Leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa and his party the Samagi Jana Balawegaya(SJB) are very much in the news lately. There have been many reports in the mainstream as well as social media that a large number of MPs from the SJB are planning to join the ranks of the Ranil Wickremesinghe Govt soon. Some reports speculate that the number of SJB parliamentarions contemplating a crossover is between 20 to 40.
Predictably Sajith Premadasa has denied that his party MPs are going to defect. He has lashed out at the Govt and said such misleading reports are being planted in the media by the Govt. He has also accused the Govt of conspiring to entice MPs from his party by offering Rs 200 Million to each MP. Premadasa has asserted that none of his party MPs will be tempted by such offers. He also claims that some Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) MPs have joined the SJB. A news report in a morning newspaper stated as follows -.
“Members of the current Government create various news and put them in social media in an attempt to mislead the public, said the Leader of the Opposition of Sri Lanka, Sajith Premadasa.
He noted that a new political conspiracy was currently taking place in which the Government lies that a large number of MP’s of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) are going to join the Government.
“But Chandima Weerakody and Jayarathne Herath and a large number of MP’s in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) have joined our party and there are many more in line waiting to come,” he said.
The Government however, has weaved this lie against the country’s only solution, the country’s only answer which is the SJB, he further noted.
“We have gotten to know that the Government’s estimate for a MP is Rs.200 million, the Government thinks that when they show Rs.200 million to our MP’s they will beg to join the Government,” said Mr. Sajith Premadasa.
“I would like to say that the MP’s of the SJB are not ready to take part in the Government’s auction of Mp’s,” he concluded.
Sajith Premadasa taking umbrage over the alleged attempt by the Wickremesinghe Govt to take away his MPs is quite understandable. After all no party leader would like his MPs to split and join another party or form a new one. The irony in this is that Premadasa himself took away the majority of MPs from the United National Party(UNP) of which he was a member and formed the SJB anew. When that happened the UNP or its leader Wickremesinghe did not accuse him of offering financial “incentives” to woo the green elephants.
Furthermore the impending crossover if and when it takes place would actually be a homecoming. It will be a case of Former MPs who deserted their mother party the UNP returning to their “Mahagedara” like prodigal sons returning home. Can Ranil Wickremesinghe be faulted for welcoming back the colleagues who were lured away by Sajith Premadasa>
Moreover there is the allegation by Sajith that his MPs are being offered 200 Million rupees each. If this is indeed true the leader of the opposition must immediately take up this matter with the Police and Bribery Commission. Sajith should furnish details of the MPs from his party who were offered 200 million and through whom the offer was made.
Nowithstanding Sajith’s denial and asseruon that his MPs will not split,it does appear that the SJB Leader is aware of a potential mass defection and is engaging in pre-emptive measures to prevent it. Premadasa’s allegation that MPs are being offered 200 million can be seen as an attempt to deter potential defectors. He is indirectly warning his party MPs that if the MPs break away, it would be insinuated that they did so for cash and that each MP’s reputation would be tarnished.
Moreover Sajith organized a dinner for his party MPs at the Monarch Imperial Hotel in Battaramulla on Aprl 3rd. Earlier it had been fixed for April 5 but was suddenly advanced by two days. One of the reasons attributed for this change was the “rumour” that a number of MPs from SJB were going to shift to the Govt when Parliament met on April 4. Sajith wanted to prevent this happening by appealing to the MPs collectively and individually. Hence the dinner was held on the 3rd. 23 MPs including the host Sajith were at the dinner. Sajith met with each MP on a one to one basis and engaged in pleasant conversation
Prior to the dinner Premadasa had a meeting with all the MPs where he stated that there was talk that a number of SJB parliamentarians including Dr.Harsha de Silva were intending to join Govt ranks. Sajith said he did not believe that. He urged all SJB Parliamentarians to remain with the party.
Mistrust of SJB MPs
Premadasa’s anxiety and insecurity over the possibility of his MPs joining the Govt of President Ranil Wickremesinghe stems from his mistrust of his fellow SJB MPs. It may be recalled that almost all the SJB parliamentarians were UNP members in the past. Most of them had no problems with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership and were not favourably disposed towards Sajith Premadasa’s leadership ambition.
