Several Opposition parties are planning to form a grand coalition with a view to turning the tables on the government. Negotiations on the proposed alliance are already underway with the SJB, the SLPP dissidents and others discussing modalities, according to media reports.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to political alliances and has as many as 86 political parties. This number is too high for a small country with a population of only about 22 million. But only a handful of these parties are functional, and others become active only during elections; some of them are even for sale! There is hardly any party that has not been part of a coalition.

The Proportional Representation (PR) system has led to the growth of smaller political parties, for they stand a chance of securing an NL seat or two on the basis of countrywide votes they poll at general elections. At the 2020 parliamentary polls, the UNP, too, was left with only a single NL seat just like the ‘Ape Janabala Pakshaya,’ which appointed Ven. Athuraliye Rathana to Parliament.

Inevitability of coalitions

The PR system also brings about situations where the major political parties fail to secure working majorities in the parliament, and have to coalesce with their smaller counterparts to form governments. Coalition politics has become the order of the day, as a result. Why the SJB and the SLPP dissidents are trying to form a political alliance is therefore understandable.

The chances of the SJB and the SLPP dissident group being able to topple the SLPP-UNP government by depriving it of a majority in the parliament are remote. The SLPP has managed to engineer some crossovers and retain a comfortable majority in the House and continues to frustrate the Opposition’s efforts to dislodge it. It has all vital Bills passed in the House.

It is not likely that the local government elections will be held anytime soon. The SLPP-UNP alliance is wary of facing an electoral contest lest its actual strength should be exposed ahead of the next parliamentary or presidential polls. But the fact remains that even a highly unpopular government can retain its hold on the parliament by manipulating its composition despite electoral setbacks. The UNP-led Yahapalana government continued to have a parliamentary majority notwithstanding the UNP’s humiliating defeat at the 2018 local government elections, which the SLPP won handsomely; the SLFP, which closed ranks with the UNP, in 2015 to form the Yahapalana government, also faced a crushing electoral setback in 2018.

The UNP, in spite of its electoral defeat, even succeeded in aborting a joint attempt that the then UPFA dissidents led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and President Maithripala Sirisena, who fell out with the UNP, made to bring down the yahapalana administration in October 2018.

Since there are no signs of an election being held in the foreseeable future, and the government has managed to secure enough numbers in the parliament, will a grand alliance of oppositional forces serve any purpose?

The Opposition is not as active as it should be, and public protests are few and far between. Not even the JVP stages shows of strength these days for some strange reasons. So, what do the SJB and the SLPP rebel MPs intend to achieve by forging an alliance apart from taking on the government unitedly? Will they contest future elections as a coalition? These are some of the questions the SJB and the SLPP dissidents will have to answer if they are to enlist public support for their alliance in the making.

Ground reality

There are several key factors that will militate against the proposed alliance between the SJB and SLPP dissidents. The SJB, an offshoot of the UNP, is known for its advocacy of liberalism, which underpins its economic policies, though its leader Sajith Premadasa speaks of wealth distribution, labour rights and social welfare. It has inherited these economic policies from the UNP, which it has offered itself as an alternative to.

What will the economic strategy of the new Opposition alliance on the drawing board be? Economic liberalization is a common denominator between the SLPP breakaway groups and the SJB, but their economic policies are different in some important respects.

Unlike the SJB, which follows classical liberalism or neoliberalism, the SLPP rebels claim to espouse social democracy, which promotes the equitable redistribution of national wealth and is at variance with liberalism, which promotes wealth accumulation more than anything else. They are also opposed to the divestiture of state ventures, and known for their brand of nationalism, which has not been to the liking of the ethno-religious minorities and their political parties.

Biggest challenge

Thus, the biggest challenge before the SJB and the SLPP dissidents is to reconcile their divergent policies and ideologies and agree on a common politico-economic agenda to emerge as a formidable countervailing force against the government.

The SJB and the SLPP rebel groups will have their work cut to do so. Some members of the two parties formed by the SLPP rebel MPs—the Freedom People Alliance and the Supreme Lanka Coalition—have taken exception to IMF assistance, and are seen to be pro-Chinese. The SJB has welcomed the IMF help to sort out the economy though it is critical of some of the conditions for the bailout package, one being the domestic debt restructuring.

If the Oppositional alliance being formed is based on a long-term political strategy, who will be its presidential candidate? Who will be its Prime Minister in case it succeeds in forming the next government? All politicians by nature are ambitious, and there must be several SJB seniors eyeing the coveted premiership. Will they agree to an arrangement, where the PM will be appointed from among the SLPP rebels?

The UNP is all out to eat into the SJB parliamentary group and support base. Some SJB MPs are said to be making overtures to the UNP. Opposition MPs tend to gravitate towards the President in return for positions and other favors.

The SJB backed SLPP dissident Dullas Alahapperuma when the parliament elected the successor of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned due to public protests, last year. But it is highly unlikely that the SJB will agree to field anyone other than its leader Premadasa as the common presidential candidate of the Opposition. After all, the SJB has already declared Premadasa as its presidential candidate.

Speculation is rife in some quarters that the SLPP rebels may agree to support Premadasa in the presidential contest on the condition that one of them will be appointed Prime Minister. But these issues will have to be sorted out once and for all and a common agenda agreed on if the proposed alliance is to become a reality. Easier said than done. Politics is full of uncertainties.