There will be an edge-of-your-seat drama unfolding in Parliament soon, and that might even make the public forget the raging pandemic and the soaring cost of living. The protagonist is UNP leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is scheduled to be sworn in as a National List MP. After months of dilly-dallying, he has finally made up his mind. Many a defeated UNP MP tried to secure the party’s single National List slot, but it was clear from the very beginning that Wickremesinghe would grab it. What made him wait so long?

Ranil is known for playing the waiting game better than anyother politician. The first few months after a general election are usually tumultuous. It is advisable for the vanquished to lie low during this period. The SJB lost to the SLPP badly, but wasjubilant as he had been able to secure 54 seats by reducing the UNP to a single National List slot.

Had Ranil entered Parliament soon after last year’s election, after losing his seat, he would have suffered many ignites at the hands of his critics and political rivals, and it would have been well-nigh impossible for him to make any headway thereafter; he would have had to cower in Parliament with others going on the offensive and settling old political scores with him. Besides, the memories of the yahapalana government’s many failures were still fresh in the minds of the people.

SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, who became the Opposition Leader, was very powerful and popular among the SJB MPs, then, and there was no way Ranil could win over any MPs to his side. Being an experienced politician, Ranil must have been aware that the approval ratings of the government would decrease with the passage of time; various issues would divertthe attention of the public from the ill-effects of the yahapalanarule, and there would be dissension in the SJB.

Most of all, Ranil had to wait until the release of the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday carnage. So, he chose to keep his head down until the time was opportune for him to enter Parliament and try to be a force to be reckoned with, again.

Ranil’s plan to oust Sajith

Speculation is rife in political circles that Ranil has alreadymustered enough MPs to elbow out Sajith as the Opposition Leader. The mastermind behind the anti-Sajith campaign is UNP Chairman and former MP Vajira Abeywardena, widely known as a clever political dealmaker.

Vajira entered politics during his student days in the early 1980s, and was very close to the late President J. R. Jayewardene, and the late Minister and Opposition Leader Gamini Dissanayake. He threw in his lot with Ranil after Gamini’s demise and has since remained very faithful to the latter in weal and woe.

Thanks to his excellent PR, Vajira has been on very good terms with everyone in both the government and the Oppositionand, therefore, in contact with the former UNP MPs currently in the SJB. He is said to be working overtime these days to make Ranil the Opposition Leader.

The SJB has sought to put a bold face on its problems, and dismiss reports of an internal crisis and the UNP’s move to grab the Opposition Leader’s post, as baseless, but it is obviously rattled. Otherwise, it would not have held an emergency parliamentary group meeting, last week, to pass a vote of confidence in Sajith as the Opposition Leader.

The SJB officially announced, after its group meeting, that its MPs had reaffirmed their faith in Sajith, but defeated UNP MP Palitha Range Bandara, how is a Ranil loyalist, has told the media that out of 54 SJB MPs only 32 backed Sajith. What he has implied is that the SJB MPs who remained noncommittal at the meeting are likely to switch their allegiance to Ranil.

The SJB is a coalition and political party just like the SLPP, and has in its parliamentary group MPs who are members of other political parties such as Rauff Hakeem’s SLMC and Rishad Bathiudeen’s All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC).There are also disgruntled Opposition MPs, who are SJB party members. The UNP is apparently banking on the support of the SJB MPs who are not members of Sajith’s party at first.

Some SJB MPs representing the SLMC and the ACMC are already supportive of the government; they have voted for the controversial 20th Amendment and the Port City Economic Commission Bill much to the consternation of the SJBleadership. Some more SJB MPs are likely to join the government in case of Ranil being able to engineer a split in theOpposition.

SJB’s kitchen cabinet

Not even one year has elapsed since the last general election, and why has there been so much of discontentment among the SJB MPs. There are said to be several reasons for this situation,the main being that Sajith lacks PR, and some SJB MPs feel shortchanged. The SJB seniors are also said to be averse to certain outsiders’ influence on the party; they feel that Sajith’s wife is interfering in the party’s decision-making process.

A similar situation prevailed in the SLFP before the 2015 regime change, and some of its heavyweights who felt sidelinedfell out with the Rajapaksa family and finally decamped. They were led by Maithripala Sirisena, who realized that he would never be able to achieve his dream of becoming the Prime Minister. The SLFP failed to prevent a disastrous split despite the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s charisma.

