Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa would have the public believe that he and his party, the SJB, are capable of bringing down the SLPP-UNP administration at a time of their choosing and form the next government. His trusted lieutenants also never miss an opportunity to declare that the writing is on the wall for the beleaguered government riven by dissension and fractions, and toppling it will be child’s play for them.

Curiously, in spite of all their rhetoric, and gimmicks, to infuse their parliamentary group members and supporters at large with hope and confidence, some SJB MPs are calling upon Premadasa and President Ranil Wickremesinghe to unite. This can be taken as an indication that the SJB MPs who are making that call are not confident that their party can capture power under its own steam, and needs the UNP’s help, or they are trying to prepare the ground for throwing in their lot with Wickremesinghe without decamping.

Glorious uncertainties

Nothing is said to be so certain as the unexpected in politics as in cricket. Last year, SJP leader Premadasa rejected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s invitation to become the Prime Minister, during Aragalaya, because he thought he would be able to turn the tables on the SLPP, causing a snap general election to be held and win it. He kept on saying he would exercise state power only after obtaining a popular mandate for doing so.

Never in his wildest dreams may Premadasa have thought the UNP, which had been left for dead after its crushing defeat in 2020, would give him the run for his money. Some of his MPs have already switched their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe, and are helping the government retain a working majority in Parliament; prominent among them are Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando.

President Wickremesinghe is exerting an enormous pull on the SJB’s parliamentary group, which Sajith has had to struggle to keep intact. The unexpected turn of events on the political front during the past one and a half years or so has landed Sajith in a situation where it takes all the running he can do, one may say with apologies to Lewis Carroll, to keep in the same place. He is travelling the length and breadth of the country, making speeches and donating buses, etc., to drum up support for the SJB, and to keep the morale of his party activists and MPs from sagging.

Renewed call for unity

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathna, too, has lent her voice to the ongoing campaign to bring Premadasa and Wickremesinghe together. She has said the two leaders should sink their differences and form an alliance for the sake of the country.

When politicians say they are doing or proposing something for the sake of the country or the public, their claim is to be taken with a pinch of salt, for they are driven by self-interest more than anything else. So, the intention of those who are trying to reconcile Premadasa and Wickremesinghe is obviously to further their own interests rather than those of the general public. They know which side their bread is buttered.

UNP’s counterattack

The UNP is all out to take the tide in its affairs at the floods, so to speak, and turn itself around in time for the next election. Naturally, it is working overtime to recover lost ground at the expense of its off-shoot, the SJB, which ate into its support base to secure 54 seats at the 2020 general election.

UNP leader Wickremesinghe’s elevation to the executive presidency, last year, was a sheer stroke of serendipity, but he is apparently managing his party’s political windfall prudently—for once—having learnt a bitter lesson at the last general election (2020), where he lost his seat and the UNP was reduced to a single National List slot.

Premadasa and SJB seniors may have thought it would be plain sailing for them to capture power with the UNP being in total disarray, but it has been quite a struggle for them to prevent a further erosion of their parliamentary group. They not only misread the SJB’s electoral performance in 2020 but also underestimated the UNP’s potential.

Fate of breakaway groups

Not all breakaway groups succeed in politics. The SLFP emerged as an offshoot of the UNP and evolved into a formidable political force, but its success was mostly due to the fact it managed to be an alternative to the UNP, politically, economically and culturally, and, most of all, it synced with the socio-political milieu it found itself in besides being led by a capable political leader—S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who became the choice of the nationalist forces.

The second major split of the UNP occurred in the early 1990s, when a group of its dissidents led by political heavyweights such as Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake broke away from it and founded the DUNF (Democratic United National Front) following their abortive bid to impeach the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The DUNF had a meteoric rise in politics, though its policies were not much different from the UNP’s, and launched a successful campaign against President Premadasa and revitalized the Opposition. But after the assassinations of Athulathmudali and Premadasa in quick succession in 1993, it withered away as fast as it had blossomed with Dissanayake returning to the UNP’s fold.

The SLPP also succeeded in producing a President and forming a government, three years after its formation, as a breakaway group because it became a formidable countervailing force to the Yahapalana government led by the UNP. The SLFP cooked its goose by joining forces with the UNP. The then President Maithripala Sirisena also ruined the prospects of the SLFP of winning elections by making a mess of national security. When the SLFP eventually severed its links with the UNP, the SLPP had overtaken it. Most of all, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was still popular, led the SLPP’s election campaigns.

Slips between cup and lip

But circumstances did not turn out to be favourable to the SJB. It may have been hoping to consolidate its position as the alternative government but political vicissitudes consequent to last year’s uprising and the realignment of forces in national policies stood in the way of its plans. There is said to be many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Speculation is rife in political circles that the SLPP and the UNP might coalesce to contest future elections, and they came very close to doing so when the Local Government elections were declared last year. But the two parties are poles apart in many respects, as evident from the SLPP’s stiff resistance to the UNP’s efforts to devolve more powers to the Provincial Councils, and privatize the state-owned enterprises including the profitable ones. There is no such incompatibility between the UNP and the SJB where their policies are concerned. They are two peas in a pod. What is keeping them apart is their leaders’ animosity towards each other as well as their competing political interests and ambitions.

Coil tightens

Politically speaking, the UNP has already wrapped two or three loops around the SJB, which shows signs of being constricted.

Premadasa will be lucky if his efforts to extricate his party from the UNP’s constriction coil, which is tightening, reach fruition. He has his work cut out.

Politics is a game of snakes and ladders of sorts, where one’s luck matters more than anything else, Wickremesinghe’s serendipitous elevation to the highest position in the country being a case in point. Only time will tell whether Premadasa is lucky enough to keep his party together and steer it to success.