SLPP intensifies campaign for general election

By Vishvanath

Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader and dissident SLPP MP Udaya Gammanpila is reported to have said the SLPP is mounting pressure on President Ranil Wickremesinghe to dissolve the parliament on or before 15 May, 2024. Gammanpila is privy to the inner workings of the SLPP, and there should be some truth in his claim. Differences between the SLPP and the UNP have come to a head since May Day, which was celebrated last week, according to him.

The fact that parliamentary majorities do not necessarily reflect the true extent of popular support for governments became evident on the recent International Workers’ Day, when political parties put on shows of strength. The SLPP and the UNP have together retained a comfortable majority in the parliament, and they secure the passage of every bill and defeat no-confidence motions with ease. But on May Day, their political weakness was exposed, with both the SJB and the JVP-led NPP outshining them.

Crowds at political rallies also do not necessarily reflect popular support as such for the political parties that draw them, but the failure of the ruling party or the constituents of the coalition in power to hold impressive May Day rallies indicate that they are experiencing difficulties in mobilizing public support. 

The UNP expected some more SJB MPs to cross over, and it had the public believe that on May Day, its leader, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, flanked by some SJB defectors, would formally announce his intent to contest the upcoming presidential election. But nothing of the sort happened; the UNP failed to engineer crossovers from the SJB, and President Wickremesinghe made no declaration about his presidential candidacy. The UNP also could not live up to its claim that it would hold the biggest May Day rally this year. The SJB succeeded in having a government MP—Gayeshan Navanada—defect to it and attend its May Day rally. The JVP/NPP held four rallies in different parts of the country, including Colombo, and they were well-attended except the one in Jaffna.

That the SLPP is only a shadow of its former self was seen once again on May 01. Its pocket meetings in its heyday were bigger than its May Day rally this year despite wielding state power, which all governments abuse to boost their images on the International Labor Day. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa pretended that the SLPP was still a force to be reckoned with, but his party’s weakness was evident from his inability to declare his party’s presidential candidate. He only said the candidate backed by the SLPP would win the presidency. Thus, it is clear that the SLPP will not contest the next presidential election and instead throw in its lot with a candidate fielded by some other party, most probably President Wickremesinghe.

The SLPP is in a dilemma. It cannot go it alone at the presidential election, but if it backs President Wickremesinghe in the presidential race, it will run the risk of some of its MPs defecting to the UNP, causing its support base to erode further. Such an eventuality will make is well-nigh impossible for the SLPP to make a comeback in the foreseeable future and for the Rajapaksa family to retain their political clout.

The SLPP seems to think the only way it can avert such a situation is to face a general election first and win as many seats as possible before the next presidential poll. It has been pressuring President Wickremesinghe to dissolve Parliament immediately, but in vain. Having failed to attract big crowds to its May Day rally, and realized that it will be left with no popular support before long at the rate its approval ratings are plummeting, the SLPP is intensifying its efforts to make President Wickremesinghe dissolve the parliament fast. The SLPP had a parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday night (07) at its headquarters, Battaramulla, but no final decision was taken as regards an early general election.

 The UNP wants to face a presidential election first because only its leader, Wickremesinghe, is popular enough to face an electoral contest confidently at present. Its political strategists think Wickremesinghe will be able to leverage his experience and contribution to stabilizing the ailing economy to some extent to secure the presidency. It is planning to ride on his coattails in case of his victory. Thus, the SLPP and the UNP are at loggerheads over which election should be held first, presidential or parliamentary. 

SLPP founder, Basil Rajapaksa, who is pushing for an early general election, had another round of talks with President Wickremesinghe on Saturday at the latter’s official residence at Paget Road, Colombo 07. Some political analysts have argued that the UNP’s failure to put on an impressive show of strength on May Day emboldened the SLPP leadership to push for an early general election. Saturday’s Paget Road powwow has been described as amicable, but Basil’s efforts to pressure Wickremesinghe to agree to hold a snap parliamentary election proved futile. Subsequently, UNP propagandists leaked a story to the media that President Wickremesinghe had told Basil in no uncertain terms that there would be no general election before the next presidential poll. The SLPP is not likely to give up its efforts easily, but chances are that the President will not give in either.

Interestingly, Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said in the parliament on Tuesday (07) that there would be no election in 2024 other than the presidential poll. He is one of the several SLPP ministers who are expected to back President Wickremesinghe in the upcoming presidential race.

There are two ways in which the current Parliament can be dissolved. President Wickremesinghe can end its term anytime, or a majority of the MPs can ask the President to do so by signing a resolution to that effect and submitting it to him. Now that Basil has failed to persuade the President to dissolve the parliament, the only option he is left with is to get the government MPs to call for the dissolution of the parliament. The SLPP has a parliamentary majority but some of its MPs have switched their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe, and therefore it cannot muster the support of 113 MPs for a resolution calling upon the President to dissolve the parliament immediately. But the SJB and the NPP have been calling for an early general election, and if the SLPP initiates a resolution to ask the President dissolve the parliament, the Opposition MPs won’t be able to refuse to sign it. But there could be some Opposition MPs who do not want to face a snap general election. Some MPs have been asking for duty-free vehicle permits, which they usually sell to raise funds for electioneering. So, a campaign to muster 113 MPs for a resolution calling for the dissolution of the parliament could go either way.

The SLPP, which had a meteoric rise in national politics, and won three elections in a row, in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and had a two-thirds majority in the parliament, is now struggling for survival. Such is the fate that awaits all political parties that fail to manage their electoral fortunes and are not responsive to public opinion. This is a lesson for all political organizations that become impervious to reality after being ensconced in power.

The SLPP can go on pressuring President Wickremesinghe to dissolve the parliament soon, but it cannot do anything by way of tit for tat even if he continues to ignore its request or demand.  An electoral alliance between the SLPP and the UNP is believed to be likely, but how the minority parties which Wickremesinghe is all out to win over will react to such a union, remains to be seen. The TNA, which alone can deliver a block vote to a presidential candidate of its choice to offset decreases in votes elsewhere is not well disposed towards the SLPP. There’s the rub. 


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