Differences between the ruling SLPP and President Ranil Wickremesinghe are coming to a head. The SLPP leadership has registered its protest against Monday’s minor Cabinet reshuffle, which came as a surprise to many.

The SLPP must have expected President Wickremesinghe to appoint one of its district leaders with ministerial ambitions as the Minister of Environment following the expulsion from the parliament of MP Naseer Ahamed, who held that portfolio previously. But Keheliya Rambukwella, who was the Health Minister, was sworn in as the Minister of Environment, and Dr. Ramesh Pathirana was appointed the Health Minister. Besides, Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Amaraweera was given the plantation industries portfolio. State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya was appointed the Non-Cabinet Minister of Plantation Enterprises in addition to his current post.

It is only natural that the SLPP is resentful. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam lost no time in telling the media that he was utterly disappointed with the President. Given the chance, Rambukwella would have retained the health portfolio, and his removal from the Health Ministry was a comedown for him and a huge embarrassment for the SLPP, which defended him to the hilt vis-à-vis the Opposition’s no-faith motion against him last month; the government claimed that there were no grounds whatsoever for him to be deprived of the health portfolio. The UNP also threw its weight behind Rambukwella.

The Opposition is claiming that the President has vindicated its no-confidence motion in question, albeit unwittingly, by removing Rambukwella from the Health Ministry. It insists that the government has belied its own claim that Rambukwella was free from blame for the crisis in the health sector.

Addressing the media, on Monday, Kariyawasam went so far as to remind President Wickremesinghe, for the umpteenth time, that the latter had been able to secure the presidency and a parliamentary majority because of the SLPP, and had to bear that fact in mind. In other words, he faulted Wickremesinghe for ingratitude. Other SLPP stalwarts have been saying more or less the same thing many times over since Wickremesinghe became the President with their help. Ironically, the UNP said something similar in 2018, when Maithripala Sirisena, who had become the President with the help of the UNP, which also enabled him to have a parliamentary majority, fell out with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP called Sirisena an ingrate of the highest order. Sirisena went on to withdraw the SLFP-led UPFA from the Yahapalana coalition, and even sought to oust PM Wickremesinghe in a bid to wrest control of the parliament, but in vain. The UNP successfully moved the judiciary against an attempt by Sirisena to dissolve the parliament after all his efforts to muster a simple majority in the House by engineering crossovers from the UNP-led UNF had failed; the status quo ante was restored with Wickremesinghe being reappointed the PM, and the rest is history. Unlike Sirisena, who won the presidency at a popular election, Wickremesinghe became the President by winning a vote in the parliament with the help of the SLPP.

Gratitude is a rarity in politics. It invariably falls by the wayside when politicians find themselves in dire straits and have to choose between principles and expediency. What Kariyawasam has said about the SLPP’s backing for President Wickremesinghe is true, but it is not the whole truth. The SLPP did not act out of altruism when it enabled Wickremesinghe to achieve his presidential dream and secure a parliamentary majority; the elevation of Wickremesinghe to the presidency was intended to safeguard the SLPP’s own interests. The SLPP leaders were facing an existential threat at that time. They went into hiding when protesters started to unleash violence and torched their properties during last year’s political upheavals. Most of them feared that they would face the same fate as SLPP MP Amarakeerthi Athukolare, who perished at the hands of a violent mob in May 2022. Wickremesinghe, after becoming the President, used his executive powers to bring the situation under control, and his efforts yielded the intended results. The police and the military brought Aragalaya to an end by using brutal force.

The SLPP leaders have come out and are politically active now. They are even playing friendly cricket matches in public, and holding party events without worrying about their safety. If President Wickremesinghe had not prevented the parliament from falling into the hands of mobs, none of the SLPP leaders would have been safe.

So, Wickremesinghe must be thinking that he and the SLPP are now even, and therefore he is under no obligation to do the SLPP’s bidding unquestioningly.

The SLPP may resort to rhetoric and veiled threats in a bid to make President Wickremesinghe toe its line, but it will not go to the extent of withdrawing parliamentary support for him, or adopting to a suicidal course of action like defeating the upcoming national budget even if he remains defiant. On the other hand, President Wickremesinghe is now constitutionally empowered to dissolve the parliament anytime. An election is the last thing that the government wants at this juncture; the SLPP is in total disarray, and the public is extremely resentful. Some of the government MPs are likely to defect to the UNP in case of an early parliamentary election. Several key SLPP MPs such as Nimal Lanza are openly backing President Wickremesinghe in and outside the parliament.

The UNP seems to be recovering lost ground on the political front gradually, but it has a long way to go before being ready for an election. Its offshoot, the SJB, is still a formidable police force. President Wickremesinghe has apparently managed to shore up his image to some extent, but he will not be able to turn the UNP around soon, if at all. The UNP therefore needs some more time to revitalize itself and be ready for an election.

Thus, both the SLPP and the UNP are wary of facing an election, and therefore neither of them is likely to do anything that will lead to the dissolution of the parliament before the expiration of its term. Therefore, the collapse of their uneasy alliance is not imminent. President Wickremesinghe, however, will be under pressure from the SLPP to appoint its seniors to the Cabinet. Whether he will give in remains to be seen.