Opposition politics seem to be at cross purposes lately and the turn of events last week corroborated this impression. Factions of the Opposition, disgruntled as they may be, have started to chip away and initiate new political movements in pursuit of their political ambitions.
Given the long accustomed bi-party political culture in the country, these new political formations affect the political fortunes of the main Opposition Party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa, whereas the vote bank of the ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) remains more or less unaffected. On the other hand, these mushrooming political formations would only be stand-alone entities lacking enough political clout to make a formidable challenge unless all of them come under one umbrella to make a broader alliance.
In that same sense, some close to the Opposition camp believe that these groups may close ranks in the face of its main rival Party, the SLPP, in the end, though this seems a distant reality in the immediate future as there are simmering internal problems in the fragmented Opposition. In such a scenario, these proxies can lure the sections of voters who are not directly inclined to vote for the SJB or the United National Party (UNP).
What can be safely assumed is that these groups can be a make-or-break factor of the Opposition’s political capital in the long run.
Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) heavyweight MP Patali Champika Ranawaka has initiated an alternative political force named ‘43 Brigade’ to cater to his political agenda, while also being careful not to lose his foot on the SJB camp. Several SJB frontline members, sceptic of the motives behind this initiative, have questioned why MP Ranawaka has launched a separate political campaign outside the Party.
At a function held at the Galle Face Hotel on Sunday, the policy framework of “43 Brigade” was launched under the theme ‘For a prosperous and just nation: For a country worth living in’, and a team of 14 ‘facilitators’ of the Brigade was announced. Among the team members are several close aides of MP Ranawaka including former MP Karunaratne Paranavithana and Dhanuskha Ramanayake.
What immediately strikes one about this new formation is that a word associated with the militia has deliberately been picked to name it. The description of the movement says the name was chosen to denote the educated masses that are products of free education introduced in 1943. It says the basis of their organization is meritocracy and that it has high regard for intellectualism and professionalism. One cannot help but notice stark similarities of this movement’s outline with that of ‘Viyath Maga’ which supported President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Presidential bid in 2019.
Some noteworthy points in the policy document of ‘43 Brigade’ are cited below.
“We have recognized two mandatory conditions for a political change. The first is the requirement to establish a state vision and policy framework that can guide Sri Lanka into the future. The second is the requirement to position the most suited and the most enabled of every level of the political and administrative pyramid.
“The great hopes and aspirations of the public in 2015 and 2019 when they voted were dashed due to the maladjustments and differences that were allowed to swallow up those respective Governments because those two conditions were not met. In 2015, since there was no convention or consensus on even the simplest principles of democratic governance it was captured by a small group of individuals and their political ideologies. Those outside this core group had to watch in great distress and that Government degenerated and dissolved and finally ended in statelessness.
In the meantime, the United National Party (UNP) is on the verge of splintering as at least three of its stalwarts are contemplating breaking ranks with the Party frustrated over the recent revisions in the Party’s ranks.
During a Working Committee meeting held last Wednesday, revisions were made to the Party’s office bearers, but the much called for leadership change has been put off for the umpteenth time. UNP Leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to keep his post intact applying his usual tactics of biding time, in contrary to his previous claims of handing the Party over to a new leadership in January.
UNP Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene has been made to wait longer to succeed Wickremesinghe, while former Minister Navin Dissanayake, who also aspired to become the UNP Leader, has been reappointed as the National Organizer. Former Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, who has also expressed willingness to take over the leadership mantle, has been kicked upstairs as a senior Vice Chairman.
Former Minister Vajira Abeywardena, a staunch loyalist of Wickremesinghe, has been appointed the Party Chairman. Former MP Palitha Range Bandara has been elevated as the new General Secretary, while former General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who resigned recently, received an Assistant Leader post. Notably, former UNP Deputy Leader Ravi Karunanayake, who was at odds with the Party’s top-rung, has been left without any post.
The Party seniors loyal to Wickremesinghe told the media that Wickremesinghe would remain the Leader till the Party is reorganized to engineer a political comeback. How a political leader squarely rejected by the voters could turn around a Party, which is at its lowest today following a humiliating defeat at the last Parliamentary Election, is the million-dollar question the Party seniors repeatedly dodge. The UNP, reduced to a single bonus seat that remains vacant for more than five months, is relegated to the fringes of political discourse, while the SJB formed by a break-away group led by former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa has stamped its presence as the main opponent of the SLPP.
New UNP Chairman Abeywardena told the media that Wickremesinghe was the Party’s pick to fill its National List slot. “The Party Leader may enter Parliament when he wants to. He has not completely brushed aside this idea,” he told reporters.
A possible defection of UNP Members Arjuna Ranatunga, Navin Dissanayake and Ravi Karunanayake, who were not happy over the re-shuffle in the Party, was a piece of news that followed the Working Committee meeting.
It was reported that former Minister Dissanayake might opt to join his father-in-law, former Speaker and erstwhile UNP senior-most Member Karu Jayasuriya to organize the ‘National Movement for Social Justice’ (NMSJ), as a broader political movement.
Jayasuriya was spearheading the NMSJ since the demise of late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, a well-regarded and influential Buddhist monk known for his revolutionary leadership. The NMSJ envisages creating a better political culture and a law-abiding rule in the country sans waste, bribery and corruption. It underlines the importance of ethnic and religious harmony.
Senior UNP member Ravi Karunanayake’s next move has not yet been announced. Karunanayake boasts of having a support base of his own, but with him he carries a heavy baggage of alleged past misdeeds which do not paint a good picture of him in the public eye. It is yet to be seen whether he will be welcomed to the SJB if he exits the UNP.
Moreover, the SJB is likely to lose its outspoken MP Ranjan Ramanayake following his conviction for Contempt of Court where he was sentenced to four years’ Rigorous Imprisonment. The Attorney General, pursuant to a legal clarification sought by the Parliament Secretary General, advised on Monday that Ramanayake’s Parliamentary seat has fallen vacant. Next in line in the SJB’s Gampaha District list former MP Ajith Mannapperuma is expected to re-enter Parliament replacing Ramanayake.
Actor-turned-politician Ramanayake, who tried to copy his silver screen role ‘One Shot’ in real life, has fallen into trouble for failing to speak measuredly when and where necessary. Before the Court, he could neither substantiate his statement to the media that “the majority of Judges were corrupt” nor prove that it was a slip of the tongue.
Enmeshed in various intra-party distractions, the SJB and the UNP have been slow in reacting to contemporary issues that have cropped up recently. Amidst this lethargy, it could be seen that the civil society members and the Buddhist monks, who supported the victory of President Rajapaksa, have come to the fore to play the role of the Opposition to maintain checks and balances on the Government.
All in all, finding a common ground to reconcile the fragmented groups of the Opposition, which are currently at variance with each other, will be a difficult task and unlikely before the upcoming Provincial Council (PC) Elections. These internal rifts of the Opposition will be an added electoral advantage for the SLPP, which has dominated the political landscape riding high on the popular support, to sweep the board at the PC Elections due next. However, there is no timeframe yet for holding the much-delayed PC Polls.