Politicians are ambitious by nature, and, after all, that is why they take to power politics; they rebel when they realize that they cannot achieve their political goals.

What basically caused a rift in the UNP in 2019 was that its heavyweights disliked the yahapalana government’s kitchen cabinet consisting of Ranil’s favourites, who had all the luck. There were several abortive attempts to oust Ranil, and his survival was the reason for the breakaway of the Sajith loyalists,who formed the SJB, which is now accused of being controlledby a favoured few!

Tall order for Ranil

The UNP is said to be confident of winning over the TNA and the JVP MPs as well. It is a tall order for Ranil where the three MPs of the JVP are concerned. The JVP’s vote base suffered a severe erosion because its parliamentary group got a bit too close to Ranil during the yahapalana government. National Freedom Front Leader Wimal Weerawansa coined the catchy sobriquet for JVP leader Anura Kumara DissanayakeRathu Ali Petiya, which means ‘red elephant calf’, the elephant being the UNP’s symbol. The problem with such labels is that they stick. So, it is doubtful whether the JVP will ever support Ranil or the UNP.

The TNA has no such problem in that Ranil is widely seen as a minority friendly political leader. It has 10 seats in the current Parliament, and they may support Ranil.

If Ranil thinks everything will go as planned in Parliament, he is mistaken. The goal he has set for himself is a very ambitious one. Sajith is no spring chicken, and will not give up anything without a fight. If he makes a course correction, allowing the SJB seniors to have a bigger say in the party affairs, he may be able to overcome dissension considerably and sort out internal problems. This is what his late father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, did when an attempt was made to impeach him in 1992. He neutralized the threat by winning over most of the dissenters, and sacking others who refused to fall in line.

The fact that Ranil failed to secure his seat despite being the UNP leader contesting from the Colombo District, which used to be a UNP bastion, and therefore may not be able to rally enoughpopular support to pose a challenge to the government, will be used against him. But his experience and knowledge of parliamentary affairs make him a cut above the rest, and this may be a plus point for him.

Rajapaksas’ reaction

The Rajapaksas are known for their partiality to Ranil. They looked after his interests while he was the Opposition Leader from 2005 to 2015, and, in fact, helped him keep the UNP rebels at bay so much so that his critics accused him of attacking the Rajapaksas in the daytime and sipping coffee with PresidentRajapaksa at Temple Trees at night. Whenever UNP rebels rose against Ranil and planned to surround Sirikotha to pressure him to step down, the Rajapaksa government had roads near the Pitakotte junction closed for repairs’ so that the anti-Ranil protesters’ movements could be curbed effectively.

Sajith loyalists are accusing Ranil of having helped the Rajapaksas while they were in the Opposition during the yahapalana government. If Ranil had not shielded some members of the Rajapaksa family, when he was the Prime Minister, they could have been incarcerated, the SJB MPs argue.

True, despite much-publicized arrests, which were made mostly at the behest of the then President Sirisena, who had an axe to grind with the Rajapaksas, no members of the previousRajapaksa administration were sent to jail for abusing power, corrupt deals, etc.

Ranil’s critics also claim that some high-ranking officials loyal to the Rajapaksa family were allowed to enter Temple Trees and remove vanloads of undisclosed items in the wake ofthe 2015 regime change, and that would not have been possible without Ranil’s blessings. This claim, however, has not been substantiated.

It is possible that the Rajapaksas will back their friend, Ranil, if he tries to secure the Opposition Leader’s post. It will also serve the interests of the ruling family to do so; Ranil, 72,does not have many years of politics left in him, and, he unlike Sajith, 54, may not pose a serious challenge to the young members of the Rajapaksa family in the future. It is popularly thought that Namal Rajapaksa is already being groomed as the next Prime Minister.

On the other hand, the ruling family knows that the best way to unsettle the Opposition and clear obstacles in their path is to divide the SJB, and they can achieve this goal by helping Ranil.

With Ranil being all out to exact his revenge for what the SJB has done to him and the UNP, Sajith, who has just recovered from Covid-19, will have sleepless nights. Ranil has not ceased to be a problem for him.  


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