By Vishvanath

An election year has dawned, marking the beginning of what may be called a crossover season. A high-profile defection was reported on Jan. 01, 2024 itself, when SLPP MP Shan Wijelal de Silva (SLFP-Galle District) switched his allegiance to the SJB at the Opposition Leader’s Office, Colombo. His crossover could not have come at a better time for the SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa, who appointed him the SJB organizer for the Ambalangoda electorate.

There is no way the SLPP and President Ranil Wickremesinghe can postpone the next presidential election. Nor can Wickremesinghe advance the presidential polls. Only a popularly-elected President is constitutionally empowered to do so. Wickremesinghe, however, can dissolve the parliament, causing a general election to precede the next presidential contest, but he is not likely to do so because his party, the UNP, is not politically strong enough to face a parliamentary election at this juncture.  Although Wickremesinghe has been able to shore up his image somewhat, the other UNPers have failed to win back popular support.  

MP Wijelal de Silva, who was a Senior Vice President of the SLFP at the time of his defection, was seen with Premadasa, celebrating the dawn of New Year. The SLFP had 14 MPs elected on the SLPP ticket initially, and its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena is now left with only three members of his parliamentary group. Nine SLFP MPs have sided with President Ranil Wickremesinghe. They include Minsters Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. SLFP MP Chandima Weerakkody joined the SJB previously, and Dayasiri Jayasekera, who was sacked as the SLFP General Secretary a few months ago, has chosen to remain independent. He has made known his presidential ambitions probably to attract media attention.   

Sirisena has publicly flayed MP Wijeyalal de Silva for having closed ranks with the SJB. But he did not launch into a tirade. His consternation is understandable. Defections have weakened the SLFP. However, chances are he himself will be left with no alternative but to join a political alliance led by the SJB.

The process of the realignment of political parties has begun in earnest. The dissident SLPP MPs representing the Freedom People’s Congress (FPC) have already joined forces with the SJB. Prof. G. L. Peiris, one of the co-founders of the FPC, is often seen with Opposition Leader Premadasa at media briefings. It is said that FPC leader Dullas Alahapperuma, MP, is not well-disposed towards a coming together between his party and the SJB, but the fact remains that the SLPP dissidents are not strong enough as a political grouping to go it alone at a general election and secure parliamentary representation. They cannot ignore this reality. It is well-nigh impossible for them to win a presidential election, and therefore they will have to back one of the presidential candidates fielded by other political parties, and their choice is very likely to be SJB leader Premadasa; they cannot support either President Wickremesinghe or JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake or the person the SLPP is expected to field as its presidential candidate. Business tycoon Dhammika Perera has revealed that he is desirous of running for President as the SLPP candidate. Thus, the FPC members and other SLPP dissidents who do not want to return to the party’s fold or join the UNP will have to throw in their lot with the SJB after hemming and hawing. The SLFP also cannot afford to do otherwise, given the situation it finds itself in. Unless it closes ranks with the SJB officially, more of its MPs are likely to emulate MP Wijelal de Silva. This must be a disconcerting proposition for the SLFP leadership.

So, the SLFP is likely to be a member of the grand Opposition alliance in the making. Premadasa is upbeat about the new political movement taking form and enhancing his chances in the next presidential race. In fact, Sirisena is closer to Premadasa than any other political leader.

Sirisena and Premadasa are known to have an affinity for each other. They have never crossed swords either in the parliament or elsewhere. They always have something complimentary to say about each other. It may be recalled that Sirisena, as the President, refrained from campaigning against Premadasa in the presidential fray in 2019, vying with Gotabaya Rajapaksa; he chose to remain neutral, instead, and allowed the SLFP MPs and rank and file to act according to their conscience. But some of President Sirisena’s personal staff members were accused of using the Presidential Secretariat to carry out propaganda attacks on Gotabaya, and they sided with Premadasa after the presidential election. The SLPP suspected that they could not have done so unbeknownst to President Sirisena, but it did not pursue the matter as it did not want to antagonize Sirisena, the SLFP being the second largest party in the SLPP-led coalition. However, after Gotabaya’s victory, the SLFP contested the 2020 general election under the SLPP symbol, the Lotus Bud, as a constituent of the SLPP-led Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance. Sirisena has mastered the art of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

How close Sirisena and Premadasa were became clear following the former’s abortive bid to sack the UNP-led Yahapalana government in October 2018. Having appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, President Sirisena revealed at a public rally that he had first offered the premiership to the then UNP MP Premadasa several times but the latter had turned down his offer repeatedly. It was a wise move on the part of Premadasa, who endeared himself to the party’s rank and file, by refusing to accept Sirisena’s offer. That stood him in good stead when he broke away from the UNP to form the SJB. The UNP was reduced to a single National List slot at the 2020 general election. 

Thus, although Sirisena remains noncommittal where the emerging SJB-led Opposition alliance is concerned, the possibility of circumstances and political expediency forcing his hand cannot be ruled out. If the SLFP joins the SJB-led alliance, there will be no need for SLFP MPs to cross over to the SJB with a view to being re-elected.