There is no likelihood of a presidential election being held this year. The Constitution permits only popularly elected Presidents to advance presidential elections, and President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was elected by the parliament, cannot opt for early presidential polls unless a constitutional amendment is introduced to empower him to do so. There is no way the government could muster a two-thirds majority in the parliament to change the Constitution. (It is reportedly struggling to secure a simple majority in the House for a resolution to oust Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka, Janaka Ratnayake. The vote on the resolution is to be taken on 24 May). However, the SJB has already nominated its leader Sajith Premadasa as its presidential candidate. It did so at a recent meeting of its Working Committee.

What made the SJBP announce its presidential candidate so early? It has apparently sought to reaffirm its faith in the party leadership amidst dissension within its parliamentary group, and the UNP’s efforts to win over some of its MPs. Suresh Vadivel, MP, has pledged his support for President Wickremesinghe, after falling out with Premadasa, and former MP P. Harrison has defected to the UNP. These developments have had an unsettling impact on Premadasa, who is trying to consolidate his position in the SJB as well as the Opposition. The JVP has stepped up propaganda attacks on the SJB and Premadasa. Its former MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa has said at a recent party event that the SJB parliamentary group is eroding with its MPs closing ranks with President Wickremesinghe at such a rate that Premadasa had better rejoin the UNP without misleading the public.


Sajith must have heaved a sigh of relief when the UNP was reduced to a single National List slot at the 2020 general election, thinking that it was curtains for his bete noire, Wickremesinghe, at last, and the SJB would be able swallow the UNP whole, so to speak, emerge as a formidable alternative to the ruling SLPP, and capture power. The main Opposition party usually becomes optimistic about forming a government, for the ruling party loses popularity with the passage of time mostly due to anti-incumbency sentiments of the public.

Sajith’s main shortcoming is that he is slow on the draw. When he finally mustered the courage, after years of dilly-dallying, to demand that the UNP nominate him as its presidential candidate in 2019, it was already late and, worse, he was at the mercy of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was clinging on the UNP leadership and did not want any other UNPer to win the presidency because the President elected from the UNP automatically becomes the party leader. The UNP therefore did not throw its weight behind Sajith fully. Mahinda Rajapaksa found himself in a similar situation in the run-up to the 2005 presidential election, where the SLFP under the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, did not back him, nay tried to engineer his defeat. Kumaratunga, who was at loggerheads with Mahinda, stood accused of being partial to UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister at the time.

Mahinda was lucky that the JVP backed him to the hilt, and the popularity of the UNP, which had wielded power for several years and compromised national security, was on the wane. Sajith should have fought and grabbed the UNP leadership before coming forward as the party’s presidential candidate; it is doubtful whether he would have been able to secure the presidency even if he had become the UNP leader, but he would not have had to take the trouble of breaking up the UNP and forming the SJB. He succeeded in enabling the SJB to secure as many as 54 seats, but underestimated the UNP and Wickremesinghe.

Missed opportunity

It was a huge mistake for Premadasa to reject President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s offer to appoint him the Prime Minister, last year. He first spurned Gotabaya’s offer contemptuously and then upped the ante, prompting the Rajapaksa family to look for an alternative, and offer the premiership to Wickremesinghe, who grabbed it, and went on to become the President. Premadasa must be ruing the day he missed that opportunity, allowing Wickremesinghe to make a dramatic comeback.

Politically speaking, the worst time for a country is the best time for its Opposition, which can project itself as a savior during crises and win over public support by making promises of all sorts. So, it is only natural that the SJB was working on the basis that the economic crisis would worsen and the SLPP government would collapse, necessitating an early general election. The economy was contracting at a rate without foreign reserves, and the people were rioting in mid-2022; nobody expected the situation to improve at all with queues for essentials such as fuel and cooking gas becoming longer. The SJB, therefore, may have decided against joining forces with the Rajapaksa government.

