Former President Maithripala Sirisena’s son, Daham, has taken to active politics as the Chairman of the SLFP Youth Council in the Polonnaruwa District. Speculation is rife that he will be the SLFP’s pick for the North Central Province Chief Minister’s post. In fact, this is what SLPP MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi, a bitter critic of Sirisena, told the media on Wednesday.

Fathers’ love for their sons could lead to problems in political parties, and even drive ambitious seniors away. It was Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake’s decision to groom his son, Dudley, as his successor that was mainly responsible for S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s exit from the UNP to form the SLFP, in 1951. Bandaranaike felt he had no future in the UNP. Seven decades on, some senior SLPP members are said to be resentful of the promotion by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of his eldest son, Namal, as his successor.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who said he was not interested in a second term, is now humming a different tune, and if he seeks a second term, as speculated, then the SLPP will have to think of a new prime ministerial candidate because the incumbent PM is expected to retire after serving the current term. These developments are not to the liking of the other SLPP higher-ups, who are not members of the ruling family but are aiming high.

Sirisena also eyed the premiership while being a member of the previous Rajapaksa Cabinet. When he realized that he would not be able to make it, he became frustrated and finally voted with his feet, in 2014. He ran for President successfully the following year.

Sirisena earned encomia when he declared, upon being inaugurated as the President in January 2015 that he would not seek a second term. His declaration was taken as a pledge to retire after fulfilling his election promises during his first term. But no sooner had he been sworn in than he seized control of the SLFP, giving the lie to his claim that he was not interested in remaining in politics after the completion of the first term. About one year into office, he launched his re-election campaign in all but name. He traversed the country, attending opening ceremonies and making political speeches.

The sacking of Prime Minister Rani Wickremesinghe in October 2018, and the appointment of a new government with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister were part of Sirisena’s re-election strategy. If the hurriedly formed government had not collapsed owing to a judicial order against it and its failure to muster a working majority in the parliament, Sirisena would have been able to seek a second term; it would have been a case of Hobson’s choice for the SLFP-SLPP alliance. His plan went awry, when Wickremesinghe retained premiership, and the Easter Sunday attacks ruined the prospect of his re-election.

Card up Sirisena’s sleeve

Sirisena, however, has been playing his cards well. He patched things up with the Rajapaksas while being the President, and rode on their coattails or saatakas at the last general election, where the SLFP secured 14 seats out of the SLPP’s 145. In spite of all his hostile actions against the Rajapaksa family after winning the presidency, he is now having the present Rajapaksa government protect him; but for government backing, the recommendation by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the Easter Sunday attacks (2019), that criminal proceedings be instituted against him for serious lapses on his part would have been implemented.

Sirisena is treading cautiously. He is not in a hurry to build the Sirisena dynasty. He does not want to be seen as a political threat to the ruling family. He is playing a waiting game. He has been careful not to catapult his son to a national-level post in the SLFP straightaway while Namal is being promoted as a national leader. He knows it won’t do his son any good to be seen as a future challenge to Namal. At present, Sirisena’s plan is to persuade the SLPP to nominate Daham as the North Central Province (NCP) chief ministerial candidate. However, a Chief Minister is on a par with a Cabinet minister. If everything goes as planned, Daham will use the NCP, which consists of the Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura districts, as a stepping stone to the parliament. He is young enough to wait until the time is opportune for him to secure the party leadership.

The North Central Province is an agricultural area, where any party has to win over farmers if it is to fare well at an election. The government has antagonized farmers thanks to its sudden fertilizer ban, which is said to have led to crop losses. Farmers are furious and holding protests. It is doubtful whether the government will be able to win them over anytime soon. Sirisena is speaking for the protesting farmers. He has mastered the art of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Sirisena’s battle plan is clear. The future of the SLPP is linked to that of the Rajapaksa family, which will not allow any outsider to hold key positions in the party. No political dynasty can remain popular forever. The fate that has befallen the Indian Congress Party serves as an example. The Gandhis have become a liability for it, but the Congress cannot get rid of them. The SLFP is different. It has ceased to be the party of the Bandaranaikes and is at present free from dynastic encumbrances. Sirisena is trying to promote the SLFP as an alternative to the SLPP and attract the disgruntled government supporters who, however, will not vote for the SJB or the JVP. He is not in a hurry. He is trying to rebuild the SLFP slowly but steadily. The SLFP will gain from a drop in the approval ratings of the SLPP. Daham will wait like his father.

SLPP reads Sirisena’s mind?

Sirisena is adept at dissimulation, but the SLPP seems to have already read his mind and seen through the SLFP’s strategy. Some of the SLPP backbenchers have launched scathing attacks on Sirisena and his party. SLPP MP Kuttiarachchi’s, recent, tirade against him and the SLFP is a case in point. He berated the SLFP for being critical of government policies while being part of the SLPP coalition and savouring power. He did not mince his words when he said Sirisena’s plan was to woo the farmers so that Daham could become the Chief Minister of the NCP. He asked Sirisena to leave the government if he did not agree with the government policies. This is not the first time the SLPP has taken on the SLFP and Sirisena. Previously, it was SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam who would launch into tirades against them from time to time, but the government seems to have entrusted the task of bashing the SLFP to its cantankerous backbenchers. It is obvious that the SLPP MP will not dare carry out such attacks without the blessings of their leaders.

The SLPP backbenchers are likely to step up attacks on Sirisena to prevent the latter from gaining political mileage from the government’s lapses and blunders. Now that they have seen through Sirisena’s grand strategy, whether they will agree to nominate Daham as the SLPP’s chief ministerial candidate in the NCP in case of the delayed PC polls being held, or whether the SLFP will have to go it alone in case of the SLPP deciding to field someone else, remains to be seen.

SLFP tactics

The SLFP is trying to increase its bargaining power. It is leveraging its parliamentary strength, and pretending that it is under pressure from the party’s rank and file to leave the government. It has been stage-managing some events. A group of party activists urged Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, at a recent SLFP meeting in Kurunegala, to break ranks with the government. There have been several such much-publicized calls to have the government believe that the SLFP is under pressure to leave the SLPP coalition and remain independent in the parliament. But it is doubtful whether the SLPP leadership will fall for such tactics because the SLFP still needs coattail rides at elections.

There is no love lost between Sirisena and the Rajapaksas. They have come together out of expedience and not principle. They will not hesitate to further their interest at the expense of each other if they find themselves in a situation which compels them to break ranks. The Rajapaksa family cannot be unaware that the emerging political dynasty in Polonnaruwa will rival it one day, and it will be interesting to see its reaction to Daham’s entry into active politics. Having seen what the Sirisenas are capable of, the Rajapaksas are sure to perceive Daham as a political threat.


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