By Kassapa

For weeks, these columns have been filled with details of the outrageous incompetency, impunity and impulsivity with which this government has acted, more so in recent months. The appointments of Ajith Nivard Cabraal and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara thero, the pardoning of Duminda Silva and the gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy and the fertiliser crisis are cases in point.

These issues have brought various sectors to the streets and the public to the point of despair. At the forefront of this ‘struggle’ are various trade unions, some of them affiliated to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

This begs the question, what has become of the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB)? The circumstances that currently prevail in the country would be ideal for an opposition to exploit them to its political advantage but what we have had from the SJB is barely a whimper, apart from some laments every now and then and that too mostly on social media.


Whether the people of this country like it or not, the SJB is now the principal opposition in Parliament where it is by far the single largest party sitting on the opposition benches. Its forerunner, the United National Party (UNP) is hardly worth writing about, being reduced to just one National List seat which they couldn’t fill for nearly a year. Then it was filled by that political ‘has been’, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Nevertheless, the SJB secured a decent fifty-four seats in Parliament. Eight of those MPs have since defected to the ruling coalition and keep voting with the government on key issues such as the vote on the 20th Amendment. While this is not ideal, the SJB still has a decent parliamentary contingent to do battle with the government, both within the legislature and in the public arena. That hasn’t happened.

Recently, a SJB stalwart, former Army Commander Filed Marshal Sarath Fonseka made a critical observation. He noted that despite the government’s massive unpopularity, the public did not see the SJB as an alternative government. Although generally not known for his political acumen, Field Marshall Fonseka has hit the nail on the head in this instance.

It is true that the SJB has had a baptism of fire. It had a precipitous birth, thanks to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s intransigence and his desire to cling on to the UNP leadership, no matter what it cost the party, and, as a result, the nation. The SJB was therefore conceived hurriedly by UNPers who saw no way out of Wickremesinghe’s stranglehold on the Grand Old Party.

The first steps the SJB had to make were complicated further by the fact that, when the party was formed, the country was in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the party’s first few months of political life, the country was in virtual lockdown. The new kid on the political block had to contest a general election within a few months but campaigning was heavily restricted because of the lockdown!

Contrast this with the birth of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) five years ago. To give credit where it is due, Basil Rajapaksa did a stellar job in mobilising public opinion by holding a series of rallies throughout the country titled ‘Mahinda sulanga’, where orator after orator criticised the then government for their inadequacies. As history tells us, it was an effort that was not in vain.


Even if the SJB had a challenging start to its political life and came up with a decent showing at its first electoral outing, there is no reason to rest on those laurels. It has to now take the next step- and that is to become the alternative government in the mind of the public. This, it has sadly not done.

There was a time in Sri Lankan politics, then known as the ‘thattu maaru’ system when the government changed at every election from the UNP to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and vice versa. With the advent of the presidential system of government and the proportional representation system of voting, that is no longer the case. Since 1978, the UNP ruled for seventeen years and we have had SLFP affiliated Presidents since then, Gotabaya Rajapaksa being the exception. In any event the UNP and the SLFP and not the powerhouses they once were and the political equation is now hopelessly skewed in favour of a monolithic SLPP rivalling the puny and up and coming SJB.


So, if the SJB expects that the discontent with the government will automatically translate into a win at the next presidential and general election, they are thoroughly mistaken. They are not the ‘default’ option that the people will naturally look to- not yet, anyway-because of many reasons.

Firstly, the SLPP has virtually taken over the grassroots party network that once belonged to the SLFP because most SLFP stalwarts are now with the SLPP. Secondly, it can be guaranteed that the political and legal strategists of the SLPP ably led by the indefatigable Basil Rajapaksa will pull out all the stops to win the next elections.


The first of these strategies is already looming in the form of a new Constitution which will be enacted next year. The next strategy- of appealing once again to the majority Sinhala Buddhist community at the expense of minorities- has also already been foreshadowed with the appointment of Gnanasara thero to head a Presidential Task Force on legal reforms.


The next presidential elections are due in late 2024- and there is every chance it could be called a few months earlier, so the SJB needs to get its act together quickly. A little more than two years is not a long time politics when an opposition party has to start from scratch and take on a well-oiled-political machine. The SJB’s leader Sajith Premadasa also needs to say more, be seen more and do more- at present he is hardly visible and is not quite the presidential hopeful that one hoped to see contesting Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2024.

Next week may be the second anniversary of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government- but it also means the SJB now has less than three years to mount an effective challenge. Time is running out- not only for the party but for the nation too.


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