By Vishvanath

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election campaign is going into overdrive as the presidential poll draws near. Soon after making an address to the nation and announcing Sri Lanka’s much-hyped external debt restructuring deal, the President attended a rally, held under the theme, Ekwa Jayagamu (‘Victory through unity’) in Matara on Sunday (June 30). What made the event a media sensation of sorts was the presence of a number of key SLPP politicians on the stage including Ministers Prasanna Ranatunga, Ali Sabry, Dr. Ramesh Pathirana and Kanchana Wijesekera, who organized the rally. MPs Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Premanath Dolawatte and State Ministers Rohana Dissanayake and Kanaka Herath were among the SLPP parliamentary group members seen with the Presidents. EPDP leader and Minister Douglas Devananda was also present there. Besides them, several other SLPP MPs representing the New Alliance led by Nimal Lanza are supporting Wickremesinghe’s presidential bid. The SLFP (Siripala faction) is doing likewise.   

Judicial cannibalism is a term President Wickremesinghe used in the parliament, the other day, in protest against a Supreme Court determination on the Gender Equality Bill, parts of which were deemed inconsistent with the Constitution. He has since come in for criticism for trying to intimidate the judiciary and undermine its independence. What we are witnessing on the political front may be considered political cannibalism, in a manner of speaking. The UNP is accused of eating into the SLPP. This is not something the SLPP bargained for when it struck a political deal with UNP leader Wickremesinghe in 2022.

Political parties are driven by predatory instincts. They tend to prey on one another. The SLPP, founded in 2016, almost devoured the SLFP, which was left with no alternative but to be part of an SLPP-led coalition for its survival.  The SLFP has not yet recovered. The SJB cannibalized the UNP to the point of leaving the latter with only a single National List slot at the 2020 parliamentary election. The UNP would have ended up as a mere appendage of the SJB if not for the 2022 popular uprising, which catapulted UNP Leader Wickremesinghe to the presidency. Wickremesinghe seized the opportunity to engineer crossovers from the SJB to stabilize the government, which itself experienced defections.  

The JVP in its formative years sought to infiltrate the SLFP, take over its key positions, ‘swallow it whole’, and emerge as an alternative to the UNP before capturing state power. It is believed that the JVP backed the SLFP-led coalition at the 1970 general election with a view to achieving that goal. Having realized that its Plan A would not work, it carried out its Plan B, which aimed at a violent overthrow of the SLFP-led government. It failed in its endeavor.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the Opposition Leader, in 2004, opposed the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s move to make the JVP a constituent of the SLFP-led UPFA coalition; he warned that the JVP was working according to a plan to swallow the SLFP. Kumaratunga however went ahead with her plan and the UPFA won; the JVP obtained 41 seats and gave up two National List slots for the benefit of the SLFP. The JVP retaliated by asking President Kumaratunga not to appoint Rajapaksa Prime Minister, but in vain. The following year, it made an about-turn and threw its weight behind Rajapaksa in the presidential race, after leaving the Kumaratunga government.

Nobody may have expected the UNP to make a comeback, much less secure the coveted executive presidency, when it suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2020 general election. Paradoxically, its weakness stood it in good stead in 2022, when the SLPP had to hand over the reins of government to someone owing to mass protests against the Rajapaksa family and the suffering their rule inflicted on the public. They handpicked Wickremesinghe, who, they thought, would never pose a political threat to them, given his party’s debilitation. When the Rajapaksas appointed UNP leader Wickremesinghe first as the PM and then elevated him to the presidency, they may have thought that he would be ever dependent on them and they would be able to have him on a string to achieve their goal of making a comeback. They underestimated Wickremesinghe, who has outfoxed them in style.

When the UNP enabled Maithripala Sirisena to achieve his presidential dream in 2015, he was without a single seat in the parliament, but he grabbed the SLFP leadership immediately after his inauguration, formed a national government, and later turned against the UNP and its leader Wickremesinghe. So, why the Rajapaksa family did not expect Wickremesinghe, who is far more capable than Sirisena, to do likewise is the question.   

President Wickremesinghe is seeking to secure the backing of the SLPP without the Rajapaksas. Hence, Minister Prasanna Ranatunga’s suggestion at a recent meeting President Wickremesinghe had with SLPP founder, Basil Rajapaksa, that Wickremesinghe should be supported by a political alliance with the SLPP as a constituent without the members of the Rajapaksa family in leadership positions. He angered Basil beyond measure, according to media reports quoting political sources. Basil reportedly lashed out at Ranatunga, snapping that it would not be possible to keep the Rajapaksas down in that manner. Some Basil loyalists subsequently took on Ranatunga and other SLPP dissidents, claiming that they had opposed the appointment of Wickremesinghe as the PM, but were now his ardent supporters. However, what Basil tried to wish away is coming to pass. The SLPP has failed to prevent its MPs from siding with the President, whose political alliance is gaining momentum.

President Wickremesinghe’s Matara rally must have come as a real shock to the SLPP leadership, which has been involved in a political battle with the UNP, the recent ‘poster war’ being a case in point. The UNP had wayside walls covered with posters with the slogan Suba Aranchiyak (‘Glad Tidings’) in the run-up to President Wickremesinghe’s announcement of the foreign debt restructuring agreement. The SLPP sought to spoil the UNP’s attempt to build suspense by piquing curiosity of the public ahead of the President’s address to the nation, and the announcement of the debt deal; it put up posters strategically below the ones pasted by the UNP, announcing that it would field a separate presidential candidate. This angered the UNP beyond measure, and some Rajapaksa loyalists twisted the knife by boasting of having spoiled the UNP’s propaganda drive. But their efforts to prevent the UNP from gaining political mileage from the debt agreement failed. Worse, they had its ministers attending the UNP’s Matara rally, where Ministers Ranatunga and Wijesekera showered praise on Wickremesinghe in their speeches. Wijesekera went so far as to claim that the SLPP itself would back the President in the presidential race, the implication being that it was left with no alternative but to do so.

The rift between the SLPP and the UNP has thus become irreversible, and whether the Rajapaksas will seek to prevent its MPs siding with President Wickremesinghe in droves by backing his candidature or opt to field its own presidential candidate as a countermove remains to be seen. But the SLPP MPs cannot be unaware that their party lacks popular support to be able to win any election under its own steam in the foreseeable future, and therefore they are likely to throw in their lot with Wickremesinghe, who is a frontrunner for the presidency.