by Vishvanath


The SLPP-UNP combine, which was on the defensive last year, is now on the offensive. The SLPP seniors who went into hidinghave come out and are berating those who were involved in Aragalaya. The two parties are also trying to make a public display of what they make out to be their unity though the general consensus is that their relationship is far from harmonious and they are not getting on that well.

The Opposition parties are also rallying forces. They seem to have realized the need to be united in taking on the government effectively. The JVP-led NPP has chosen to go solo, but the SJB, the SLPP dissidents and others are trying to forge a common front to overcome challenges and threats on the political front.

Former Minister Dullas Alahapperuma is one of the keyOpposition figures who have taken upon themselves the task of bringing the anti-government forces together and cobbling up a common political alliance. A former journalist known for his mastery over the Sinhala language, Dullas has graphically described the mission of the SLPP dissident group, which has formed the Freedom People’s Congress (FPC), thus: “Our goal is to build a bridge for the benefit of everyone and we are not interested in putting up plaques and claiming credit for it.”

 Will the bridge they have in mind ever be a reality, given ideological differences among their leaders and their competing political ambitions? Will it end up being a bridge to nowhere like the one the SLPP and the UNP have begun constructing?  The SJB and the FPC are offshoots of the UNP and the SLPP respectively.

The focus of this column will be on the bridge-building efforts of the SLPP and the UNP and the harsh ground reality, which militates against them.


Strange bedfellows

It is not only adversity that makes strange bedfellows; political expediency also does. The SLPP and the UNP would never have joined forces to share power if not for the socio-political upheavals that shook the country last year. Any port in a storm, and the SLPP took a big leap of faith, when Aragalaya span out of control, and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe became the Prime Minister and the President in quick succession thanks to the SLPP, which elevated him to the highest position in the land for want of a better alternative. Their political marriage of convenience has not been a happy one though. The two parties have been at loggerheads over many issues, but they have been careful not to allow their differences to cause the collapse of the current administration.

The SLPP-UNP government finds itself in a huge ideological contradiction; it is trying to fuse two competing politico-economic ideologies—social democracy and neoliberalism. The SLPP emerged as an alternative to the UNP-led Yahapalana government (2015-2019), which stood accused of pursuing a neoliberal agendait had failed to carry out during the UNP-led UNF government (20012004); during that period, the UNP tried to implement its ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ programme, which Mahinda Rajapaksa and like-minded political leaders denounced as a neoliberal strategy inimical to Sri Lanka’s interests and scuttled in 2004, when the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Front, with the JVP as a constituent, formed a government. In 2005, Mahinda Chinthanaya based on social democratic principles was adopted. Rajapaksa opposed privatisation and resisted calls for downsizing the state sector; he renationalised some state-owned enterprises and stepped up recruitment to the public service, which today has about 1.7 million employees—more than double the required number.

When the UNP made a comeback in 2015, it sought to implement some of the Regaining Sri Lanka policies but was careful not to go all out to do so because of its bitter experience in the early 2000s. But the Rajapaksa family managed to turn public opinion against the UNP-led administration and bounce back by promising to undo what the UNP had done on the economic and political fronts. Its strategy worked in 2018, when it won the local government elections impressively before going on to secure the presidency and regain control of the parliament in 2019 and 2020respectively.

Today, circumstances have brought the SLPP and the UNP together, and the challenge before them has been to reconcile their ideologies which are like chalk and cheese, where their divergent perspectives and policies are concerned, though they seem to be similar due to their agreement on open market economic policies.


Social democracy and neoliberalism

SLPP ideologists advertise their party’s commitment to social democracy, which is a political ideology that combines elements of socialism and liberalism, and seeks to create a more equal and just society through democratic means. Social democrats advocate for a mixed economy with the government playing a pivotal role in regulating and providing essential services such as healthcare, education, and social welfare. They believe in progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth to reduce socioeconomic inequalities. Social democrats prioritize workers’ rights, strong labour unions, and social safety nets. While respecting individual freedoms, social democracy aims to ensure a fair and inclusive society that provides equal opportunities and protects the vulnerable.

Having emerged in the late 20th century, neo-liberalism is an economic and political ideology that advocates free markets, minimal government intervention, and deregulation. Neoliberals cherish individual freedom and private property rights, and view market competition as the driving force for economic growth and efficiency. They are ardent supporters of globalization, free trade, and the privatisation of public services. Neoliberal policies often prioritise reducing government spending, lowering taxes, and promoting entrepreneurship. Critics argue that neoliberalism can lead to increased income inequality, market failures, and the debilitation of social safety nets. It is a controversial ideology that has had a significant influence on global economic policies.

A rigid dichotomy between the UNP and the SLPP—or even between other political parties in this country for that matter—on the basis social democratic and neoliberal ideologies may not be possible due to some commonalities they have, but, overall, they are miles away from each other, as could be seen from their stanceson the privatization of state-owned ventures, welfare expenditure, public sector recruitment, etc., and foreign relations.


Strained relations and damage control

The SLPP and the UNP have a symbiotic relationship, but there are signs of their differences coming to a head. SLPP General Secretary and MP Sagara Kariyawasam have said some uncomplimentary things about the UNP and President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and MP Namal Rajapaksa has been openly critical of the government’s plan to privatize profitable state-owned ventures. He has even questioned the government’s wisdom of doing so.

On Monday (12) a group of SLPP MPs including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and some SLPP District Leaders did not attend a meeting called by President Wickremesinghe. Only the SLPP members of the Cabinet were present. Kariyawasam told the media that the SLPP had decided against attending the meeting because the President did not have the power to summon SLPP members. He said if the President wanted to have a discussion with SLPP members, he should inform the SLPP first.

Monday’s boycott was an instance of political muscleflexing by the SLPP, and the President apparently got the message. It received a lot of media attention, which prompted the UNP and the SLPP to adopt damage control measures. The Presidentsubsequently called a government parliamentary group meeting through the SLPP with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena coordinating it. They met on Wednesday, and among those present were Mahinda and Basil, who sought to paper over the cracks by declaring the SLPP’s continued support for President Wickremesinghe. What he left unsaid was that the SLPP would do so on its terms, and the President should not overstep his limits.


Bridgebuilding goes on

The Rajapaksas seem to think they are now out of danger, and have to change their strategy to recover lost ground on the political front and prepare their party for elections. They don’t want the SLPP to be overshadowed by either President Wickremesinghe or the UNP, which has already eaten into its parliamentary group. But they cannot break ranks with the UNP or confront President Wickremesinghe. Nor can the UNP afford to go it alone, much less sever ties with the SLPP, for it will be left with only a single parliamentary seat and the President will be reduced to a figurehead to all intents and purposes in such an eventuality.

The SLPP and the UNP, therefore, will continue with their bridge-building mission though the odds are that the outcome of their efforts will be a bridge to nowhere.