Politics and cricket may be like chalk and cheese in many respects but they have one thing in common; both are full of glorious uncertainties. So, the stock of a political party and its leader/s does not remain constant, and hence the need for them to heed public opinion and avoid pitfalls. In politics, which is also similar to the children’s game, Snakes and Ladders, one also needs a certain amount of luck to avoid falls and achieve success. When blundering and bad luck combine, the downfall of a political party or leader becomes inevitable. This is what has happened to the Rajapaksa family and their party.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), popularly known as ‘Pohottuwa’ or ‘Lotus Bud’, which is its official symbol, had a meteoric rise unlike any other political organization in this country. Founded in 2016, it swept to victory at the 2018 local government elections, and went on to win the presidential and parliamentary polls that followed in 2019 and 2020 respectively, with huge margins. In fact, what enabled the SLPP to score such impressive electoral victories was not its popularity as such but the unpopularity of the UNP-led yahapalana government. The UNP was so unpopular that it was left without a single elected MP at the 2020 general election, and SLFP leader former President Maithripala Sirisena had to swallow his price, close ranks with the Rajapaksa family to avert an electoral disaster.

The use of the adjective, ‘meteoric’ to describe the SLPP’s rapid growth and rise to power is very apt, for ‘meteors’ do not last long. The fall of the SLPP has been equally fast. It began to experience trouble in 2021 itself, and things came to a head the following year, when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had helped the SLPP secure a two-thirds majority in the parliament, had to step down, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who polled as many as 6.9 million votes at the last presidential election, was left with no alternative but to flee the country and quit, due to a popular uprising. Gotabaya’s ill-conceived organic agriculture experiments, refusal to seek IMF help to shore up foreign reserves expeditiously to prevent the current economic crisis, and failure to prevent corruption and abuse of power were mainly responsible for the SLPP’s trouble.

The SLPP has become so weak and helpless that it is now dependent on the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who even lost seat at the last parliament election, to protect its interests, having engineered his election as President by Parliament, last year. Could anything else be more humiliating for a political party than this?

The SLPP may have thought the irate public would simmer down and the political situation would improve, on President Wickremesinghe’s watch, with the passage of time, and the Rajapaksas would be able to reassert themselves. But it was wrong. Public resentment has not abated at all, and President Wickremesinghe is making the most of the opportunity that has presented itself unexpectedly to fortify his political future and that of the UNP, which is in overdrive reorganizing itself and trying to lure more MPs including those from the SLPP into joining its ranks.

The SLPP has sought to revitalize itself in view of the possibility of the local government polls being held before the year end. It held its Annual General Meeting recently in a bid to get rid of its dissident MPs, including its Chairman, Prof. G. L. Peiris, who has claimed that the event was illegal and decisions made there are without any legal validity; he has threatened legal action against the SLPP, which is trying to deprive its rebel MPs of their parliamentary seats by sacking them.

The SLPP has appointed a Buddhist monk—Ven. Uthurawala Dhammarathana—as its new Chairman despite protests from Prof. Peiris, who insists that he is still holding that post. Why has the SLPP handpicked a monk to hold that vital post and do political work? Is it trying to project itself as a party of the ‘Sinhala Buddhists’, who overwhelmingly voted for it at the last three elections? Buddhist monks played a pivotal role in bringing the Rajapaksa family back to power after its defeat in 2015. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa held his induction ceremony near Ruwanwelisaya, Anuradhapura, in 2019, and his Cabinet was sworn in the precincts of Dalada Maligawa, in 2020. Prominent among the defenders of the Rajapaksa rule have been some Buddhist monks.

The SLPP’s attempts at revival don’t seem to have yielded the desired results. The Rajapaksa family is still lying low so much so that SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has gone on record as saying that Basil Rajapaksa is not the party’s National Organizer. He may have said so for legal reasons; Basil is still a dual citizen. But the fact remains that the members of the Rajapaksa family have not been able to reassert authority the way they expected to. Worse, some prominent SLPP members are now praising President Wickremesinghe in public and have even expressed their willingness to throw in their lot with him, if need be.

Leader of the House and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, who stood by the Rajapaksa family steadfastly through thick and thin, has declared that he will back President Wickremesinghe if the latter contests the next presidential election. He said the other day so after paying a floral tribute to the statue of his late father, Reggie Ranatunga, in Gampaha. State Minister Dilum Amunugama, another staunch Rajapaksa loyalist, has also said in public that Wickremesinghe is now part of the SLPP to all intents and purposes and should therefore be the party’s presidential candidate. These statements could be considered an indication that some SLPP stalwarts are switching their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe.

The members of the Rajapaksa family, however, have not said anything about the party’s next presidential candidate. None of them wants to throw his hat into the ring prematurely because the people are still resentful and ill-disposed towards them. SLPP MP and former MP Namal Rajapaksa, whom former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is said to be grooming for party leadership, has said it is too early to talk about the next presidential election, and the local government polls will be held first.

The Rajapaksa family brought in Wickremesinghe as the President not out of any love for him. They did so for their own sake and political expediency. They were left without any other way of protecting their interests amidst popular uprisings. They expected him to be the President, bring order out of chaos, stabilize the economy and fade away so that they could regain reins of government because the President is dependent on the SLPP for a parliamentary majority, without which he will be a mere figurehead for all practical purposes. But President Wickremesinghe is no political spring chicken, and has chosen to consolidate his position and succeeded in winning over a section of the SLPP because the Rajapaksa family has not yet been able to make a comeback, and public resentment towards them is still high.

Politicians by nature are highly ambitious and jealously guard their turfs. Never do they hesitate to go to any extent to safeguard their interests. How the Rajapaksa family will seek to overcome challenges and obstacles on the political front and outshine President Rajapaksa in a bid to fortify their future is not clear at the moment. But the political ambitions of the leaders of the SLPP and the UNP are bound to affect the government’s group dynamics radically and take their toll on the unity of the ruling alliance.



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