The appointment of Wickremesinghe as the PM led to unforeseen problems for the SJB and Premadasa. When he became the Acting President and faced an election in the parliament to be the successor of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned, he had to win over some SJB MPs, and among those who pledged support for him were Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara. Their defection was a huge blow to the SJB.

The UNP’s revenge

The SJB became the second largest party in the parliament by eating into the UNP’s support base, and therefore it is at the expense of the SJB that President Wickremesinghe will have to rebuild the UNP. He can leverage his presidency to revitalize the UNP, and he has already engineered several defections from the SJB, and MP Suresh Vadivel sided with him the other day.

What matters most in Sri Lankan politics is expediency rather than principles, and speculation is rife that some more SJB MPs are likely to switch their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe, who is their former boss.

Minister Manusha Nanayakkara is reported to have bragged that several more SJB MPs will join the government soon. Whether his statement is true or false, one may not know, but it has had an unsettling effect on the SJB amidst speculation that Dr. Rajitha Senaratne will cross over to the government if he is offered the post of Health Minister. It is being claimed in some quarters that SJB MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka is also planning to join the government, but he has said he will not do so.

Memories of Premadasa Snr.

The national economy is showing some signs of recovery at last much to the relief of the public, who were troubled by shortages of all sorts and had to languish in winding queues to buy essentials. An abatement of public resentment is good for the country but disadvantageous to the Opposition. The situation is particularly unfavorable to the SJB because the UNP is all out to recover lost ground on the political ground at its expense.

Sajith leaves no stones unturned in his efforts to keep the SJB’s parliamentary group and the support base intact, and make his party appealing to the public. He has even resorted to evoking the memories of his late father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, to shore up his image as a strong leader and man of action, and thereby gain some political mileage. He has been heard stressing that his detractors should bear in mind that he is the son of Premadasa.

Many people did not have so high an opinion about Premadasa Snr. towards the end of his presidential term. The assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali turned public opinion against him as well as the UNP, and created conditions for the 1994 regime change. Some people even celebrated President Premadasa’s assassination in 1993. Thus, the evocation of the memories of his late father could prove counterproductive for Sajith, politically, but the fact remains that there have been instances where the sons of unpopular leaders have made comebacks in other countries.

President Ferdinand Marcos became a hate figure in the Philippines and was ousted by a popular uprising, which came to be known as the People Power Revolution, in 1986. But his son, Bongbong or Romualdez became the President of the Philippines, last year. Surprisingly, being the son of a former dictator was his only qualification for entering national politics and running for President!

Sajith’s dilemma

President Wickremesinghe has already launched his presidential election campaign for all practical purposes. He is busy travelling all over the country, attending opening ceremonies, etc., and launching various projects. He is also in overdrive to strengthen the UNP, whose gain will be the SJB’s loss. Some SJB seniors are resentful that their party is run by a cabal of loyalists, who make all decisions, and they are not in the loop. There have also been allegations that Sajith’s family members interfere in party affairs.

SJB MP and former Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka has formed a new political party, which is to be officially launched on May 22, when Sri Lanka’s Republic Day falls. He has named it the United Republican Front. It is widely thought that he will run for President next year and try to capitalize on the public disillusionment with the main political parties, and the resentment of the youth, who are calling for a system overhaul.

Ranawaka has recently said Sri Lankans are likely to emulate their Thai counterparts, who have elected a Harvard-educated entrepreneur, Pita Limjaroenrat, 42. If Ranawaka enters the presidential fray, there will be another split in the Opposition’s votes. The JVP will also field a presidential candidate, and the SLPP dissidents are likely to do likewise. There is also the possibility of some disgruntled SJB MPs siding with Ranawaka in the near future, according to some political observers.

Politics is notoriously unpredictable and similar, in some respects, to the children’s game, Snakes and Ladders. Sajith was scoring heavily on the political front while President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was making mistakes one after the other, but everything changed unexpectedly after Wickremesinghe’s ascension to power, which has no parallels anywhere in the world.

There is said to be many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip, and Sajith’s predicament exemplifies this adage.












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