SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) celebrated its 70thanniversary on 02 September. There were some fiery speeches,and several orators waxed eloquent on what they called the achievements of the party, and made various promises. They, however, said nothing new. Among them were former President Maithripala Sirisena, who leads the SLFP. They spoke of the SLFP’s resilience and ability to bounce back. The party had suffered far worse setbacks but regained vitality, they said, pledging to reinvigorate it.

The SLFP, however, is not a shadow of its former self so much so that it has had to ride on the coattails of its offshoot, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), on whose ticket it contested the last general election and secured 14 seats. The SLPP, as a political party, accounts for about 130 out of the 145government MPs. The SLFP, however, can justifiably be proud of the seat it won in Jaffna, the TNA bastion. One may recall that the SLFP had a considerable following in the North and the East because of its farmer-friendly policies, which stood the people in those parts of the country in good stead.

Overall, the SLFP’s electoral performance is not satisfactory, at all. It finds itself in this unenviable position thanks to its ill-conceived marriage of convenience with the UNP in 2015. Their coming together proved to be the kiss of death for both of them.

Sirisena rebuilding the party he ruined

It is a supreme irony that Sirisena is now breaking his backto rebuild the SLFP, which he ruined politically in 2015. When he decamped, together with several other UPFA ministers, while being the SLFP General Secretary, to run for President with the help of the UNP, the SLFP-led UPFA government had a two-thirds majority in the parliament. He brought down that administration immediately after securing the presidency, took over the SLFP leadership and went on to ruin the UPFA’s chances of winning the general election, in August 2015; he wanted to prevent former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he had defeated in the presidential race, from making a comeback as the Prime Minister. It was his hostile action against the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP that led to the formation of the Joint Opposition (JO), which evolved into a formidable political force outside the parliament in the form of the SLPP. The JO consisted of the UPFA MPs who were against the joint administration formed by the UNP and a section of the UPFA at President Sirisena’s behest.

Sirisena engineered the UPFA’s defeat at the 2015 parliamentary polls as he knew that if Rajapaksa became the Prime Minister, his position as the President would be greatlyundermined in the government because the latter commanded the confidence of the vast majority of SLFP members. On the other hand, Sirisena had agreed to help the UNP capture power in Parliament as part of his political deal with it.

The UNP expected Sirisena to maintain a low profile as the President, allow the presidency to be stripped of vital executive powers so that the position of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could be strengthened, and then retire. But driven by ambition, Sirisena had other plans. He was keen to win a second term, and worked towards that end much to the consternation of the UNP. That was the reason why he grabbed the SLFP leadership. A personality clash ensued between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, making the yahapalanagovernment dysfunctional.

Sirisena received a rude shock at the 2018 local government polls, which the SLPP swept, and realizing which way the wind was blowing, he smoked the peace pipe with the Rajapaksas and went so far as to attempt an abortive attempt to dislodge the UNF government by appointing Mahinda the Prime Minister arbitrarily. That hurriedly formed government was short-livedbecause the Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional. That administration collapsed and so did the SLFP-UNP alliance, but the UNF government survived with the JVP and the TNA propping it up.

Crippling splits

The SLFP is no stranger to internal disputes and splits. There were conflicts even in the Bandaranaike family with Sirima Bandaranaike fighting with her son, Anura, who did not get along with both his mother and his sister, Chandrika. Their battles led to Chandrika’s breakaway from the SLFP in the 1980s to form the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party together with her husband Vijaya Kumaratunga. Anura subsequently expelled from the SLFP, joined the UNP, and Chandrika returned to the SLFP’s fold, rebuilt the party and became a two-term President. But until the 2018 local government polls, splits had notdebilitated the SLFP to the extent of being overtaken by an offshoot at an election, unlike the UNP, which was beaten by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who broke away from it in the early 1950s, formed the SLFP and won the 1956 general election. However, the SLFP suffered electoral defeats due to mass defections, i.e. in 2001 and 2015. If the SLFP had not coalesced with the SLPP to contest the 2020 general election, perhaps it would not have been able to obtain 14 seats.

