By Vishvanath

Chief Strategist of the SLPP, Basil Rajapaksa, has returned from the US and started pulling the strings around as if to the manner born. When he landed at the BIA on March 05, the SLPP gave him a rousing welcome, but unlike on previous occasions, not all SLPP stalwarts were there falling over themselves to receive him.

The SLPP, however, succeeded in turning Basil’s return into a grand media event in a bid to gain some political mileage. It may have succeeded in endeavor, but traction so gained is not likely to last long. Some critics of the SLPP are arguing that its reception for Basil at the BIA turned out to be counterproductive because of the conspicuous no-shows. But the SLPP is convinced otherwise.

Basil is no political superman capable of turning around an ailing political party like the SLPP single-handedly overnight, but his return, however, has helped boost the morale of his loyalists and the party seniors. They are now on the offensive on the political front. However, it is the SLPP’s rank and file who will have to be infused with confidence and hope adequately in time for the next election, presidential or parliamentary, if the SLPP is to improve its electoral performance significantly.  

Perhaps, the SLPP’s big show at the BIA on the day of Basil’s return was intended for the consumption of President Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as the UNP rather than that of the public. The SLPP cannot be unaware that there is no way it can shore up its image with the help of such gimmicks, given the sharp decline in its approval ratings thanks to the people’s resentment towards it. The SLPP has to negotiate with President Wickremesinghe from a position of strength, and therefore the hero’s welcome for Basil last week may have been aimed at showing that he is still a force to be reckoned with and exercises control over the SLPP.

The Rajapaksas are resentful that President Wickremesinghe has won over several prominent SLPP MPs, who have already launched a campaign in support of his candidature; they include Nimal Lanza. Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, too, has endorsed Wickremesinghe’s candidature for all practical purposes. Unless the SLPP prevents the disintegration of its parliamentary group urgently, it will lose its bargaining power in negotiating with President Wickremesinghe and the UNP. So, Basil is expected to go all out to consolidate the SLPP’s power in the government in the next few weeks.

Two days after his return to Colombo, Basil set out to do what he came here for. He, together with his elder brother, Mahinda, met President Wickremesinghe at the President’s Office on March 07. It was a closed-door meeting, but according to political insiders their talks were mainly focused on how to contest the future elections, the divestiture of state assets and the devolution of power. Their discussion, however, ended inconclusively, but they are to meet again soon. Their talks are likely to go on over a considerable period of time, given the seriousness and complexity of the issues they have to thrash out.

Speculation is rife in political circles that the SLPP and the UNP are working towards forging an electoral alliance. But the SLPP is in a catch-22 situation. The ongoing economic recovery efforts have upended the SLPP’s policy programme presented to the public before the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls. Those who voted for the SLPP were given to understand that no more power would be devolved to the provinces, and the state institutions would not be privatized under any circumstances.

The government cannot defy the IMF dictates for obvious reasons, and therefore has to privatize state ventures, including profitable ones, as economic bailout conditions, amidst stiff resistance from the Opposition and trade unions. Its policy reversal has been such that the SLPP is now seen to be following the UNP’s policy program, which the people rejected at the 2020 general election. This fact will be held against the SLPP at future elections.

The SLPP is apparently trying to dissociate itself from the current divestiture programme and the move to reinvigorate the Provincial Council system. In other words, it is taking pains to make those measures out to be the UNP’s handiwork. But it cannot deceive the public, who are aware that President Wickremesinghe cannot fulfil the IMF conditions, including the divestiture program, without the backing of the SLPP, which has a parliamentary majority and helps the President with the passage of laws. Even if the SLPP succeeds in making a scapegoat of Wickremesinghe, by any chance, it will find itself in a spot where its attempts to close ranks with the UNP to contest elections are concerned. Worse, it has not been able to find a formidable candidate to run for President.

Basil is known for his lateral thinking. So, it is being widely thought that he might cause a general election to precede the next presidential polls if the SLPP fails to find a presidential candidate and/or is not confident of winning the presidency either under its own steam or with the help of others. Some of the SLPP MPs are confident of their re-election because of their block votes, and other factors, but their chances too will be ruined in case of the SLPP having to contest the coming presidential election before facing a parliamentary contest. It is the other way around for the UNP. Its leader has succeeded in regaining lost ground to a considerable extent, but it is without strong candidates to face a general election.

Basil is expected to begin reorganizing the SLPP shortly, and the SLPP dissidents will have to decide whether to remain in the party or depart. Some of them have already severed their links with the party. Others like Lanza and Ranatunga, straddling the fence, will have to make up their minds, and they will be in a dilemma, for they do not know which election will come first, presidential or parliamentary. They must be hoping and praying that the SLPP and the UNP will agree to form an electoral pact fast so that the question of their having to leave the SLPP does not arise.