to elect Premadasa or anyone else as the stand-in President? Of course not.

The SLPP’s own Dullas Alahapperuma contested Wickremesinghe. SLPP parliamentarians, acting according to the dictates of the Rajapaksas, went against their own MP to vote for Wickremesinghe. In such a scenario, Premadasa, even if he had accepted the offer to become Prime Minister and had then become Acting President, would have been resoundingly defeated by Wickremesinghe in the ensuing contest. So, it is simply not true to say that Wickremesinghe accepted the job when no one else wanted it. He was placed in that position only for one reason, to protect the Rajapaksas and he has done exactly that.

The next lie is that Sri Lanka is not now ‘debt-free’. Yes, the country has been able to secure a grace period to settle its debts to bilateral creditors such as India, China and the Paris Club of Nations. That is all the so-called ‘good news’ amounts to. To equate that to emerging out of debt is stretching the imagination to breaking point. Already those with a grasp of the complex economics involved, such as Dr. Harsha de Silva have called this out for what it is, a scam perpetrated on the people with the hope that they will then vote for Wickremesinghe.

What emerges from this massive public relations operation is the answer to the question that the opposition- and also the SLPP- was asking all this time: will Wickremesinghe contest the presidential election? These gimmicks suggest that he most certainly will.

There was some expectation that the so-called ‘aaranchiya subai’ address to the nation by Wickremesinghe will be where he announces that he will be contesting the presidential poll. That did not happen and he has kept his political allies guessing for a little while longer. Now, they expect that announcement next week when a special session of Parliament has been summoned. The candidacy announcement may not occur even then- and there is a reason for that: the lack of clarity about support for the Wickremesinghe from the different factions of the SLPP.     

That is a matter Wickremesinghe has been avoiding all this time: does he join hands with the Rajapaksas at the expense of those who will desert him if he aligns with the Rajapaksas? Or does he forego the support of the Rajapaksas in favour of all the other myriad political forces who are willing to gamble on him, mostly because they do not have a choice themselves?

Wickremesinghe will have to make decision soon. Already, Basil Rajapaksa has told Prasanna Ranatunga- who dared to suggest that there was a school of thought that Wickremesinghe should contest without the support of the Rajapaksas- that if Wickremesinghe feels he does not need the support of the Rajapaksas once, they in turn do not need to support him a hundred times.

The likely scenario then is for the SLPP to shield their ‘Crown Prince’ Namal Rajapaksa and put forward business magnate Dhammika Perera as their candidate. Perera will most certainly lose but in doing so, he will also take away a chunk of votes that would have otherwise accrued to Wickremesinghe. Without those votes, Wickremesinghe is certain to lose and will be reduced to an ‘also ran’ in the contest.

Already, a section of the SLPP is feeling the heat due to this dilemma. Those SLPP ministers such as Prasanna Ranatunga, Bandula Gunawardena and Kanchana Wijesekera support Wickremesinghe. However, if the SLPP decides to go their own way they will have to abandon their political mentor Mahinda Rajapaksa to remain with Wickremesinghe. That is a decision which is very difficult for them because, if Wickremesinghe loses in the upcoming election- and there is a real possibility of that happening- that will ruin their political careers, at least for the next five years.

In the past, Wickremesinghe has been an expert at ‘watchful expectation and masterly inactivity’. His strategy has been to wait until his political opponents self-destruct and then poach from their parties. He is continuing the same tactic for this election as well. However, the fragmentation of political parties is so extensive now that he has to make a call soon.

That news may not be so good for Ranil Wickremesinghe.