Yet they deserted Wickremesinghe and the UNP en masse and together with Premadasa formed the SJB. This was not due to any illwill towards Ranil or any goodwill towards Sajith. They had gauged the mood of the electorate through various means including opinion polls and had assessed that Ranil’s stock was low while Sajith’s was high.
They realised their electoral prospects were dismal if they remained with Ranil and the UNP. So they hitched their wagon to the Sajith star and turned SJB. Politically what they did then seemed correct when the UNP was wiped out at the 2020 Parliamentary poll. The UNP hit an all time low by not having a singe elected MP. The party got only one MP on the national list.
Now the wheel seems to have turned full cycle. Even though the UNP’s popularity as a party is low, Ranil’s stock seems to be rising. The UNP may not do well at a local authority, provincial or Parliamentary poll but its leader Wickremesinghe is the front runner in a Presidential poll.. It appears that Ranil Wickremesinghe has the best chance of winning at the next Presidential election. His party the UNP or his tactical ally the SLPP doing well in Local authority, Provincial Council or Parliament elections are very very slim. However this scenario is not prevalent in the presidential hustings.
Gulliver Among Lilliputians
It is Ranil who stands out among potential contenders in a future presidential poll. He is like Gulliver among Lilliputians there. Ranil knows it and therefore is firmly opposed to any other poll being conducted before Presidential elections. If another poll is held before the Presidential election and the UNP does not fare well, that would affect Ranil’s chances for the Presidency. But if Ranil wins the Presidency first and then goes in for a Parliamentary, Provincial or local authority poll, the UNP’s prospects would be brighter.
What Ranil is aiming to do is to forge a broad alliance presumably named the United National Front(UNF) with the Elephant symbol and be its presidential candidate.This new pro-Ranil alliance will consist of the UNP, elements of the SJB and SLPP and parties representing the ethnic minority communities in Sri Lanka.
Since Sajith knows fully well that most of his fellow MPs lay down with him on the SJB bed only because of the desire to be in Parliament and not because of any love or admiration for him,the party leader is suspicious to the point of paranoia that they could desert him and return to their first love the UNP.
Sajith Premadasa therefore is ultra-sensitive about any move to bring about UNP-SJB rapprochement or promote unity between both. Some months ago two former UNP stalwarts, one an ex-cabinet minister and the other an ex- Corporation head , held an informal discussion with some SJB personalities about a tie up between the UNP and SJB. When Premadasa heard about this, he lost his cool and issued a harsh statement. In that he mentioned the two ex-UNPers by the first letters of their names and accused them of a “Kumanthranaya” (conspiracy)to break up his party.
More recently TPA leader Mano Ganesan and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem engaged in an ‘Amity’ Mission to bring about unity between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa with the Presidential elections in mind. Ranil was amenable, subject to some conditions.He would be the Presidential candidate in 2024 backed by an alliance comprising the UNP, SJB and minority community parties. Sajith would be Prime Minister. Ranil will retire in 2029 clearing the field for Sajith to become the leader.
Apparently, this proposal was welcomed by SJB stalwarts like Thalatha Atukorale, Kabir Hashim, Eran Wickramaratne, Harsha de Silva, Rajitha Senaratne and Rohini Wijerathne. But others like Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Tissa Attanayake, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, Lakshman Kiriella, Sujeewa Senasinghe and Hirunika Premachandra opposed it.
Members of the Premadasa family too did not like the idea. Finally, Sajith Premadasa rejected the unity proposal. Upon hearing this Ranil Wickremesinghe too hardened his stance. So, Hakeem and Ganesan abandoned their unity moves (I have referred to this in these columns on 25 March 2023).
It is clear therefore that despite his statements to the contrary Sajith Premadasa is acutely aware that a defection from opposition/SJB ranks to the Govt/UNP ranks are very much on the cards. He is trying hard to prevent this from happening but events seem to be overtaking his efforts. Sajith and the SJB are certainly facing a gathering political storm.
