Some SLPP dissidents have thrown down the gauntlet in what is going to be a crucial legal battle against the government. Political observers are watching the drama playing out at Huftsdorp with keen interest. They consider it unprecedented.

The government—the ruling family, to be exact—may have thought its questionable deal with the US energy firm, New Fortress, to divest a 40% stake in the Yugadanavi power plant, among other things, would be a fait accompli, and all Cabinet ministers would have to come to terms with it. But it thought wrong. Three Cabinet ministers have filed a fundamental rights petition against the deal in spite of being among those named as respondents in other petitions. They are Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila. The SLFP is also opposed to the deal, and has struck discordant notes on several occasions. This is something the Rajapaksas never bargained for. They cannot bulldoze their way through due to legal action against the energy deal and stiff resistance offered by the Opposition, civil society activists, a section of the media, and, above all, some of their coalition partners.

Feud and discordance

Ministers Weerawansa and Gammanpila would have the public believe that they have taken a principled stand on the New Fortress deal, which is detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests. There may be some truth in their claim, but they are in fact all out to kill two birds with one stone. They have an axe to grind with Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who has taken responsibility for the New Fortress deal. They can gain a lot of political mileage by opposing a project harmful to the country while getting even with Basil, who has turned hostile towards them. Feud between Basil and the Gammanpila-Weerawansa duo is not of recent origin.

Weerawansa and Gammanpila were among those who strove to retain the constitutional provision in the 19th Amendment preventing dual citizens from becoming MPs, when the 20th Amendment was presented to the parliament. They were targeting Basil, whom they wanted to prevent from securing a National List slot and becoming a powerful minister.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa managed to persuade Weerawansa and Gammanpila to drop their demand and back the 20th Amendment; he said their demand would be accommodated when a new Constitution was introduced. A new Constitution is pie in the sky, given the plethora of complexities and difficulties involved in the constitution-making process, but the President managed to maneuver out of the situation by making the aforesaid promise.

The Basil loyalists in the SLPP have since targeted the Weerawansa and Gammanpila as can be seen from the swipes that SLPP office-bearers take at them from time to time. They have also antagonized a considerable number of other MPs representing the SLPP itself, the SLFP, the CP, the LSSP, Yuthukama, etc. The dissidents have become more vocal in their displeasure unlike in the past, when they remained silent in the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. The SLFP members of the government parliamentary group have chosen to give as good as they get from their SLPP counterparts.

Repetition of past mistakes

It is in human nature to forget, in times of serendipity, lessons that adversity teaches. That is why politicians repeat their past mistakes after coming in from the cold. Nothing exemplifies this truism better than the conduct of the present-day government leaders. They lost power in January 2015 mainly because they had made quite a few blunders and short-changed their ambitious allies who turned against the one-family rule.

But for a spate of defections led by the then SLFP General Secretary and Cabinet Minister Maithripala Sirisena, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government would perhaps have been able to avoid an electoral setback in 2015. The members of the Rajapaksa family had become so cocky that they let their cavalier attitude get the better of them much to the chagrin of others who felt slighted and resentful as a result. The family had all the luck, and no outsider was allowed to hold plum ministerial portfolios. D. M. Jayaratne was appointed Prime Minister because the family felt it was too early for any of its members to hold that post; Jayaratne was ageing and did not have many years of politics left in him, so he was not considered a threat to the family’s political interests.

After losing power, the Rajapaksas showed signs of having learnt from their mistakes, and others who had fallen out with them rallied around them because former President Rajapaksa is a political magnet; he remained very popular despite his defeat in the presidential race. But today they are doing more of what they did while in power previously; they do not care for the SLPP seniors and try to railroad dissenters into toeing their line. In fact, they have gone a step ahead; both the presidency and premiership are held by members of the ruling family. It is only natural that the ambitious politicians in the SLPP are resentful.

Prime Minister’s efforts

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, blessed with a great deal of political acumen, seems to have realized that unless the ruling family and the SLPP mend their ways and become patient and accommodative, the intra-coalition dispute will spin out of control, threatening the very survival of the government. Hence his exhortations to the warring factions of the government to act with restraint and sink their differences for the sake of the SLPP. Time was when he declared that anyone could leave or join the government, which, he said, had a batwing door, but now he seems convinced that the dissidents cannot be browbeaten with such rhetoric. But the other family members do not seem to listen to him.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa has lost interest in active politics to all intents and purposes, and refrains from telling his siblings how to run the government, and this has allowed the politically active Basil loyalists to rule the roost much to the consternation of the SLPP coalition partners who have come together under the PM’s leadership. His goal seems to be promoting his eldest son, Namal, as a national leader; speculation is rife that he is grooming Namal for premiership, for the latter has been given ministerial responsibilities which he does not seem capable of carrying out.

The President’s Viyathmaga group has also failed to live up to high expectations, and some of its members holding important positions in the government have also become victims of malicious campaigns carried out by some SLPP politicians who consider them obstacles in their path.  It is lack of experience that prevents the President and the members of his kitchen Cabinet from carrying out what the public expects of them, as ‘technocrats’. The SLPP politicians who made the Mahinda Rajapaksa government extremely unpopular and contributed immensely to its downfall are also not cooperating with the President’s team, for they have their own agendas to advance.

Future of dissidents

The Rajapaksas are not in a position to get rid of the dissidents, who are a force to be reckoned with. A debilitating split in the government is the last thing they want at this juncture. Former President Sirisena has called upon ‘all progressive forces’ to rally around the SLFP, and this can be taken as an indication that he is preparing the party for any eventuality. The SLFP has already had several rounds of talks with the Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, the CP, the LSSP, etc., and they are likely to band together as an electoral alliance in case of having to leave the government.

The government is best with several crises and its approval ratings are plummeting. It therefore does not want another problem to contend with on the political front ahead of the Provincial Council elections it is under pressure from India to hold. So, the dissidents can rest assured that the SLPP will not go all out to get rid of them—at least in the near future.



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