Monumental Misjudgments, Wild Exaggerations And SLFP’s Irresolute End

By Rasika Jayakody 

 

Addressing a gathering of SLFP activists in Kurunegala recently, President Maithripala Sirisena made a surprising statement: He boasted that no political party in the country could form a government without his party’s support.

It was clear, the President ’s remark was a gambit to prove the relevance of his party,   despite its weak performance at the recent Local Government elections.

In resorting to bragging, the President, inadvertently painted a picture of the current state of affairs in his party: The SLFP, which ruled the country for 40 years since independence, has been reduced to a mere third force that must make wild, exaggerated statement of its indispensability to mainstream politics.

It has turned out that the President’s decision to assume leadership of the SLFP  has been to be a monumental misjudgement at two levels. First, it has alienated him from the forces that voted him into power with fervent hopes of establishing good governance in the country.  Second, it has prompted large swathes of SLFP members and activists to cross over to the Rajapaksa group as Sirisena, was not a leader they aspired to have in the first place. During the toxic and increasingly partisan presidential election campaign in January 2015, SLFP activists and supporters at the grassroots level despised Sirisena with serious venom, perceiving him as a “traitor”.

President Sirisena and the SLFP, at this point, have three groups of supporters. There are the MPs and backers who have aligned them with Sirisena for the positional power the latter wields as the Executive President: By being on Sirisena’s side, they have secured access to government jobs, perks and state funds. They assume this unhindered access to the state machinery will help their individual campaigns to some degree at the next Parliamentary election. This group will also have qualms about performing a volte-face on President Sirisena at a crunch time to throw their full weight behind the Rajapaksas’.

The other group is formed by those who find it hard to support the Rajapaksa group for personal reasons. For instance, Duminda Dissanayake, the National Organizer of the SLFP and a supporter of Sirisena, cannot support the Rajapaksas as he has publicly claimed the latter quickened his father, Berty Premalal Dissanayake’s death, by sidelining him in the later stage of his career. This group also is not yet willing to risk their political careers by joining the UNPs their individual voter bases lie largely with the SLFP. However, if it comes to a binary choice between the UNP and Rajapaksa group, this group will opt to join the UNP, despite profound risks and uncertainties.

The third group consists of those who have been made persona non grata by the UNP due to their dubious roles in the party in the past. With Sirisena, they have found a safe haven and they were also instrumental in driving a wedge between the President and the UNP. The way I see it, this group largely functions as the President’s think-tank in the domain of power politics and they, needless to say, have let down Sirisena quite badly time and time again. They gradually deceived Sirisena into believing that his engagement with the UNP was a zero-sum game when, in reality, Sirisena’s political fortunes are very much intertwined with those who voted for him in 2015.

What this reveals is that the SLFP, despite its ambitious attempts at forming a caretaker government, is in a precarious position having suffered a severe blow at the local government election earlier this year and crashed further over the past few months. Time is running out and the President has almost reached the last lap of his five-year term. Should the President and the SLFP fail to recover from the current low, they will run the risk of being thrown into the political wilderness at the next national election.

The possibility of former President Rajapaksa re-joining the SLFP at some point remains marginal. In addition to its island-wide machinery and the strong presence at the grassroots level, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna also provides a solid platform for the Rajapaksas for at least two generations. The Rajapaksas to the SLPP would be what the Bandaranaikes were to the SLFP between 1951 and 2005.

When Rajapaksa was leading the SLFP,  he was constantly taunted by the spectres of Bandaranaike in the party. He tried to overcome this problem by falsely positioning his father, the late D.A. Rajapaksa, as a co-founder of the SLFP, alongside S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, but although D.A. Rajapaksa crossed the well of Parliament behind Bandaranaike in 1951, the former was nowhere in sight when Bandaranaike drew initial plans to form the new party. In fact, Bandaranaike himself was quite surprised when he saw Rajapaksa following him to the well of the House. Some inveterate cynics later went on to assume that Rajapaksa was very drunk that day and blindly followed Bandaranaike, the Leader of the House, because he was unable to find his seat! Be that as it may, D.A. Rajapaksa, who later climbed the rungs of the government as a deputy minister and deputy speaker, was never equal to Bandaranaike in the party ranks.

The SLPP, on the other hand, does not have any forefathers, aside from the members of the Rajapaksa family. The party ideology and agenda will be defined by the political exigencies of the MR camp and the Rajapaksas will secure an unassailable position in the party unless there is in-fighting among family members. The party has already secured a comprehensive election win and have proven beyond doubt that the SLPP can function as a stand-alone entity, without any form of support from the SLFP.

Therefore, Mahinda Rajapaksa has no perceivable reason to join the SLFP and will continue to bolster the SLPP that will carry his legacy forward. A sizable proportion of the current SLFP members are certain to join the SLPP at a future election aiming squarely to piggyback on the ‘Rajapaksa factor’ leaving President Sirisena and his group in the lurch. This means the next national election will mainly be a battle between the UNP and the SLPP, with the SLFP running as a distant number 03. There’s also the remote possibility that SLPP and Sirisena’s SLFP will form an alliance of some sort, with Rajapaksa as the leader of the common front. As the leader of the ‘junior partner’ of the coalition, Sirisena will never stand a chance to lead such an alliance and he will be forced to settle for a certain quota of candidates. Whatever the outcome may be, accepting Rajapaksa ’s leadership will certainly be torturous to Sirisena and that will go down as the greatest irony in Sri Lanka’s political history - far greater than his own defection from the Rajapaksa-led government in 2014.

These complexities make it clear that the SLFP, the grand old party with a legacy of over 67 years, is now on its knees and will soon see an irresolute end. Under the current circumstances, the party’s fate seems is sealed unless it decides to duly submit itself to the Rajapaksa group and let the former President lead the party again. Unfortunately, even total submission of that nature won’t bring much value to the table as the party’s bases have profoundly eroded over the last three years.


(The writer is the former Editor of Daily News and the former Editor-in-Chief of Asian Mirror. He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

 


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