It is leant that efforts are underway within the SJB to convince the hierarchy that the party should throw in its lot with President Wickremesinghe for the betterment of the country. If the leadership remains unwilling, a group of MPs are likely to declare themselves independent and go over to the Govt. A news report in the “Daily Mirror”of 6 April 2023 quoting Dr.Rajitha Senaratne indicates this. Here is an excerpt –
“Several Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MPs are willing to support President Ranil Wickremesinghe and will do so as a group if the party fails to take a decision, SJB MP Rajitha Senaratne said today.“MPs like Harsha de Silva are willing to support President Wickremesinghe no matter what anyone says. We will support the President as a group if the party fails to make a decision,” the MP said responding to a question raised by journalists at a media briefing.”Also, he said the notion that the President has put the country to a better position is a reality”
What then has caused this change of mind among the UNP turned SJB parliamentarians. Why are those who abandoned Ranil and accepted Sajith’s leadership in 2020 now prepared to do the opposite? There are three probable reasons.
Ranil;Loser to Winner
The first reason is the fundamental change of perception towards Ranil. His image has changed from a loser into that of an achiever and winner.Though attacked viciously as an unelected president lacking legitimacy and a Rajapaksa stooge, Ranil Wickremesinghe has done good. Ranil has entrenched himself as President despite having only a solitary MP in Parliament. He has progressed considerably towards the goal he set himself namely the repairing of the economy. Despite all the negativity of his critics and detractors,Ranil has been able to – with the collaboration of the Central Bank and Treasury-secure the much awaited extended facility fund(EFF) finances from the International Monetary Fund(IMF). This has been a political gamechanger.
Whether Wickremesinghe’s critics acknowledge it or not , the reality is that his efforts in pulling Sri Lanka out of the dire economic straits it was in, is resonating with the “ordinary” people who comprise what is termed as the silent majority. In spite of his faults and lapses, posterity will judge Wickremesinghe on what he did for the economy. Likewise all MPs in the present Parliament will also be judged on those lines. Therefore these SJB parliamentarians would opt to change sides now.
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna
The second reason is the perceived increase in popular support for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) and the corresponding decrease in support for the SJB.An important pointer in this regard is the Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey (SLOTS) undertaken by the Institute for Health Policy (IHP). The survey gauges the level of support for political parties if Parliamentary elections are held currently.
According to the SLOTS, the JVP-led NPP and the SJB are the leading contenders. Both the SJB and NPP were running neck to neck for the months of November and December 2022 and January 2023. There was a marked change in February 2023. Support for the JVP-led NPP surged in February, giving it a clear lead with 43% of likely General Election voters, compared to 30% for the SJB.The analysis also disclosed that in the 12 months from February 2022, the JVP-led NPP gained 30 points while the SJB gained 11 points.
So the SJB politicos are getting jittery about the rising popularity of the JVP and want to close ranks with Wickremesinghe who they feel is the best option to counter the JVP. They are no longer confident that the SJB would win the next Parliamentary poll. Worse still, they fear the JVP will do better than the SJB.
Sajith’s Leadership Style
The third reason is growing intra-party resentment and dissastisfaction towards Sajith Premadasa and his leadership style.It is said that Sajith ignores senior partymen and runs things autocratically relying on a clique. This Cabal consists of Premadsa family members, a handful of MPs and an “adviser”. This adviser , a businessman whose surname begins with a “F” is supposedly influencing Sajith in many ways and has incurred the wrath of several MPs. The disenchantment with Sajith Premadasa’s leadership is a key reason for many MPs toying with the idea of exiting the SJB.Even minority party allies are disillusioned with this state of affairs.
It is clear therefore that the Samagi Jana Balawegaya party and its leader Sajith Premadsa are facing a Politically stormy crisis. gathering political storm. This gathering political storm is likely to erupt anytime after the April New Year festivity.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an updated version of the “DBS Jeyaraj Column”appearing in the “Daily Mirror” dated April 8th 2023.It can be accessed here –