It is often said that people remember deities and try to be pious only when they get into trouble. Otherwise, they do as they please, paying no heed to the possible consequences of their actions, as if they were the masters of their own destiny. Similarly, politicians who let power get the better of them, lord it over, and antagonize their rivals realize the value of political reconciliation, which is a prerequisite for solving a country’s problems, only when they feel threatened and have no alternative but to seek rapprochement with their rivals to safeguard their interests. This may explain why Sri Lankan politicians offer to form national governments.

It has been reported that President Ranil Wickremesinghe is planning to form a national government purportedly to solve a host of seemingly intractable problems the country is facing, including the worst-ever economic crisis, which shows no signs of going away anytime soon. His party, the UNP, has been working hard to engineer crossovers from the Opposition, and its efforts have been successful to some extent, as evident from the defections of Manusha Nanayakkara (SJB), Harin Fernando (SJB), Mahinda Amaraweera (SLFP/SLPP), Chamara Sampath (SLFP/SPP), Nimal Siripala de Silva (SLFP/SLPP), and Jagath Pushpakumara (SLFP/SLPP). 

Govt.’s popularity on the wane

Last July, Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister, received the backing of 134 MPs when a vote was taken in the parliament to elect the President following the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amidst protests that turned violent. However, several months later, the government could only muster 123 votes for its Budget 2023. This must be a worrisome proposition for both President Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas, who control the SLPP; they are losing their grip on the parliament.

The government is also becoming unpopular, though the economic situation is not as bad as it was a few months ago. Its approval rating has plummeted to an appalling 10%, according to a Verite opinion survey.

The government may be able to lure a few more Opposition MPs into joining it by offering them ministerial posts, etc. SJB MP Rajitha Senaratne has been making overtures to President Wickremesinghe, and he will cross over if he is given the Health portfolio. But overall, the Opposition MPs are not likely to join the government, whose popularity is on the wane.

President’s double dilemma

President Wickremesinghe is facing a double dilemma. Besides the sharp drop in the SLPP-UNP government’s approval rating, he faces the prospect of his position being undermined; the SLPP is trying to bring in Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister again at the expense of the incumbent PM Dinesh Gunawardena.

If Mahinda makes a comeback, as expected, the SLPP MPs will invariably rally behind him in the parliament, and he will emerge stronger than President Wickremesinghe for all practical purposes, by virtue of having the vast majority of government MPs supporting him. Incumbent Prime Minister has only three MPs and poses no such challenge to the President.

The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa famously said in parliament, when he was the Prime Minister of President J. R. Jayewardene’s government, that the PM was as powerless as an office assistant under the Sri Lankan Constitution. An extremely ambitious man, he was lamenting the fact that he could not do as he pleased to fortify his political future.

But when the President and the Prime Minister happen to represent two different political parties, the latter becomes the de facto head of state, and the former a virtual figurehead. President Wickremesinghe’s position will be particularly vulnerable in case Mahinda becomes the PM because he has only a single member in the current Parliament. He is now constitutionally empowered to dissolve the parliament, but such a course of action could cause more trouble for him because the SLPP-UNP combine will stand no chance of winning the next general election.

The SLPP’s predicament

Everybody left the SLPP for dead after the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe’s ascent to the topmost position in the country last July. Following the election by the parliament of Wickremesinghe as the President, the UNP went so far as to promote itself at the expense of the SLPP, and it floated rumors that some SLPP MPs were likely to join it.

UNP General Secretary Palitha Ranga Bandara himself declared that President Wickremesinghe would contest the next presidential election, giving rise to speculation in political circles that the SLPP would also back Wickremesinghe’s candidacy. But this has not been to the liking of the SLPP stalwarts, and when SLPP MP Namal Rajapaksa was recently asked by a reporter to comment on the rumor that the SLPP and the UNP would contest the next presidential election jointly, he dodged the issue by claiming the Local Government polls would precede a presidential election.

 The Rajapaksas made Wickremesinghe the President for want of a better alternative, but they do not want to be under him indefinitely. The SLPP runs the risk of being left with only a few seats at the next election if it continues to play second fiddle to President Wickremesinghe and the UNP. Hence, its move to consolidate its power in the parliament and arrest the erosion of its vote bank.

SLPP National Organizer, Basil Rajapaksa, lamented, in an interview with Hiru TV, in February, that almost all SLPP MPs who had topped the lists of preferential votes in their respective districts had been left out of the Cabinet. The SLPP’s thinking is that unless these MPs are accommodated in the Cabinet, they will not be able to retain grassroots support. The SLPP seniors are desperate for Cabinet posts and they must be pressuring the party leadership to make an intervention to enable them to realize their ministerial dream. They are loyal to Mahinda and therefore will go all out to have him appointed the PM and have their interests served.

Options for President

Relations between the UNP/President Wickremesinghe and the SLPP have apparently turned sour due to a power struggle in the government and the UNP’s attempts to strengthen itself at the expense of the SLPP.

As it stands, President Wickremesinghe seems to be left with only two options. He can either choose to do as the SLPP says and maintain a low profile, or chart a course for himself and the UNP without giving in to the SLPP.

However, if President Wickremesinghe succeeds in forming a national government by any chance, he will be able to enlist the backing of the Opposition, which has about 80 MPs, and his position will be somewhat secure, for he will be less dependent on the SLPP. Most of the SLFP MPs are already in the government, and the President can rest assured that former President Maithripala Sirisena, who leads the SLFP, will also back him, albeit for expedience rather than anything else. The President alone can prevent criminal proceedings being instituted against Sirisena over the Easter Sunday terror attacks, which the latter failed to prevent as the President in 2019. However, the success of the President’s effort to form an all-party government hinges on his ability to win over the SJB. This is a tall order for him, given the SJB’s animosity towards him.



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