The political cold war between President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is hotting up- and it appears Wickremesinghe is the first to blink.

For several months, the dispute has been simmering and has been spoken of in hush-hush tones in the corridors of power. There were two major issues that irked the SLPP: the delay in enlarging the Cabinet and a growing suspicion that Wickremesinghe was cultivating his own clique of SLPP members, aiming to poach them to his camp at the time of the next presidential election.

For some time, the SLPP had been agitating for more Cabinet portfolios. The Constitution provides for a cabinet of thirty ministers under the present circumstances but the Cabinet has only twenty-two ministers at present. The remaining eight ‘vacancies’ have not been filled by Wickremesinghe despite many formal and informal requests. As a result, Wickremesinghe, who is a past master at the ‘No Action, Talking Only’ strategy, is on the threshold of completing his first year in office with almost the identical Cabinet that last served under Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

This is not without reason. The individuals for whom cabinet portfolios are being sought by the SLPP are their district leaders. These include the likes of Johnston Fernando in Kurunegala, Rohitha Abeygunawardena in Kalutara, Sanath Nishantha in Puttlam and Mahindananda Aluthgamage in Kandy, all politicians with dubious credentials whose standing among the public is at a very low ebb.

Wickremesinghe, with one eye at the next presidential election, is concerned that should he move to include these personalities in a reshuffled Cabinet, his popularity among voters will plummet because he will be seen as continuing the crony system cultivated by the Rajapaksas before they were ousted last year. Hence his reluctance to induct them as ministers.

The other concern in the SLPP camp were hints that some SLPP stalwarts were now publicly singing the praises of Wickremesinghe, much more than they ever did for the Rajapaksas. The ‘suspects’ in this purported clique include ministers Prasanna Ranatunga, Kanchana Wijesekera, Ali Sabry, State Minister Shehan Semasinghe and parliamentarian Nimal Lanza. The latter is reported to have even been entrusted the task of ‘recruiting’ other SLPP parliamentarians to support Wickremesinghe.

Such speculation had been heard in SLPP circles for some time now. Worried by this, SLPP strongman Basil Rajapaksa had, time and again, unleashed his ‘attack dogs’: other SLPP MPs who were critical of Wickremesinghe, reminding him from public platforms that he is President today only because they voted for him when Parliament chose a President in July last year. Wickremesinghe’s response to these comments has been a deafening silence- and inaction on appointing more ministers.

Matters came to a head when SLPP leaders were asked to attend a meeting with the President last week. The Rajapaksa clan was of the opinion that Wickremesinghe had crossed a line in doing so. He maybe the President of the country but he was nobody in the SLPP. They instructed that only a few SLPP invitees attend the meeting. Of the nearly fifty invitees, less than thirty attended.

A message was conveyed to Wickremesinghe that party leaders affiliated with the SLPP could attend a separate meeting and convey its outcome to others in the SLPP. So, Wickremesinghe attended a second meeting at which Basil Rajapaksa’s mouthpiece, SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam was instructed to do the talking.

Kariyawasam made the point that the SLPP was a separate entity with a different mandate from that of the President and would function on that basis, while at the same time recognising that it was the SLPP itself which chose Wickremesinghe over its own candidate, Dullas Alahapperuma, at the presidential ‘selection’ in Parliament. The SLPP still believes it made the correct decision, Kariyawasam said.

In what appeared to be a ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy, Basil Rajapaksa then made it appear as if he was smoothing ruffled feathers. Wickremesinghe, despite being from a different party, was always attentive to the SLPP’s concerns and his key officials were always available to SLPP MPs, he said. Rajapaksa even went on to say that, in terms of access to the President, Wickremesinghe was better than the other Presidents he had served under- which meant that SLPP MPs had lesser access to his brothers Mahinda and Gotabaya when they were Presidents!

Wickremesinghe is too cunning a politician to fall for such fawning comments but he would have got the message: the SLPP was flexing its muscles, in the most polite manner possible and making yet another demand for Cabinet portfolios, although this was not being voiced directly.

There is now speculation that a cabinet reshuffle is imminent. This is supposed to occur when Wickremesinghe returns from his current overseas tour in Britain and France. Whether this is news planted by the SLPP camp or whether Wickremesinghe has blinked first in this standoff remains to be seen. On the last occasion such reports reached a feverish pitch, the President made yet another typical Wickremesinghe move: he appointed Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Jeevan Thondaman as ministers but stopped short of appointing a whole bunch of new ministers.

Initial reports suggest that Wickremesinghe is seriously mulling over the prospect of appointing new ministers. One option he could adopt is to appoint new ministers from the SLPP, but they could be fewer in number than what is demanded and they could also be different individuals and not the so-called ‘district leaders’ for whom the positions are being sought.

In the end what this will amount to is, who needs the other more. In this equation, the SLPP certainly needs the support of Wickremesinghe much more than he needs their support. The President could, if he were to offer the correct incentives, in all probability govern with a coalition of MPs from the SLPP, the Tamil and Muslim parties and defectors from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya. Even in the worst-case scenario, he could call for a general election.

Even then, he will still be President until October 2024.