By Vishvanath

Close on the heels of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s recent declaration, at a public event, that there would be no general election before the upcoming presidential contest, Udayanga Weeratunga, who is considered Basil Rajapaksa’s mouthpiece, said in an interview with Hiru TV that a general election would definitely precede the next presidential poll. Basil and President Ranil Wickremesinghe had agreed to hold a snap parliamentary election first, despite media reports to the contrary, and depending on its outcome, the SLPP would select its presidential candidate, Weeratunga said, claiming that President Wickremesinghe would not contest the next presidential election. Weeratunga insisted that the parliament would definitely be dissolved on June 15.  

Weeratunga has a political agenda and is all out to safeguard the interests of the Rajapaksa family, and therefore he cannot be expected to be truthful. However, he is privy to the inner workings of the SLPP. One may recall that he was the first to reveal that Basil,  after returning from the US in February, would work towards having a snap general election held before the next presidential election. Basil has since been pressuring President Wickremesinghe to dissolve Parliament albeit in vain. So, Weeratunga’s statement on Hiru TV cannot be considered a figment of his imagination. Instead, it could be considered a trial balloon sent by the SLPP leadership.  

SLPP leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would sound conciliatory when commenting on issues concerning the current government and its policies. But there has been a remarkable change in his approach of late. Now, he goes to the extent of decrying government policies. He has even issued a media statement critical of the government’s privatization programme. Some political analysts consider this change as a sign that the SLPP is getting ready for a general election. 

Mahinda has taken several swipes at the government during the last few weeks apparently in a bid to dissociate his party and himself from what is being done on President Ranil Wickreesinghe’s watch as the President. Taking exception to the ongoing divestiture drive, he has in his media statement, demanded that the privatization of the state-owned enterprises and national assets be suspended until the conclusion of the upcoming presidential election because that task is best left to a new government, the incumbent one being only an interim arrangement. However, it is doubtful whether his communique yielded the desired effect, for everybody knows that Wickremesinghe cannot do anything without the SLPP’s parliamentary support and therefore Rajapaksa cannot absolve himself or his party of responsibility for the government’s commissions and omissions.  

On Thursday, when Mahinda was accosted by reporters, after a meeting at the SLPP headquarters in Battaramulla, asking him to comment on his media statement critical of the government’s  privatization programme, Mahinda said 99% of the SLPPers were opposed to the ongoing divestiture drive. When it was pointed out that he and the SLPP were part of the government and he was asked how he could come out with such statements, Mahinda said he had not compromised his independence and was ready to criticize government policies. When he was asked whether the SLPP would leave the government, he dodged that question by claiming that it was ready to do anything for the sake of the country. That question could have been better phrased and focussed. He should have been asked whether the SLPP would pull out support for President Wickrmesinghe. The current government is an alliance between the SLPP and President Wickremesinghe, who has only a single seat in the parliament and if the SLPP pulls out support, the President will be left with no alternative but to dissolve the parliament. 

Mahinda lashed out at the government when reporters sought his views about the current political situation. “It is not our government,” he said. He refused to be drawn when he was asked which election the SLPP would prefer, presidential or parliamentary. He only said his party was ready for any election and sought to pooh-pooh the view that it would be more advantageous for the SLPP to contest a general election than a presidential poll. But the SLPP has not yet been able to decide on its presidential candidate. 

What one gathers from Mahinda’s media statement critical of the ongoing privatization programme and subsequent answers to reporters’ questions is that the SLPP is planning to go it alone at the upcoming election, presidential or parliamentary. The SLPP has also declared that it will contest the presidential election and its candidate will be announced soon.      

Speculation that the government is planning to hold a general election before the next presidential poll received another  boost  on Friday, when dissident SLPP MP Dilan Perera, who has closed ranks with the SJB, declared at a media briefing that he would bet his bottom dollar that the government would hold a snap parliamentary election ahead of the upcoming presidential contest. Perera quoted three unnamed government MPs who, he said, were in President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s inner circle as having told him so. He said the government was trying to mislead the Opposition and the public by pretending that it was going to hold the presidential election first. The reason he gave for what he called the government’s change of plans was that President Wickremesinghe  was not confident of facing a presidential election. 

Politicians cannot be expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and they are notorious for giving everything a twist to gain political mileage, and therefore MP Perera’s declaration has come to be viewed as a mere propagandistic claim, which has however bolstered the argument that a general election will precede the next presidential election to be held between Sept. 17 and Oct. 16. 2024.  

MP Perera’s contention is that it will be advantageous for both the SLPP and the UNP to face a general election first; there will be a hung parliament, where Basil will be able to strike deals with some political parties and/or MPs and muster enough numbers to form a government. If a presidential election is held first and Wickremesinghe (as well as the SLPP candidate) loses, the SLPP and the UNP will have no chance whatsoever of retaining power, and the winner’s party will be able to form a stable government. This argument cannot be considered wholly untenable, but whether the government is pursuing such a strategy will be seen only if parliament is dissolved in time for a general election to be held before the next presidential election. It takes about 52 days for a general election to be conducted from the date of the dissolution of the parliament, according to former Chairman of the Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya. 

Thus, if the SLPP and President Wickremesinghe are to hold a snap general election before the next presidential election, and try to achieve the political objectives Gammanpila has outlined, the parliament will have to be dissolved forthwith. Even June 15, when, Weeratunga says, the parliament will be dissolved, could be considered a bit too late.


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