The SLFP has also had the dubious distinction of two of its General Secretaries decamping and helping the UNP defeat it—S. B. Dissanayake in 2001 and Sirisena in 2014.

In 2015, Sirisena, then a senior Minister, left the Rajapaksa government because he could not realise his dream of becoming the Prime Minister. He also complained of being short-changedby the ruling family. He became the President, but today he is again playing second fiddle to the Rajapaksas as an ordinary MPin their government, and suffering many indignities at the hands of the SLPP. Worse, he has had to undo what he did to the SLFP about six years ago.

Rhetoric vs reality

SLFP seniors never miss an opportunity to boast that they are capable of forming the next government, and some of them have even indicated a desire to pull out of the SLPP coalition, and be on their own. Politics and rhetoric are conjoined twins, but it is doubtful whether even the die-hard SLFP supporters take such claims seriously. They cannot be unaware of the ground reality.

The SLPP government has not been able to live up people’s expectations, and its popularity is manifestly on the wane. This happens to all governments with the passage of time. There is also palpable dissension within the SLPP ranks. The SLFP would have been able to make the most of the situation under a dynamic leader and win over the disgruntled SLPP MPs and supporters. Sirisena is a seasoned politician who has outfoxed even foxes in Sri Lankan politics. He is blessed with a lot of political acumen, but charismatic leadership is not his long suit. He has long ceased to be considered a winner. Ordinary people as well as ambitious, calculating politicians, love to follow winners or those who have the potential to win. Even in defeat, Mahinda was seen as a winner and he was able to inspire and mobilise the people.

Sword of Damocles

The SLFP may be hoping to benefit from the internal problems of the SLPP, some of whose prominent members feel side-lined. Several disgruntled SLPP constituents have had talks with the SLFP. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has even dared some of them, especially Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front and Minister Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, to leave the government if they cannot pay by the government’s rules. But the SLFP’s problem is that its leader, Sirisena, is not in a position to do anything that might antagonise the SLPP leadership lest legal action should be taken against him over his alleged failure to prevent the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) whichprobed the Easter Sunday bombings is hanging like the sword of Damocles above his head. The Catholic Church has also been demanding that he be prosecuted, and it is the government that is shielding him.

Former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and ex-Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando have already been indicted over their lapses that led to the Easter Sunday attacks, and Sirisena will find himself in their company if he leaves the government. He is at the mercy of the ruling family.

In late 2014, Sirisena acted out of self-interest when he left the Rajapaksas. Today, it is again self-interest that prevents him from leaving them. There is no love lost between Sirisena and the Rajapaksas after what they have done to each other, but it is mutually beneficial for them to be together for electoral purposes. The government is sure to survive even if the SLFP pulls out of it by any chance, but it does not want a split, which will cause it to lose its two-thirds majority although some of the SLFP MPs are likely to cross over to the SLPP in such an eventuality.

Future of the SLFP

The SLFP is in crisis, but it has not reached the end of the road. A mass-based political party with a history, it cannot be written off. It only finds itself at a crossroads, and is at a loss to decide which way to go.

Former President Kumaratunga, known for her straight talking, said in a statement on the occasion of the SLFP’s 70thAnniversary, that the SLFP would recover but the process of its recovery would take a long time. Likening the party founded by her father to a massive tree whose top part had been cut off, she said she was sanguine that it would grow back. But she added in the same breath that she might not be around to witness its full recovery. This may be considered a realistic assessment of the SLFP’s future.

The SLFP’s biggest problem is that it does not have anyone capable of turning it around much less steering it to victory at an election in the foreseeable future. It has to make itselfindependent of the SLPP first, if it is not to lose its vote bank to the SLFPP and end up being another name-board party. This task requires strong, dynamic leadership, and a lot of young blood. The SLFP sadly lacks both.


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