By Vishvanath

Political parties are upshifting with only about eight months to go for the next presidential election. The SLPP-UNP government stands accused of trying to put off the presidential poll as well, the way it postponed the Local Government polls, last year, but dissident SLPP MP and former Constitutional Affairs Minister, Prof. G. L. Peiris, has said the next President will have to be sworn in before Nov. 17, 2024; otherwise the government will become an illegal entity and  isolated internationally. But some election monitors are of the view that the government is planning to starve the Election Commission of funds for elections again so that it will not be able to conduct the presidential election.

Citing a recent government communique issued by the Ministry of Media on Cabinet decisions made on Feb. 05, 2024, Executive Director of the Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies Manjula Gajanayake has said the Cabinet has decided to reduce the funds allocation for the presidential and general elections by 50%. He has highlighted a section of the government statement in support of his argument: “The Cabinet-of-Ministers considered that an allocation of Rs 10 billion has been made by the Budget estimate for the year 2024, within the financial stamina of the government and those provisions have to be managed for covering the expenditure of the presidential election and general election.” This section, according to Gajanayake, means that both elections will have to be conducted with Rs. 10 billion whereas the Election Commission has asked for Rs. 10 billion for the presidential election and Rs. 11 billion for the parliamentary polls and submitted two separate estimates to the Treasury.

However, the main political parties are readying for the presidential contest. They are all out to engineer splits among their rivals and win over defectors. The SLPP has already lost a couple of its MPs to the UNP, some SJB MPs have also crossed over to the UNP. Most SLFP MPs (elected from the SLPP) have switched their allegiances to either the UNP or the SJB.

Battles among political parties are getting down and dirty. The UNP will have to win back the vote bank it lost to the SJB prior to the last general election if it is to improve its electoral performance. The SLFP faced a similar fate; the SLPP grabbed most of its support base ahead of 2018 local government elections, but its predicament was not as bad as that of the UNP, which was left with only a National List slot at the last general election (2020).

The UNP is leveraging its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s position as the Executive President, in a bid to turn itself around and make inroads into the SJB’s parliamentary group and orchestrate defections. It is making the most of the latest internal dispute in its offshoot, the SJB.   

The SJB, which contested the last presidential election under the Telephone symbol, is facing an internecine intraparty dispute, with its Chairman, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, MP, protesting against some ex-military leaders joining the party. He has been openly critical of the SJB leadership for having accommodated former Army Commander General Daya Ratnayake, whom he has an axe to grind with. He and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa have since been at daggers draw; they have been taking swipes at each other in public so much so that speculation was rife in political circles that Fonseka would be sacked form the SJB after being made to face a disciplinary inquiry.  

Fonseka is nobody’s darling. He has a whip of a tongue, and is not known to mince his words when he loses his temper. Abrasive, and given to plain speaking, he is prone to making enemies easily. Nobody expected him to stay in the SJB so long. The SJB seniors questioned Premadasa’s wisdom of appointing him the Chairman of the SJB.

Fearing that he would be expelled from the SJB, Fonseka obtained an interim order from the Colombo District Court on Monday (19), preventing the SJB from removing him from party membership and positions. He is the SJB organizer for the Kelaniya electorate. The injunction effective for 14 days has been issued against party leader Sajith Premadasa, SJB General Secretary Ranjith Maddumabandara, Treasurer Harsha de Silva and National Organiser Tissa Attanayake.

The talk in political circles is that dissident SJB MP Diana Gamage, who joined the government and secured a state ministry, is working overtime to lure some more SJB MPs into joining the UNP’s ranks. A division in the SJB parliamentary group became visible on Feb. 07, 2024, when President Wickremesinghe presented the government’s policy statement at the inauguration of the fifth session of the current parliament. The SJB staged a walkout as the President commenced his speech, but some of its MPs, namely Sarath Fonseka, Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka, Kumara Welgama, Ishak Rahuman, Vadivel Suresh, Faizal Cassim and A. H. M. Fowzie remained in their seats. Welgama and Ranawaka have formed their own political parties and will sever their links with the SJB come the next election, but other dissident SJB MPs are likely to throw in their lot with President Wickremesinghe at the next presidential election.

Crossovers do matter in electoral politics, but the question is whether the dissident MPs in the SJB and other political parties facing splits, can deliver enough votes to the parties they have switched their allegiances to. Most crossovers fall between two stools at elections, unable to poll enough, especially when there is no groundswell of support for the parties they defect to. In 2015, almost all UPFA defectors who joined the UNP were returned, because the UNP had succeeded in shoring up its vote bank and attracting floating voters who expected a change, but it is doubtful whether the UNP is capable of a repeat performance.

The internal problems of the SJB have raised the JVP-led NPP’s hopes. The NPP has prematurely declared itself the winner of the presidential election. It seems to think the people who are disillusioned with the government will vote for it if the SJB becomes weak electorally. Hence it has lumped the SJB with the UNP and the SLPP and is bashing in a bid to prevent it from presenting itself as an alternative to both the government and the NPP.

The NPP says the UNP, the SLPP, and the SJB have targeted it jointly because it has garnered enough popular support to win the next presidential and parliamentary elections with ease. But the SJB too, has become a target of other political parties, especially the SLPP, the UNP and the NPP.

Similarly, the SLPP, the SJB and the NPP have taken on the UNP. SLPP leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has gone on record as saying that President Wickremesinghe is not a person who can be trusted, and therefore the possibility of an attempt being made to postpone the presidential election cannot be ruled out. Some other SLPP seniors have also been critical of the UNP. The SLPP is under attack from the SJB, the NPP and the UNP. The SLFP is critical of all other political parties, save the SJB, but it has not attracted heavy fire from them, maybe because it is not considered a threat to them.

It has been a tough call for the SJB, whose leaders have to crack the whip to enforce party discipline but are wary of antagonizing the dissidents, who are looking for an excuse to vote with their feet.