By Kassapa 

After months of dilly-dallying and procrastinating, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has a stark political choice before him: does he align himself with the Rajapaksas or does he dump them now?

This is, of course, assuming that Wickremesinghe will run for President. He is likely to, despite the speculation about extending his term of office by one year without a referendum. The public backlash generated by all this talk about postponing elections has left Wickremesinghe with little choice: he can have one last tilt at the highest elected office in the land or let it go and enter the history books as being in politics for almost five decades and being Prime Minister six times without ever being the elected Head of State. Burdened by a massive ego, he is likely to opt for the former.

All indications are that, at the present time, he is third in the popularity stakes, behind Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa, most likely in that order. To have any realistic chance of winning, he needs to rally the troops and put together a team that will work for him within a very short time frame because elections are due in less than four months.

Wickremesinghe’s main problem is the derelict state of his United National Party (UNP). He has now been President for almost two years and has admittedly had to devote much of his time to running the country, but he hasn’t had the foresight to resurrect, rejuvenate and reorganise the UNP, so that its election machinery is up and running at full speed. It is only now that the grassroots networks are being reactivated. That might be too late.

To address this, Wickremesinghe has to rely on the network of another party. This is where the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) comes in handy. He is already running a government with their help, has regular pow-wows with its strategist Basil Rajapaksa and would very much like to access their network for his own election purposes.

The Rajapaksas, in the doldrums in terms of popularity and with no viable candidate of their own- Dhammika Perera being just a dummy put up for appearances sake- are not averse to this idea. They have nothing to lose. If Wickremesinghe wins, they can piggy-back to power with him, if he is defeated, the SLPP will still be around to fight the next election.  

So, it would make perfect political sense for Wickremesinghe to align himself with the Rajapaksas and the SLPP and run for office. Given a free hand, this is also what he would do. However, this plan has run into difficulties pushing Wickremesinghe into a tight corner.

Wickremesinghe was planning to project himself as a ‘national’ or ‘independent’ or ‘common’ candidate, working for the betterment of the country, albeit with the support of various political parties. He was planning a rainbow coalition of sorts where anyone will be most welcome under the guise of ‘strengthening Ranil’s hands’ to restore the country’s economy.

Towards this end, he was hoping to recruit not only the Rajapaksa faction of the SLPP but also those opposed to the Rajapaksas within that party, the group led by the likes of Nimal Lanza, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayanatha. However, this group has been adamant in their stance that they simply cannot face the public on the same platform with the Rajapaksas. In fact, they believe it will be damaging to Wickremesinghe to align himself with the Rajapaksas as it can cost him many votes as the former first family is such a damaged brand name now.

Wickremesinghe’s other plan is to bolster his chances by recruiting individual parliamentarians from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). This is not an unrealistic prospect, given that many SJB MPs still see Wickremesinghe as their political mentor and at the same time are enduring brickbats from the public due to the reckless words and deeds of their leader Sajith Premadasa.

This is no longer a figment of someone’s imagination. Rajitha Senaratne is openly campaigning for a merger between the UNP and the SJB saying that if this doesn’t occur, the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) will be the beneficiary with Anura Kumara Dissanayake becoming President. However, Premadasa still feels that he can outlast and outrun Dissanayake and is keen to run his own race. As a result, Wickremesinghe’s Plan B is to poach SJB parliamentarians, one at a time.

Here too, Wickremesinghe has encountered the same problem: SJB MPs do not wish to be on the same political group as the Rajapaksa-led SLPP. As the presidential election will precede the general election, they feel that being on the same alliance with the Rajapaksas and the SLPP will most likely affect what little chance they have of returning to the next Parliament.

Then, there is a third group of politicians, mostly ministers such as Prasanna Ranatunga, Bandula Gunawardena, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Tiran Alles and Ali Sabry, who are still on good terms with the Rajapaksas but at the same time firmly believe that only Wickremesinghe has even a slight chance of victory at the next presidential election. They are trying to convince the Rajapaksas that the SLPP should endorse Wickremesinghe wholeheartedly- at a time when Namal Rajapaksa is constantly harping about differences in policy and his opposition to privatisation.

With these diverse groups pulling in different directions, Wickremesinghe is indeed in a dilemma. He can opt to identify himself with the SLPP and the Rajapaksas but that may cost him the support of the ‘independent’ SLPP types, those in the SJB, not to mention the potential public backlash against such a move.

Or else, he could opt to dump the Rajapaksas and their faction of the SLPP altogether and try to forge an alliance of like-minded politicians, including those from the SLPP and the SJB and run the race with slogans that would also hurt the Rajapaksas.

For months now, Ranil Wickremesinghe has been deferring making a definite choice on this issue. Within the next few weeks, he will have to decide. To be Ranil Wickremesinghe or Ranil Rajapaksa, that is the question.      


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