In the current political context, the SLPP needs Ranil Wickremesinghe more than Wickremesinghe needs them. That explains why they continue to support him in Parliament, knowing very well that he is attempting to undermine the foundations of their party.

By Kassapa

The tricks resorted to by the government headed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to remain in power have been dealt with at length in these columns but an equally important issue that then arises is whether the main opposition parties are ready for national elections which must be held by October 2024, in just over a year.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out Wickremesinghe’s political strategy: project himself as a ‘common candidate’ of sorts, with the support of his own United National Party (UNP), the faction of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) that he is slowly but steadily building up with the assistance of Nimal Lanza, any defectors that he can poach, mostly from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and perhaps even a disgruntled few from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), not to mention the Tamil and Muslim voters who he will woo with the promise of fully implementing the 13th Amendment.

This is a very predictable path that Wickremesinghe hopes will take him to an elected Presidency. The theme underpinning this strategy is simple: divide and rule. Wickremesinghe will be eager to divide the SJB and SLFP and even the SLPP which supports him now if it suits his political agenda.

We are not so much concerned about Wickremesinghe’s plans to split the SLPP. That is because, realistically the SLPP does not have a chance of capturing power on their own. They need Ranil Wickremesinghe more than Wickremesinghe needs them. This explains why they continue to support him in Parliament, knowing very well that he is attempting to undermine the foundations of their party.

In contrast, the SJB is the largest party in the opposition. A few months ago, prior to the local government elections in March (which were unlawfully postponed by Wickremesinghe), they were riding a wave of popularity. That momentum has slowly slipped away now. Instead, there is speculation about the SJB joining the UNP en masse with the carrot of Premiership being dangled before SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa.

To his credit, Premadasa has stood his ground and resisted these machinations thus far. His demand from Wickremesinghe has been to stop his dalliance with the SLPP and the Rajapaksas, a request that Wickremesinghe seems unable to or unwilling to agree to.

Talk of a SJB-UNP alliance reached a new high this week when Rohini Wijerathne, a female parliamentarian who has impressed with her dignified style and quiet work ethic despite being the target of vulgar abuse from the government benches, stated that Wickremesinghe and Premadasa were similar to “her two eyes.” She said they should work together, considering the plight the nation was in at present. Similar sentiments about “working together” have also been expressed by Tissa Attanayake a seasoned but mediocre politician who was for many years Wickremesinghe’s General Secretary in the UNP.

Thus Premadasa has his work cut out to keep the SJB together at this crucial time. Although he has succeeded thus far, whether he can do so until September next year is questionable. The word in the corridors of power is that Wickremesinghe will extend an invitation to the SJB to join as a group and if this fails, there will be a move to isolate Premadasa and his close loyalists by getting individual SJB parliamentarians to cross-over.

If even about a dozen MPs do so, that will significantly impact the SJB because it projects an image of Premadasa as a weak leader who cannot keep his flock together. Wickremesinghe knows the feeling well, having presided over the UNP when dozens of MPs deserted him time and time again to the waiting arms of Mahinda Rajapaksa!

The other major opposition party, the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) is not under such a threat but it is also suffering a decline in its popularity which, like the SJB, was at its peak in March when the local government elections were due to be held. Recently, it has even come under attack from the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) which can only further dampen its momentum.

The thrust of the JJB’s campaign has been its stance against corruption, abuse of power and the lack of law and order. In the lead up to the local government elections earlier this year, this resonated strongly with the general public for whom issues related to the political upheaval of last year were still fresh in their memories.

Now though, with the country’s day to day affairs returning to a normal pace at least at first glance- although the challenges to the economy and issues related to corruption, abuse of power and the lack of law and order still persist-the JJB’s slogans are failing to evoke the same strident response.

A major factor in this is the JJB’s poorly articulated economic policy. Despite all its ills, it is evident that the majority of Sri Lankans prefer a market economy, if it can be implemented with transparency as most developed countries do. The JJB however appears to be still ideologically bound to its socialist doctrine and has done very little to adapt this to suit the mindset of the average of the Sri Lankan voter.

Therefore, the percentage of the public that would have voted for the JJB was high when the ‘hate factor’ was predominant against established political parties. When this factor loses its intensity, support for the JJB appears to be correspondingly declining. Whether policy makers in the JJB are mindful of this and if they are, what they are doing about it is unclear right now.

The best-case scenario for the opposition would be a pooling of resources of the SJB and the JJB but this is extremely unlikely. That is because both the SJB and the JJB genuinely believe that the next election is theirs for the taking. That might be a massive miscalculation.

Opposition parties are indeed working towards elections next year and are busy making preparations. However, if they are not aware of the ground realities of the country’s volatile political climate, Sri Lanka might end up with a government that it does not deserve- yet again