The marriage of convenience between Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was, in a sense, a shotgun wedding. Now, is the honeymoon over?

To recap the events that led to Wickremesinghe becoming an ‘Accidental President’, that came about only because he was the Prime Minister when Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to hurriedly flee Presidents’ House through a backdoor on July 09 last year, when enraged masses were at his gates.

That Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister at that time was largely because of Sajith Premadasa. Premadasa, as Leader of the Opposition, had been offered the opportunity to form a government under Rajapaksa but declined to do so, forwarding instead a series of conditions which included Rajapaksa’s resignation. Rajapaksa refused to resign then and offered the Premiership to Wickremesinghe who grabbed it, no questions asked.

By virtue of that stroke of luck- and Premadasa’s lack of political nous- Wickremesinghe became Acting President when Rajapaksa resigned. He then used, abused and manipulated that position when it came to Parliament electing a President to replace Rajapaksa.

At the time, the SLPP found itself between the devil (Wickremesinghe) and the deep blue sea (political oblivion). It opted for the former. Wickremesinghe, with only himself representing the United National Party (UNP) in Parliament, needed the support of the SLPP to remain President. The SLPP, with public anger mounting against them and corruption and economic mismanagement charges looming against many of its stalwarts, needed Wickremesinghe.

If the President elected by Parliament dissolved the House at the earliest available opportunity, it would have been curtains for the SLPP. Wickremesinghe addressed this insecurity, promising wholeheartedly that Parliament would run its full term of five years. Reassured, the SLPP voted for him. Later calculations showed that at least a few Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) parliamentarians had voted for him. Thus was born the marriage of convenience between Wickremesinghe and the SLPP.

Now, the political landscape is somewhat different. Emboldened by his own performance as President, propelled by ambition and encouraged by the lack of formidable candidates in the opposition, Wickremesinghe wants to be elected President when the next polls are held. They are due by October 2024. He is now slowly preparing the groundwork.

It is a similar scenario to what Wickremesinghe encountered when he was Acting President. To become the next President, he would require the support of a major political party. His own UNP is a shadow of the Grand Old Party it once was in the halcyon days of J. R. Jayewardene. Again, he needs the support of others.

Initially, it was thought that the ‘deal’- or the unwritten understanding between Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas was to ‘hold the fort’ until 2029. Wickremesinghe would contest in 2024 with the support of the SLPP, govern until 2029 and then pass the reins to Namal Rajapaksa at the time.

It was said to be a ‘win, win’ deal because the SLPP, if it did field its own candidate in 2024, would have minimal prospects of winning. Such an agreement would have kept both Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas happy and the status quo will be maintained regarding the balance of power, Wickremesinghe controlling the Executive and the SLPP dominating the legislature.

After ten months in office- and with only eighteen months more to go- Wickremesinghe is having other ideas. He does not wish to identify himself with the SLPP, lock, stock and barrel possibly because he realises that some of their leading personalities could become a political liability at an election. That is also why he has been evasive to entreaties from the SLPP hierarchy to appoint some of these individuals with questionable credentials to the Cabinet.

Instead, Wickremesinghe has chosen another strategy. He is now identifying individuals from the SLPP- and indeed from the SJB and other parties as well- and inviting them to join him. As a result, at least three ministers from the SLPP, Kanchana Wijesekera, Bandula Gunawardena and Prasanna Ranatunga have publicly stated that they would support Wickremesinghe as a candidate at the next presidential election.

The most unequivocal comments came from Ranatunga. He told the media that Wickremesinghe would have his wholehearted support if he were to run as a ‘common’ candidate endorsed by the SLPP. This growing list of SLPP ministers publicly pledging their support to Wickremesinghe to run as a candidate for an election that is eighteen months away has alarmed the Rajapaksas.

It is now understood that the SLPP leadership has issued instructions to its ministers not to speak publicly about who it would endorse for the next presidential poll. The SLPP’s General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam went on a damage control counter claim, suggesting that Basil Rajapaksa would be the ‘ideal’ candidate to run for President in 2024 due to his record as Minister of Economic Development.

Given Rajapaksa’s abysmal record as Finance Minister and his being a United States citizen still, no one took Kariyawasam’s statement seriously but it was an indication that feathers had been ruffled in the SLPP and the Rajapaksas are concerned. They are worried that Wickremesinghe is deviating from their original understanding and trying to poach their ministers to his own camp.

They are concerned that Wickremesinghe will cobble together a ‘rainbow coalition’, a group of politicians from the UNP, the SLPP, the SJB, from the parties representing the Tamil and Muslim communities and assorted independents and present a grand alliance backing him for the Presidency.

If that eventuates and he succeeds in winning the contest, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t be beholden to the SLPP as he now is. The next step would be to invite all of them to join a grand UNP-led alliance, which they would almost certainly do. Wickremesinghe will then go down in history as the man who single-handedly restored the UNP to its former glory, consigning the SLPP to the ranks of a meagre opposition.

This is what worries the Rajapaksas. They are watching Wickremesinghe’s next move with trepidation and among them at least Namal Rajapaksa is said to be defiant, saying he wouldn’t allow this to happen. Nevertheless, eighteen months is an era in Sri Lankan politics and much could happen in that time- but it will be an eventful eighteen months for sure.



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