Politics is notoriously fickle and has much more to do with expediency than principle, for ambition takes precedence over everything else in one’s quest for power. Politicians have therefore earned notoriety for unpredictable and unbelievable policy shifts, about-turns, defections and betrayals of all sorts so much so that politics has come to be considered synonymous with treachery.
Sri Lanka has had its fair share of fickle-minded politicians who are evenly distributed across the political spectrum. But there are some political party leaders who stand out from the rest, and SLFP leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena is among them. Perhaps, there is nothing more difficult to get inside than Sirisena’s elusive mind, which changes like the weather.    

Axing of sidekick

Sirisena has removed MP Dayasiri Jayasekera as the SLFP General Secretary, and suspended the latter’s party membership. He did so on Wednesday (06), only three days after the SLFP’s 72nd anniversary celebrations at Monarch Imperial, Jayewardenepura, where he praised Jayasekera and declared that there were no differences whatsoever between them. He claimed that the media was propagating false stories about them.

Sirisena has a history of making quite a few about-turns, turning on the people he speaks very highly of, and readily making peace with his sworn enemies for expediency. In late 2014, he, as the then Minister of Health and SLFP General Secretary, had dinner with his boss, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the eve of his defection to the Opposition, and insisted that he would not run for President. The following afternoon, flanked by some Opposition figures, he announced that he would contest the presidential election!

Having secured the presidency with the help of the UNP in 2015, Sirisena took on UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2018, when he chose to smoke the peace pipe with the Rajapaksa family, whose members he had vowed to throw behind bars for corruption and various crimes only three years back.

It was widely thought that there was some special affinity between Sirisena and Jayasekera. They were always seen together and would speak about each other very flatteringly. Jayasekera has stood by Sirisena through trials and tribulations of politics during the past several years and was in the latter’s inner circle. He was in fact known as Sirisena’s sidekick. What made their relationship turn sour?

What’s up Sirisena’s sleeve?

Sirisena may not compare favorably with the best brains in Sri Lankan politics, but he is blessed with political acumen and adept at figuring out which way the wind blows, and acting accordingly. Otherwise, he would not have been able to claw his way up to secure the coveted presidency with a popular mandate. Now, he seems to have realized the need to hitch his wagon to President Ranil Wickremesinghe—for two reasons, one being political and the other personal.

Sirisena’s chances of winning a presidential election again under his own steam are extremely remote. Wickremesinghe fortuitously finds himself in a position where he can leverage his presidential powers to gain enough political traction to run for president next year. In fact, he has already launched his presidential election campaign to all intents and purposes. The SLPP is not likely to make a comeback in the foreseeable future; it is without a formidable presidential candidate. Sirisena has fallen out with the Rajapaksa family, and therefore the choice he is left with is to throw in his lot with either the SJB or the UNP.

The SJB has already named its leader, Sajith Premadasa, as its presidential candidate, but it is in the UNP’s constriction coil, as we argued in a previous column. Speculation is rife in political circles that President Wickremesinghe is planning to win over some more SJB MPs ahead of the next presidential election, and trap Premadasa in a smothered mate, leaving the latter with no alternative but to support a UNP-led coalition, as its prime ministerial candidate.

The JVP’s stock may have improved somewhat during the past several months, due to its aggressive campaigning replete with gimmicks and fiery oratory, but it has its work cut to increase its national vote percentage, which is currently at 3, to be able to win a presidential election.

The SLPP dissidents are not likely to be a force to be reckoned with at a presidential election, and Dilan Perea, who represents the Freedom People’s Congress led by dissident SLPP MP Dallas Alahapperuma, is already urging JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and SJB leader Premadasa to join forces to contest the next presidential election with either of them as the presidential candidate. This alone is proof that the SLPP dissidents lack the confidence to contest a presidential election on their own.

Sirisena and the dissident SLFP MPs (elected on the SLPP ticket) including Mahinda Amaraweera and Nimal Siripala de Silva, he sacked a few months ago, for accepting Cabinet posts from President Wickremesinghe, have been reconciled. These ministers are said to be pushing for an alliance between the SLFP and the UNP ahead of the next presidential and general elections. Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe go by the maxim that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics, and the efforts of the SLFP ministers to reconcile the duo are therefore likely to succeed. The previous political marriage between the UNP and the SLFP did not last long during the Yahapalana government; President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were at loggerheads. Sirisena even sought to sack Wickremesinghe by appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister in 2018, but a judicial intervention put paid to his effort. But anything is possible in politics, and the possibility of the UNP and the SLFP forging an alliance again cannot be ruled out.

Fear of criminal proceedings

Jayasekera has joined forces with the SLPP dissidents who have formed the Freedom People’s Congress and the Uttara Lanka Sabagaya or the Supreme Lanka Coalition. He is therefore resisting attempts to bring the SLFP and the UNP together. Sirisena and the SLFP ministers who have got around him do not want Jayasekara as the General Secretary for obvious reasons. Hence their decision to remove him from that position to pave the way for the coming together of the UNP and the SLFP. Sirisena has offered to give Jayasekara some other position in the party if the latter agrees to do as the former says.

Jayasekera has resorted to legal action against his removal from the party, but one need not be surprised even if he and Sirisena kiss and make up, with the SLFP coalescing with the UNP. Nothing is said to be so certain as the unexpected in politics, especially in this country. After all, Jayasekera was in the UNP under Wickremesinghe’s leadership for 12 years from 2001 to 2013, when he joined the UPFA to run for Chief Minister of North-Western Province successfully.

Political calculations however are not the only reason for Sirisena’s amenability to the idea of an alliance between the SLFP and the UNP. Pressure is mounting on the government to implement the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which investigated the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings (2019). The Catholic Church has been very critical of the government for not doing so.

The PCoI has specifically recommended that criminal proceedings be instituted against Sirisena, who was the President at the time, for his failure to prevent the terror attacks. He is now at the mercy of President Wickremesinghe, who can have him prosecuted anytime. He therefore has to be in the good books of the President, and the best way for him to do so is to help the latter politically and electorally. Jayasekera became an obstacle in Sirisena’s scheme of things.