The government- or more accurately, President Ranil Wickremesinghe- has called for a debate on the bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). No such debate is required. The IMF agreement is now a done deal and does not require Parliamentary approval.

However, this is Wickremesinghe’s ploy to set the stage and play the hero who rescued the damsel in distress, Mother Lanka, who was in economic strife. Thereafter he would use this platform to call for this ‘national government’.

That is also when political games will begin in reality. The plan is to poach parliamentarians from the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and, if possible, a few assorted MPs who have become ‘independent’ of the parties they contested from and perhaps even a few from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

However, one must note that if the inclusion of these types constitutes a ‘national’ government, then Wickremesinghe already has one. He has several parliamentarians from the SJB in the shape of Harin Fernando, Manusha Nanayakkara and Diana Gamage. Kumara Welgama who has become ‘independent’ of the SJB is singing Wickremesinghe’s praises. Then the likes of Nimal Siripala de Silva and Duminda Dissanayake are now in his government as ministers. How much more of a ‘national’ government can you want?

The fact of the matter is that this is no real ‘national’ government. This is an eclectic collection of opportunistic politicians who have got together and are duping the people for their own political gain, headed by a person who has no mandate at all from the voters. So, instead of seeing this regime as a ‘national’ government, the masses are questioning the very legitimacy of this regime and their right to continue governing.

What Wickremesinghe plans to do next week is to extend this ‘national’ government concept to include a few more politicians who are now in the opposition in the hope that it will give his government more legitimacy and at the same time help him prepare for the next presidential elections. To do so, he has been targeting the SJB because, if he can rope in a significant number from the main opposition party in Parliament, he can then lay claim to a truly ‘national’ government.

The most publicised of these invitations went out to Rajitha Senaratne. Whether Senaratne is a political asset is a moot point. The garrulous former Health Minister has a chequered political career and also has several allegations hanging over him. The statements he makes from time to time are outrageous and makes him a political liability every now and then. Some in the SJB would be glad to see him go. However, Senaratne is still said to be undecided after meeting with senior SJBers last week.

Wickremesinghe’s tactics vis-a-vis the SJB is reminiscent of what the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, re-elected in 2010 with a resounding mandate but still short of a two-thirds majority, did to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

Rajapaksa desperately wanted the 18th Amendment passed. That amendment would do away with the seventeenth amendment that diluted the President’s executive powers. It would also include an amendment that would allow Rajapaksa to contest for an unprecedented third term. To secure the two-thirds majority that would ensure the passage of this amendment, Rajapaksa needed the support of the SLMC.

He entrusted this task to Basil Rajapaksa. The younger Rajapaksa coaxed, cajoled and coerced a majority of SLMC parliamentarians to join him, isolating Hakeem and a few others. Hakeem was faced with a Hobson’s choice: join the government with them or allow the party to split into two groups, leaving him with the lesser half. He opted for the former to ensure his own political survival.

It is this kind of tactic that Wickremesinghe is trying to use with the SJB today. He is targeting vulnerable and more amenable parliamentarians such as Rajitha Senaratne and Mayantha Dissanayake. At the same time, he has a media outfit that is working overtime to generate speculation on mainstream and social media that the SJB is about to split into two.

The idea is to create the general impression that the SJB is about to implode, so that Sajith Premadasa will become agreeable top joining the government en masse, to prevent a disintegration of the party he formed.

Sajith Premadasa has many faults ranging from making poor political decisions in the past to not being proactive enough as a Leader of the Opposition. In this instance however, he has had the courage of his conscience to say ‘no’ so far to joining a government that still is dependent on the Rajapaksas and hasn’t dealt with the corruption they engaged in.

Unfortunately for Wickremesinghe, Premadasa cannot be tempted with offers of the Premiership. Maithripala Sirisena offered it to him on a platter during the 2018 constitutional crisis. He could have betrayed Wickremesinghe and accepted it but he didn’t. Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered it to him during last year’s upheaval but he didn’t accept that either. So, Wickremesinghe should know that is not an inducement for Premadasa.

Nevertheless, the ultimate test is how many SJB Parliamentarians will fall victim to Wickremesinghe’s unscrupulous tactics and opt to return to their former leader- and how many will choose to remain with the SJB. Going by all indications, Wickremesinghe hasn’t given up on his project of derailing the SJB just yet.

Then, there is more ‘low hanging fruit’ in the SJB. They are the parliamentarians from the Tamil and Muslim parties who contested under the banner of the SJB under the last general elections. In the last three decades, these parties have been wooed and won by successive governments whenever they wanted to push some agenda or the other. Wickremesinghe is pursuing the same tactic with the likes of Mano Ganeshan and Rauff Hakeem and their respective political parties, dangling the carrots of Cabinet portfolios before them.

The coming fortnight will be an acid test for Sajith Premadasa’s leadership skills. Love him or loathe him, we must hope that he is able to keep his flock together if only because the country needs a robust opposition that does not allow Ranil Wickremesinghe to run amok.



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