Ranil Wickremesinghe if often described as a great political strategist. The evidence is to the contrary. If he was, why would he become Prime Minister six times but never complete a single term of office? Why were all his governments scuttled by the Presidents he served under? And how come he presided over the disintegration of the United National Party (UNP), once the Grand Old Party in the country?

Last week, we once again saw Ranil Wickremesinghe’s poor political acumen on display. However, it was not Wickremesinghe doing the talking but his General Secretary, Palitha Range Bandara, policeman turned politician from the Puttalam district.

Bandara said that, since Wickremesinghe has done such yeomen service in resurrecting the country’s economy, Sri Lankans should allow him two more years as President. To do so, Parliament should sponsor a such a resolution and have it approved at a referendum. In other words, Bandara was suggesting that the presidential election not be held, but a referendum be held instead asking whether Wickremesinghe should be given two more years at the helm.

It is not the first time that such sentiments have been aired. Vajira Abeywardena, Chairman of the UNP and general factotum to Wickremesinghe has said so before publicly. However, that didn’t have the same gravitas. When Bandara said so, he was speaking at an official press briefing of the UNP in his capacity as its General Secretary. What’s more, he was outlining a specific procedure to follow. Naturally, the political world erupted with one common concern: was Wickremesinghe trying to stall this election too?

The opposition is understandably once bitten, twice shy. They were all geared up for the local government election in March 2023 when Wickremesinghe sauntered into Parliament and laughed in everyone’s faces and said, “there is no election, even if there is an election, there is no money”. And indeed, there has been no local government election since then. Moreover, if a presidential election was not held, the situation on the ground would become untenable and a state of anarchy worse than the ‘aragalaya’ would result. So, the collective opposition was worried indeed.

Reference was made to the country’s only referendum, conducted by Wickremesinghe’s uncle, J.R. Jayewardene in 1982. After playing the great democrat in 1977 and blaming Sirima Bandaranaike for arbitrarily extending the life of the National State Assembly by two years from 1975 to 1977 and conducting countrywide ‘satygraha’s against it, Jayewardene deferred parliamentary elections.

The sole purpose of that exercise by Jayewardene was to try and retain as much as he could of the rollicking five-sixth majority he won in 1977. The referendum was a permanent slur on Jayewardene’s credentials as a democrat and signalled the beginning of the end for him. Nevertheless, it could be argued that he was only trying to extend the mandate he received from the people. Wickremesinghe, in stark contrast, has no such mandate: he is only filling the void left by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s hasty retreat.

Hearing Bandara’s statement, even those in the UNP were aghast. It was a spectacular ‘own goal’. Ravi Karunanayake held a media briefing and said he did not endorse those ‘who supply jokes’ to the public. Navin Dissanayake was equally scathing. Politicians in the party who had much less experience than Wickremesinghe had realised the folly of what was done and were desperately trying to engage in ‘damage control’.

Meanwhile, the collective opposition, mostly the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) were having a field day, casting Wickremesinghe in the role of a tin-pot dictator. Even the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the UNP’s partner in their marriage of convenience, was forced to condemn Bandara’s proposal. Bandara bashing had begun in earnest.

At this stage, there was an attempt to shift the blame on Bandara and to portray the statement as a flight of fancy from an incompetent and naïve General Secretary. That was hardly the case. The obvious question is, would the UNP’s General Secretary host an official press conference at the party offices and make such a controversial statement without the knowledge and blessings of the party leader?

If he did, he should have been asked to step down immediately in the wake of the damage it has caused. Nothing of that sort has happened. Bandara not only continues as General Secretary, he made another appearance at yet another official media briefing and re-iterated what he said, this time, armed with relevant clauses of the Constitution. Obviously, some legal minds have sat down with him and told him what he should say. This time, the attempt was to portray that the proposal was theoretically possible within the confines of the Constitution. There was Wickremesinghe’s shadow looming large all over that repeat performance.

So, let us look at what really happened: Wickremesinghe is slowly but surely coming to terms with the fact that, despite all the nefarious forces that he can rally around him, he is not likely to win the next presidential election. Therefore, he floated a trial balloon, with Range Bandara as the scapegoat. When it went horribly wrong, he didn’t have the backbone to stand up on behalf of his General Secretary and own up to the decision. Instead, he let Bandara bite the dust, taking all the flak. Now, he goes around promising yet again that the presidential election will be held on schedule.

The presidential election is mandated by the Constitution unless it is amended- and there is no way a two-thirds majority can be mustered to amend it now. It is not a gift that Wickremesinghe is endowed to bestow on the nation, although he tries to behave like it is. Last week’s theatrics have proved that Wickremesinghe has tried, and miserable failed once more, to try and not conduct a presidential election.

In doing so, Wickremesinghe has unwittingly confirmed what everyone else seems to know anyway: that Ranil Wickremesinghe never did, and never will, win a presidential election. So much so for the master political tactician- ah, his uncle JR must surely be turning in his grave!  


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