By Vishvanath

The SLPP’s second national convention held last Friday (Dec. 15) has attracted much media attention for all the wrong reasons. Going by the SLPP leaders’ fiery speeches replete with rhetoric and bellicosity, the event looked more like the SLPP meeting at Temple Trees, which was held a few hours before last year’s goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters, on May 09, 2022, than a properly-planned comeback campaign aimed at regaining public support. 

At last year’s Temple Trees’ gathering, a call to arms was made and the SLPP politicians and their supporters went on the rampage immediately afterwards, attacking as they did the peaceful Aragalaya protesters on the Galle Face Green and triggering retaliatory attacks across the country; that event marked the beginning of the end of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government. The SLPP has not recovered from that shock yet. It does not seem to have learnt anything from its past mistakes. No call to arms was made on Friday, but the tone of the SLPP leaders was seen to be belligerent. 

What prompted the SLPP to hold its national convention before the end of 2023? Having crawled out of hiding, played friendly cricket matches in Nuwara Eliya and held indoor meetings in some parts of the country, the SLPP leaders may have thought the time was opportune for them to conduct the party’s national convention. An election year is also fast approaching, and the desperation of the SLPP to shore up its image and boost the morale of its rank and file is understandable, but it obviously failed to achieve its goal—initiating the process of recovering lost ground.   

The SLPP has inflicted immense suffering on the people, and its approval rating is extremely low—about 9% according to Verite Research—although it has managed to retain control of the parliament with the help of some crossovers. The UNP also had a parliamentary majority, despite the SLFP’s break away from the Yahapalana government, until the last presidential election in 2019, but it was reduced to a single National List seat at the general election that followed. The SLFP-led United Front government (1970-77) also had a comfortable majority in the parliament, but could win only eight seats at the 1977 general election.

The public has neither forgotten their suffering nor forgiven those who caused it. The SLPP has got its strategy wrong where its recovery efforts are concerned. The success of its campaign to gain traction on the political front hinges on its ability to assuage the people’s anger and fears. But it did not care to make a serious attempt to do so on Friday. 

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa managed the political fallout of his defeat in 2015 extremely well, and won back public sympathy, which helped the SLFP dissidents who formed the SLPP and made a comeback sooner than expected. They succeeded in their endeavor mainly because they showed some remorse for their past sins and convinced the public that they would mend their ways. More importantly, the Yahapalana government ruined things for itself big time, and the Easter Sunday terror attacks catapulted threats to national security to the centerstage of politics again, much to the advantage of the SLPP. Instead of sounding remorseful and apologetic, the SLPP seniors, on Friday (Dec. 15), exuded arrogance and pugnacity. In doing so, they only antagonized the public further. What it should bear in mind is that it is in the same situation as a prisoner seeking parole, and aggressiveness and remorselessness will only ruin whatever chances it may have of recovering politically and electorally.

Addressing Friday’s convention, Basil Rajapaksa, as the National Organizer of the SLPP, urged the participants to be mindful of the fact that they were under the social media spotlight. “Make it a point to use pedestrian crossings when you cross roads on your way back home because social media is watching you!’ he said. But he himself did not heed that advice. He thought it fit to issue a warning to the opponents of the SLPP; he said those who threw stones at lions invited trouble, for unlike dogs, lions did not run away when they came under attack. His statement has triggered a social media backlash, which is the last thing the SLPP needs at this juncture. Politicians tend to get carried away when they see crowds, and come out with statements that prove to be counterproductive.   

It is always self-defeating for a party which has incurred the wrath of the public to go on the offensive. A rule of thumb for a beleaguered government struggling to regain public sympathy is to be conciliatory. If the SLPP leaders had been properly advised, they, on Dec. 15, would have expressed regret for their blunders on the economic front and the resultant hardships, tendered an apology for the mess, claimed credit for the ongoing efforts to revive the economy as the party in power, and held out some hope for the public. The economy, which had been contracting for more than a year has grown marginally during the last quarter of the current year. This is no mean achievement for a country which has declared itself bankrupt. The SLPP has not sought to capitalize on this fact. 

The SLPP has shown that it is not willing to change; it will continue to have the same characters detested by the public at the helm. The resignation of Basil as the party’s National Organizer will not help improve the party’s image. Mahinda continues to be the SLPP leader although he keeps saying the party needs youthful leaders! The SLPP has done precious little to change the public perception that it is a family concern more than a mass-based political entity. It does not want to have anyone other than a member of the Rajapaksa family as its leader. Mahinda is believed to be holding the party leadership in the hope that Namal will be able to secure it someday. That is the way with dynastic politics, which is detrimental to the interests of not only political parties but also countries.

Advertising is said to kill a bad product by making its negatives known to the public fast. The same may be said about the SLPP’s second national convention, which let the public know that it is unconcerned about the people’s concerns, impervious to change and has nothing new to offer.  


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