• Some of its high-profile politicians are hedging their bets and biding their time.
  • Many believe the Rajapaksa duos absence from the DDR debate is more a face-saving strategy than being in defiance of Wickremesinghe

The huge hullabaloo last week about Domestic Debt Restructuring (DDR) mandated by the International Monetary Fund was, in fact, much ado about nothing. It was a done deal and there was no reverting to the status quo.

The debate on this issue in Parliament was at the request of President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Had the vote at the end of the debate failed to endorse the DDR process, it would have still progressed. This was all just so Wickremesinghe could play the role of the great democrat and say he even got approval from Parliament. It also meant that, if the DDR exercise goes horribly wrong, he could then say even Parliament approved it.

The only consequence of value that came from the day long debate, apart from allowing the opposition to take its case to the public, was the vote itself and its reflection of how precarious the government’s hold on power is, at this time.

At first glance, this does not seem to be the case. The DDR process was endorsed by 122 votes to 62, a comfortable majority of 60 votes and that too after quite a few parliamentarians being absent. However, a closer look at who votes for what and who kept away from the vote paints an entirely different picture.

The general impression of the political equation at this time is that the government, with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as its main party in Parliament is working together with Wickremesinghe and his United National Party (UNP). Against them are the major parties in the opposition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB). The allegiance of the Tamil National Alliance is yet to be determined though they oppose the government on a raft of issues. The main Muslim parties are aligned with the SJB.

In addition, two groups who were elected to Parliament from the SLPP but have now become ‘independent’ have also emerged: the Nidahasa Jathika Sabhawa (NJS) led by Dullas Alahapperuma and G.L. Peiris and the Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya (ULS) led by Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila. The SLFP also contested under the SLPP ticket but many of its parliamentarians have opted to sit on the opposition benches.

However, the vote on DDR does not reflect this. Voting with the government were several parliamentarians from the opposition. They included recently appointed SJB parliamentarian A.H.M. Fowzie, SLFPer Duminda Dissanayake who until now was identified as being on the opposition benches, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Sudarshini Fernandopulle, John Seneviratne, Piyankara Jayaratne and Kumara Welgama who were previously identified as being ‘independent.’

Among the notable absentees from the opposition camp were former President Maithripala Sirisena from the SLFP and Rajitha Senaratne and Mayantha Dissanayake from the SJB. Conspicuous by their absence from the government ranks were none other than former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the heir apparent in the SLPP, Namal Rajapaksa. Chamal Rajapaksa did however attend and vote with the government.

Those from the opposition or the so-called ‘independents’ who voted for the government could be identified as being at high risk of being ‘poached’ by the Wickremesinghe camp by the time of the next major national election, most likely being the presidential election. The same applies for the SJB’s notable absentees, Senaratne and Dissanayake. The former is said to be waiting for the opportune moment to switch sides. The latter, whose brother Navin Dissanayake was recently appointed a Governor by Wickremesinghe, is unlikely to be in a different camp from his sibling.

The vote is also an indication that the likes of Yapa, Fernandopulle, Seneviratne, and Jayaratne who previously announced themselves as being ‘independent’ of the SLPP are slowly but surely aligning themselves with the government again. Whether that is with the SLPP itself or whether this is with Wickremesinghe remains to be seen. Of the original six MPs who defected in this manner only former Deputy Speaker Chandima Weerakkody voted against DDR.

This pattern of voting is therefore an indication that the opposition cannot be complacent. Some of its high-profile politicians are obviously hedging their bets and biding their time. At the slightest whiff of Wickremesinghe having an even chance at the next presidential poll, they will jump ship into his waiting arms.

The absence of the Rajapaksa duo, Mahinda and Namal also raised eyebrows. This was despite entreaties from Wickremesinghe to all SLPP MPs to remain in Colombo and attend Parliament. Many believe their absence is more a face-saving strategy than being in defiance of Wickremesinghe: if the DDR exercise goes wrong, they can always say they never voted for it.

It is also a hint that the Rajapaksas themselves are uncertain what their strategy would be, come 2024. It is understood that Basil Rajapaksa wants at least strong a SLPP team in Parliament and would prefer a SLPP candidate running for President. Namal Rajapaksa favours the idea of lying low for now- given the high level of public resentment against the Rajapaksa clan at present- with the aim of running for President in 2029.

Even if the SLPP does support a Wickremesinghe candidacy in 2024, it will be crunch time when the general election is held when the SLPP and the UNP will have to either field separate candidates or run on a common list, an unthinkable proposition for candidates at the electoral level.

What emerges without any ambiguity from this is the strategy adopted by Wickremesinghe: contest with the backing of his own UNP, a sizeable section of the SJB if possible and a selected group from the SLPP. This will be his team and he will then tell the mainstream SLPP to either ‘take it or leave it’: they could join him in this exercise or run on their own with little chance of success.

Despite all his previous political sins and his current authoritarian tendencies, Wickremesinghe has every chance of success with this tactic- especially if the opposition remains hopelessly divided with the SJB and JJB at each other’s throats. The vote on the DDR should open the eyes of the opposition- unless they are so blind that they do not wish to see.