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Warning shots and reassurances

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Friday 16th June, 2023

Never a dull moment in Sri Lankan politics, which is full of plot twists straight from South Indian action flicks, where the heroes mercilessly beaten and left for dead make dramatic comebacks; the stunts of some mega stars even defy laws of physics! UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara has bragged that his party’s revival after its ignominious trouncing at the 2020 general election, where it was reduced to a single seat, is nothing short of miraculous. Never in one’s wildest dreams did one expect the UNP to rise like Phoenix, he has said, claiming that after securing the premiership and the executive presidency in quick succession, his leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, had revived the party. But the UNP owes its ‘success’to a stroke of luck more than anything else, and should be thankful to those who staged Aragalaya, which led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year.

It is too early to say whether the UNP made a wise decision when it hitched its wagon to the SLPP. The Rajapaksa family was driven by self-interest when it handed over the reins of government to Wickremesinghe. It is not surprising that political parties which opt for power-sharing arrangements in times of adversity happen to be at daggers drawn later, for they have competing interests. It is said that two dogs at the same bone seldom agree. The Rajapaksas do not want to play second fiddle to outsiders, much less allow anyone other than a family member to enlist the support of the SLPP to win a presidential election.

The SLPP leadership is resentful that President Wickremesinghe has not complied with its request that some of its former ministers be accommodated in the Cabinet. SLPP dissidents have been working overtime to drive a wedge between the SLPP and the UNP but in vain. MP Charitha Herath has gone on record as saying that President Wickremesinghe is using the SLPP parliamentary group as a cat’s paw to pull political chestnuts out of the fire; the President is having the SLPP MPs pass draconian laws and ruining the SLPP’s chances of winning elections in the process, Prof. Herath has said, arguing that Wickremesinghe would not have done so if the UNP had been in power.

Wednesday’s meeting between President Wickremesinghe and the SLPP leaders and MPs was expected to be stormy, but it ended on a happy note with Basil Rajapaksa declaring that the SLPP would continue to support the President. His pledge should be viewed against the backdrop of SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam’s recent statement that the President should seek the concurrence of the SLPP leadership before scheduling meetings with the ruling party MPs. Some SLPP bigwigs boycotted the President’s meeting with the SLPP parliamentary group on Monday, according to media reports. When Kariyawasam speaks, one hears Basil’s voice.

Basil’s pledge of support to President Wickremesinghe has been construed, in some quarters, as a friendly reassurance and testament to healthy relations between the SLPP and the UNP, but it could be considered an attempt to keep the President reminded that Basil is in charge of the SLPP.

The SLPP leaders are apparently trying to consolidate their power. Several ministers representing the SLPP have publicly declared that Wickremesinghe is the best presidential candidate the SLPP-UNP alliance could think of. This must be a worrisome proposition for the SLPP leaders with presidential ambitions. The SLPP’s angry reaction to Monday’s meeting between the President and the government parliamentary group could be considered a shot across the UNP’s bow.

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