President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s preoccupation with finding ways and means of fully implementing the 13th Amendment has irked SLPP heavyweights apparently beyond measure if their utterances at various fora are any indication. Some of the senior leaders of the SLPP have stopped short of speaking their minds, but their loyalists have not only rejected President Wickremesinghe’s devolution project out of hand but also are opening criticizing it. This kind of divergence of opinions over a crucial national issue augurs ill for the ruling alliance, which consists of a bunch of strange bedfellows brought together by adversity as well as expediency.

Another salvo from Sagara

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, MP, whose voice is widely considered to be that of the Rajapaksa family, especially Basil, on Monday, questioned, for a second or third time, President Wickremesinghe’s wisdom of trying to implement the 13th Amendment fully at this particular juncture. He did so at a routine media briefing of the SLPP.

Kariyawasam reiterated his party’s position that the government had to give priority to efforts being made to revive the economy and grant some relief to the public, and everything else had to wait. What he left unsaid was that President should not get his priorities mixed up. The country was still bankrupt and the economy in turmoil, and therefore the government could not afford to expend its time and energy on devolution, and other such matters, and had to go flat out to resolve the economic crisis, he said, the implication of his statement being that the President was moving in the wrong direction.

MP Kariyawasam did not mince his words when he said the country was down economically, and attempts to devolve more powers to the provinces might provide external forces with an opportunity to make the most of the current economic crisis to further their interests. On a previous occasion too, he said there had been seven Presidents before Wickremesinghe since the introduction of 13th Amendment and none of them had implemented it fully, and for good reason.

When Kariyawasam speaks, one hears the voice of the Rajapaksas, and his arguments against the President’s efforts to devolve more powers, are for the consumption of the SLPP’s nationalistic constituency.

Namal’s vow

Namal Rajapaksa, MP, addressing a group of party supporters, over the weekend, struck a somewhat conciliatory note, but said that the SLPP had brought in Wickremesinghe as the President to performs some specific tasks. He said the latter was considered adept at handling uprisings and negotiating with foreign powers. The SLPP backed President Wickremesinghe fully to accomplish those tasks but would not hesitate to oppose anything that was inimical to the interests of the country, he said. This pledge should be viewed against SLPP General Secretary Kariyawasam’s assertion that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment will be detrimental to the country. Namal’s vow could therefore be considered a veiled warning to the President and the UNP.

Will the SLPP withdraw support for the President in case he decides to go ahead with devolving more powers to the provinces either of his own volition or under duress? This is the question being asked in political circles due to the SLPP’s opposition to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. It may be too early to provide an answer to this hypothetical question, but the 13th Amendment has manifestly taken a toll on the unity of the SLPP-UNP alliance, and it will be a huge political gamble for President Wickremesinghe to go ahead with his plan to devolve more powers.

Rallying point for Rajapaksa camp

The SLPP and the UNP are still together because their symbiotic relationship is beneficial to both sides, but there has been a cold war between them. The UNP is backing President Wickremesinghe to the hilt over his attempts to grant more powers to the Provincial Councils. In fact, it cannot afford to do otherwise; it has to stand with its leader. It has scored heavily over the SLPP on the economic front thanks to President Wickremesinghe’s handling of the economy. But the Rajapaksas have got a rallying point, at last, and they are sure to make the best use of their opposition to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to market their brand of patriotism in a bid to regain public support.

Some of the SLPP allies fell out owing to the economic crisis, which turned the public hostile towards the government. But the devolution issue seems to have had a unifying effect on them; they have begun to speak with one voice against the proposed full implementation of the 13th Amendment. The SLPP backers who went into hiding due to last year’s uprising are now crawling out of the woodwork, and expressing their opposition to the President’s devolution project.

Ven. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera, who played a key role in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential election campaign in 2019, is reported to have spoken about the SLPP’s popular mandate, which, he has said, was not for doing anything harmful to the country. If President Wickremesinghe tries to go ahead with his devolution plans and overcome resistance to them, the estranged allies of the SLPP are likely to join force again. Realignments of political forces are highly unpredictable. Whoever would have thought the SLPP would ever opt for a political marriage with its bete noire, the UNP? The possibility of some of the former SLPP allies making common cause over the 13th Amendment cannot be ruled out.

What will President Wickremesinghe’s response to the SLPP’s reaction to his devolution project be? He is dependent on the SLPP for parliamentary support. But he is not as vulnerable as he was last year vis-à-vis the SLPP; he can now leverage his power to dissolve the parliament if push comes to shove. He however is not likely to do so because that will be collective political suicide for both the SLPP and the UNP, but they will not be able to reconcile their different points of view and policies in respect of a crucial national issue. These policy differences are bound to stand in the way of efforts being made in some quarters to forge an electoral alliance between the SLPP and the UNP.