By Kassapa

Politics, as the old saying goes, is said to be the art of the possible. This is exactly why political parties form coalitions even with partners who are not like-minded, when they believe this would give them a better chance of obtaining state power which is the ultimate objective of a political party.  

This is what the major opposition party in Parliament, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) is engaged in right now. It is trying to forge an alliance with the Nidahasa Janatha Sabhawa (NJS), the splinter group led by G.L. Peiris and Dullas Alahapperuma that broke away from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) during the weeks that followed the political turmoil in mid-2022.

It will be recalled that, in the lead up to the vote in Parliament to elect a President following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s sudden resignation, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa withdrew in favour of Alahapperuma who eventually lost to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. So, they have worked on common objectives and against common enemies before.

The SJB and NJS are approaching the idea of a ‘coalition’ for different reasons. The SJB is aware that although they are numerically the largest opposition in Parliament, this is not a reflection of the ground situation just as much as the SLPP no longer commands a majority of the public vote even though they still retain a simple majority in Parliament. The SJB’s strength at the grassroots level is being sorely tested by the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) and some would even argue that it is the JJB that has the upper hand.

Then, there is the ever-present danger of Wickremesinghe poaching a few more vulnerable or disgruntled SJB parliamentarians, just as he did with Harin Fernando, Manusha Nanayakkara and Diana Gamage. Thus, the SJB is not a solidly united group of parliamentarians waiting in the wings, supremely confident that they will form the next government. Many SJBers are watching with trepidation which way the ‘swing’ is, hoping to align themselves with whoever they believe will win.

In such a scenario, it makes political sense to bolster your party’s image by getting some of the so-called ‘independents’ from the SLPP to the SJB. The latter are also aware that they won’t get over the line by themselves. Hence, the invitation to the NJS.

For the NJS, the reason is the same, but with a greater magnitude. If they were to contest by themselves, they would be lucky to win five seats and many of their thirteen parliamentarians would be out of a job after the next election. They have, after all, associated themselves with the tainted Rajapaksas and been part and parcel of their shenanigans, so the public are reluctant to warm to them yet again. Besides, their leading lights are Alahapperuma and G.L. Peiris, not the type of politicians who ooze charisma, captivate audiences and invite the public to vote for them by the sheer force of their personality.

So, the bottom line is that the NJS needs the SJB much more than the SJB needs the NJS. Because of this, negotiations between the two parties should be proceeding with the SJB having greater leverage. However, reports are that the discussions have come to some kind of a stalemate because of Alahapperuma’s insistence on certain issues.

The journalist-turned politician and former Minister of Transport was at first of the view that any opposition alliance, if it is to be successful, needs to incorporate the JJB. Having the JJB on board would certainly be the icing on the cake for any opposition coalition but that party is no longer an ‘also ran’ in the race, it is a serious contender which believes it can win. That is why it is not taking any ‘partners’ with them. So, Alahapperuma’s thinking will remain a fantasy.

It has also been reported that Alahapperuma is asking for ‘deputy leader’ status in any partnership with the SJB. Even Premadasa, who is not averse to doling out official party positions by the dozen to keep his MPs happy, has baulked at the prospect. He knows that if he does so, he will face the wrath of his own party and Sarath Fonseka will be heading the queue to shower him with choice epithets.

It is not only Premadasa who is worried, even the rank and file of the SJB are concerned. They are perturbed that, should there be a SJB-NJS alliance and the two parties field a common list of candidates at a general election, at least some SJB MPs will lose their seats because some NJS stalwarts such as Alahapperuma, Dilan Perera and Charitha Herath for instance have better ‘name recognition’ in their respective districts. A recent example of this was when the SJB accommodated Kumar Welgama from the Kalutara district at the last general election which cost Ajith Perera his seat in Parliament. These MPs, uncertain of their return at the next election on the SJB ticket, would be sitting ducks for Wickremesinghe.

Another factor weighing on the minds of the SJB leadership is the presence of the likes of Channa Jayasumana in the NJS. It was Jayasumana who first spearheaded a very communal campaign against Dr. Shafi Sihabdeen claiming he forcefully sterilised Sinhalese women. Dr. Sihabdeen was later acquitted of all charges against him but the anti-Muslim propaganda this issue generated helped Gotabaya Rajapaksa win the presidential election.

Jayasumana remains a key member of the NJS and has neither retracted his comments nor apologised for his actions. Muslim parties who are partners of the SJB have indicated they do not wish to be on the same platform with Jayasumana pointing out that his presence will cost the party a significant number of Muslim votes, even in urban areas such as Colombo.

Forming political coalitions may be fashionable but they must also be fit for purpose. If it is the presidential polls that the SJB is gearing for, the SJB must question the value of forming partnerships for the sake of doing so- for some alliances may in fact lose the party more votes than it gains.

How Sajith Premadasa deals with this conundrum will be an indicator of his political maturity.


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