The power struggle between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ended with both being badly bruised, but the acrimony also exposed the failure of their long-term political strategies.
The run-up to the February 10 local government elections deepened the differences within the uneasy coalition and saw Sirisena declaring that his government was more corrupt than the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
In sharp contrast, Wickremesinghe desisted from criticising the junior coalition partner and even moved to rein-in his United National Party young bucks who tried to snipe at Sirisena.
What was at stake was not just the 341 local government bodies. At stake was the general elections of 2020. A new president must be in office by January 2020 while the earliest a parliamentary election can be held is February 2020.
Aides say both men are hoping to be candidates at the next presidential election despite Sirisena having declared at the beginning of his five-year tenure that he will not seek re-lection.
The local government election result was a bolt that not only brought both men down to earth but also sparked a blame game, not so much on bread and butter issues, but on their political manoeuvrings that may have backfired.
Wickremesinghe in his first press conference after the local council humiliation said the main reason for the setback was their failure to prosecute corrupt members of the former regime.
He said the main allegation against his United National Party government was its failure on the law and order front while the cost of living and the effects of a drought and floods had also reduced this party’s vote drastically.
Law and Order minister Sagala Ratnayaka has already taken the blame and said he was willing to be relieved of that portfolio.
However, political insiders say Ratnayaka was only being his master’s voice and he could not have protected former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa without the PM’s green light.
The recent election results showed that Wickremesinghe’s “GPS,” or Gotabhaya Protection Strategy had clearly failed.
He was hoping that by keeping Gotabhaya a free man the UNP could split Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Wickremesinghe was probably banking on Gotabhaya entering a three-cornered presidential election with him and Sirisena.
Wickremesinghe had calculated that Gotabhaya would split the SLFP vote clearing the way for an easy passage for him to the presidency. However, the February 10 result clearly showed that the SLFP vote base was firmly with the Rajapaksa faction and it was only the UNP vote that split.
Sirisena was also playing the Gotabhaya card. He admitted in January that he saved Gotabhaya despite having repeatedly denied he ever blocked the prosecution of the one-time de facto head of state under brother Mahinda.
Sirisena loyalists believe Gotabhaya could be a useful ally to rally hard-line Sinhala-Buddhists within the splintered Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and eventually to secure the leadership of the party.
By declaring that he saved Gotabhaya from being arrested, Sirisena in January was sending a coded message to SLFP voters that he was the man who saved their Sinhala nationalist hero and therefore to support him at the local polls.
At the same time, Sirisena escalated attacks on the UNP, but this strategy backfired badly.
Instead of persuading Rajapaksa loyalists to switch sides and support him, he ended up
Strengthening the arguments of the former president that the UNP was more corrupt than them.
The votes polled by Sirisena’s party was equivalent to what the UNP lost compared to their performance at the August 2015 polls. This shows Sirisena did not take any SLFP votes, but only managed to split the UNP.
In the process, he had delivered the SLFP base to Rajapaksa’s new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
Now that his attempt to blame Wickremesinghe for the local election debacle and having him removed as Prime Minister has failed, Sirisena has no choice but to continue in an uneasy cohabitation.
While Sirisena will have to be a lame duck, Wickremesinghe is also in a precarious position with a festering internal revolt suppressed for the time being.
The unity forced on Sirisena and Wickremesinghe is also bad news for Rajapaksa’s SLPP. It became the largest single party in 241 councils, but can control only about a quarter of them unless Sirisena’s party agrees to forge an electoral pact.
However, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe coming together at the national level could lead to a deal at local council level giving the coalition a majority of the councils in a move that will turn the February 10 result on its head. From a landslide victory, the SLPP could end up being the biggest looser.