Never has the convention of a political party in Sri Lanka evoked so much interest as that of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) did last Friday when its faithful gathered at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium in Colombo.

The message that filtered through in the lead up to the event was public disapproval on a mass scale. Bundles of grass were tied to flagpoles that flew the ‘pohottuwa’ flag in what was a countrywide phenomenon. The SLPP was also mocked and ridiculed mercilessly on social media.  

For the SLPP, it was an acid test because it was the first real show of public support- or the lack of it- since last year’s debacle when its President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had to flee from President’s House through the backdoor while mobs waited outside its entrance.

Understandably, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not present at the convention. This signifies that, for all intents and purposes, his political career is over. Even the Rajapaksas consider him a political liability now.

The leadership of the SLPP was astute at least in one aspect: it chose the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium as its venue. The capacity of the venue is 5000. Divided by the number of parliamentarians still remaining loyal to the party, it meant that each MP had to ensure that forty supporters attended the convention. That, they seemed to have been able to achieve.

Speeches at the convention were limited to just three: by its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, its ideologue and founder Basil Rajapaksa and by its leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. There was not even a vote of thanks. Clearly, the party leadership thought that ‘less is more’ on this occasion.

To Kariyawasam belonged the quote of the day. In any country, he said, when a hundred children were born, there were three who did not do any work, was scornful of others and accused them of being thieves. By emphasising on the phrase ‘seeyata thuna’ or three per cent, he was directing his remarks at the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) now functioning as the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) which polled three per cent of the vote at the last presidential and general elections.

It was a comment that backfired spectacularly. Social media was full of posts that identified the ‘three children’ as Namal, Yoshitha and Rohitha Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s offspring, who ironically appear to fit Kariyawasam’s description.

The speeches of brothers Basil and Mahinda Rajapaksa were utterly predictable. They harked back to the days when Mahinda won the war. If anything, they were both unrepentant at the economic mess they created, despite the Supreme Court, no less, finding them responsible. It proved the point that the SLPP does not have new ideas to inspire the masses and is desperate for a slogan- but doesn’t seem to be able to find one.

What raised many an eyebrow at the convention was the pride of place given to the SLPP’s backbench parliamentarian Dhammika Perera who was afforded a front row seat close to the leadership, a privilege not accorded to far more senior MPs and ministers.

This got tongues wagging that Perera was to be the SLPP’s next presidential candidate. In fact, a news item to this effect hit the media a few days later, only to be denied a short while after.

If the party faithful assembled in the hope that their presidential candidate would be revealed at the convention, they would have been disappointed. That didn’t happen. The only official appointment made at the convention was re-appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as SLPP leader. Appointing someone whose best days as a politician are long gone signifies how low the SLPP’s political stocks are.

It also implies that the ‘heir apparent’ to the SLPP leadership, Namal Rajapaksha, does not want to pick up the baton right now. There can be only one reason for that: the fear of losing. The younger Rajapaksha knows that, no matters who takes up the mantle of SLPP leadership, the party is headed for a dismal defeat at the next national polls, be it presidential or parliamentary elections.    

Despite all this, the speculation around Dhammika Perera being a potential candidate continues. On Wednesday, General Secretary Kariyawasam, responding to this speculation stated that Perera was one of ‘four’ persons who are being considered by the SLPP as possible candidates.

All this needs to be considered in the context of what transpired last Saturday when the leadership group of the SLPP met a day after the convention at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official residence. Kariyawasam was re-appointed General Secretary, Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi was appointed as the new Treasurer of the party while Uthurawala Dammarathana thero was reappointed as the Chairman. Most importantly, the post of National Organiser, previously held by Basil Rajapaksa, was kept vacant.

Kariyawasam tried to explain the latter decision in his own illogical manner. Rajapaksa anyway does the tasks associated with the National Organiser position, so it is being kept vacant in the hope that he will accept it again, he said. This does not make sense at all but then, who expects Kariyawasam to make sense?

What that really means is that the SLPP is keeping its options open. It is still uncertain whether it should contest the presidential elections or whether it should lend its support to Ranil Wickremesinghe. That would depend to a large extent on how Wickremesinghe plays the political game over the next few months. If he wants the SLPP’s support as a party, he will, for instance, have to play ball with them and assure the party that its seniors will get Cabinet posts instead of being relegated to the backbenches as they now are.

So, the SLPP is trying to play hard to get, floating Perera’s name as a potential candidate. Wickremesinghe’s political stocks are not high and his only chance of making any impact is if the ‘pohottuwa’ campaigns for him as well. If they go their own way, he will be left with a bunch of cross-over MPs from the SLPP the Samagi Jana Balavegaya and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in addition to those from his own United National Party, which will not get him anywhere near the finish line.

That then, was the only ‘achievement’ of the SLPP last week: sending that message to Ranil Wickremesinghe- that is, other than re-affirming its position at the bottom of the ladder among major political parties.