The Rajapaksas and their loyalists used to ridicule the UNP for its inability to field its own presidential candidates; UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe shrank from running for President in 2010, 2015 and 2019, consecutively, and let common candidates contest with the support of his party. But today he has become President with the help of the Rajapaksa family itself, and the boot is apparently on the other foot. The SLPP leaders are in a dilemma; they cannot name their next presidential candidate. This has given rise to speculation in political circles that the SLPP will be left with no alternative but to coalesce with the UNP and agree to field Wickremesinghe as the presidential candidate, the way its leaders threw in their lot with him, in the parliament, following the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July 2022.

A political party that cannot contest a presidential election is not taken seriously by the public; it loses popular support considerably and even suffers debilitating splits, as a result. This is what has happened to the UNP over the years. Some SLPP seniors such as Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga have gone on record as saying that they are of the view that President Wickremesinghe is the ideal presidential candidate for the SLPP-UNP government, and they will not hesitate to back him if decides to run for President. In an interview with Hiru TV, on Monday (19) Foreign Minister Ali Sabry did not mince his words when he said President Wickremesinghe was the best presidential candidate he could think of, and he would support the latter. Sabri went on to say he believed that there would be no elections before the presidential polls next year.

Some SLPP dissidents have already broken away and formed two political parties, the Freedom People’s Alliance and the Supreme Lanka Coalition, but problems are not yet over for the ruling party, which has some more dissensions in its ranks to contend with. The SLPP parliamentary group is said to have split into several factions with one of them gravitating towards President Wickremesinghe and speaking of him in glowing terms in public much to the consternation of the SLPP leaders and their supporters.

MP Prof. Ranjith Bandara, a member of Basil Rajapaksa’s inner circle, sought to counter Minister Sabri’ contention. Fielding a question from a reporter at a media briefing, on Wednesday, he said the SLPP would definitely field its own presidential candidate! This could be considered an attempt by the Basil faction of the SLPP to infuse the party’s parliamentary group and rank and file with some hope that the party will turn itself around and be fighting fit before long.

Who will the SLPP’s presidential candidate be? A journalist posed this question to Prof. Bandara, who refused to be drawn on it. When he was asked whether it would be Basil by any chance, he quipped smilingly, “Will there be anything wrong with such a move?” Reflected in this rhetorical question is the SLPP’s thinking; the Rajapaksa family has not given up the hope of fielding one of its members at the next presidential election, and it is not likely to let anyone else use the SLPP to secure the coveted presidency. Prof. Bandara’s rhetorical response at issue could be considered a trial balloon.

The UNP has already declared that its leader Wickremesinghe will be its presidential candidate. Now that a staunch Basil loyalist has said in no uncertain terms that the SLPP will field its own candidate at the next presidential election, will the UNP and the SLPP be able to forge an electoral alliance? President Wickremesinghe is working overtime to shore up his image as the leader who saved the country from an economic catastrophe obviously with an eye to the next presidential race, and the Rajapaksas have not been able to recover any lost ground on the political front, so the UNP, which is confident of securing the presidency, is not likely to agree to support anyone other than its leader at the next presidential candidate.

Beset with internal problems, the SLPP is trying to consolidate its hold on power amidst a political cold war of sorts in the ruling coalition. It has however been careful not to rock the boat in the process. An election is the last thing it needs, and, therefore, it is wary of resorting to any course of action that is fraught with the danger of jeopardizing the survival of the incumbent government. President Wickremesinghe and the UNP are also not ready for an election, and have chosen to tread cautiously. But the SLPP and the UNP are obviously at loggerheads, and the former flexed its muscles the other day; the SLPP leaders refused to attend a meeting summoned by President Wickremesinghe on the grounds that he had not consulted them when he invited all members of the SLPP parliamentary group.

SLPP General Secretary Saragara Kariyawasam told the media afterwards that the President was free to meet all ministers as the Head of the Cabinet but had to obtain the consent of the SLPP leadership before meeting other members of the SLPP parliamentary group. This is an indication of mistrust between the SLPP leadership and President Wickremesinghe.

The SLPP leaders including Basil met the President and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, a few days later, and reaffirmed their support for him in what appeared to be a rapprochement bid. However, some key SLPP MPs have been striking discordant notes.

SLPP MP Sanath Nishantha, a diehard loyalist of the Rajapaksa family, on Tuesday, took a swipe at UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara, who, he said, should not forget that the UNP had come in from the cold by hitching its wagon to the SLPP. Appearing on television, he derided Bandara’s claims of the UNP having emerged strong. MP Namal Rajapaksa has also criticized the government’s divestiture programme, and questioned the wisdom of privatizing profit-making ventures. Speaking to journalists, after leaving the Colombo Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday, he said it was too early to say who the SLPP’s presidential candidate would be.

It has become clear from the frequent outburst of the likes of Sanath Nishantha that the SLPP district leaders are angry with President Wickremesinghe, who has not accommodated them in the Cabinet. They must be feeling slighted because some of their juniors are holding Cabinet posts, which go a long way towards retaining and expanding politicians’ support bases. The SLPP fears that its vote bank will shrink further unless its district leaders are given ministerial power to look after the interests of party supporters, and the UNP has denied them Cabinet posts and is all out to win over the SLPP members of the Cabinet.

Now that the UNP and the pro-Ranil faction of the SLPP have said unequivocally there will be no polls until the next presidential elections, efforts being made to forge an electoral alliance between the SLPP and the UNP will be in vain unless the two parties reach a consensus on who will be their common presidential candidate. Chances are that they will have their work cut out to reach an agreement on the issue, given the high stakes they will have in the next presidential race.