Infighting between the SLPP and the SLFP has come to a head with former President Maithripala Sirisena and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa themselves issuing veiled threats, and their minions trading allegations and abuse freely in the parliament. Having backed down and revoked the ban on agrochemicals in the face of opposition from irate farmers and others including the SLFP, the President is incensed, and having suffered many indignities at the hands of some SLPP MPs and ministers, Sirisena is resentful. Hence their angry reactions.

Realizing that the internal problems of the SLPP coalition could get out of hand and even lead to a rift, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has sought to reconcile the warring factions. In his speech at a recent ceremony to mark the fifth anniversary of the SLPP, he appeased his coalition partners by declaring that all of them were of equal importance regardless of their varying numerical strengths, and they had to stick together for the government to remain strong and achieve its goals. But his efforts at reconciliation do not seem to have reached fruition; a few days later, Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage took on SLFP leader Sirisena, in Parliament, claiming that the latter had got three state-owned houses merged to build his official residence; he also told Parliament that on Sirisena’s watch as the President, a colossal amount of funds had allocated for the Presidential Secretariat, but the amount had been slashed drastically since 2019, when President Rajapaksa was installed in office. He tried to show Sirisena in a bad light, and ingratiate himself with President Rajapaksa.

Sirisena’s angry reaction

Sirisena, in response to Aluthgamage’s allegation about his official residence, last week, offered to resign from his parliamentary seat if the allegation in question could be proved. He reacted again on Wednesday. A visibly agitated Sirisena, addressing Parliament, complained that some SLPP MPs and ministers were carrying out a sustained vilification campaign against him. Calling for an end to attacks on him and his party, he repeated what he had said in a recent interview with Siyatha TV; the SLPP was dependent on the SLFP’s 14 MPs [elected on the SLPP ticket] to retain its two-thirds majority. While leveraging the strength of his parliamentary group, he told Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena that all 14 SLFP MPs had met him and urged him to respond to the baseless allegations against him, as their patience was wearing thin. Reading between the lines, Sirisena seems to have issued a veiled threat that the SLFP will not hesitate to leave the government if push comes to shove.

As Sirisena spoke, the Opposition MPs cheered. Nothing pleases them more than to see their government counterparts clashing openly. This led the Speaker to ask them to behave without fishing in troubled waters.

Not to be outdone, Aluthgamage went ballistic, saying that the SLFP had attacked him, and he would give as good as he got. If he was hit, he would hit back as hard, he said in Sinhala, meaning he would not hesitate to retaliate regardless of the consequences. In his reply, Sirisena said he was a man of peace and would not hit back, but would react in some other way, the implication being that he was smarter, and his reaction would be political.

Sirisena replies to the President?

Sirisena’s reminder to the SLPP that its parliamentary group, which had a two-thirds majority, included 14 SLFP MPs, could be seen as a reply to President Rajapaksa’s speech the previous day at an opening ceremony.

Speaking at the opening of the ‘Golden Gate Kalyani’, on Wednesday evening (24), President Rajapaksa said the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday attacks, appointed by the previous government, had recommended that the then government, including the former President [Sirisena], Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremsinghe] and the Cabinet, be held responsible for failure to prevent the terror attacks. Pointing out that the PCoI recommendations had been referred to the parliament, the Attorney General, and the CID for further action, the President said legal action could be taken against those named by the PCoI. He added in the same breath that the government had a two-thirds majority for that purpose. He said so purportedly as a warning to the Opposition, but the specific mention of former President [Sirisena] shows that he intended his statement for the consumption of the SLFP as well. He is smarting from the U-turn he had to make on the agrochemical ban and the fact that the SLFP sided with the protesting farmers and has been critical of the country’s sudden switchover to organic fertilizer and its fallout.

The President’s statement smacks of a veiled threat as well as a reminder to the SLFP, which is threatening to break ranks with the government, that Sirisena is at his mercy where the PCoI recommendations were concerned; he has come under pressure from the Catholic Church to have criminal proceedings initiated against Sirisena. Some Catholic priests lost no time in welcoming the President’s statement on Wednesday, and renewing their call for the implementation of the full PCoI recommendations.

What has brought the SLPP and the SLFP together is political expediency and not principle, and their competing interests have taken a heavy toll on their unity. The SLFP cannot be unaware that if it remains in the ruling coalition indefinitely, it will face the same fate as the traditional left parties, and or even get dissolved in the SLPP. It has to leave the SLPP sooner or later to retain its political identity and keep its vote bank intact.

Another hopper dinner?

Sirisena in his parliamentary speech, on Thursday, reminded the SLPP what had befallen all powerful governments in the past in Sri Lanka, and, in particular, mentioned the fate of the previous Rajapaksa administration, which collapsed following his exit from it to contest the 2015 presidential election. Has he said he is capable of a repeat performance, and will not hesitate to do so?

On the eve of leaving the UPFA government in November 2014 to run for President, Sirisena had dinner with the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was seeking a second term. They had hoppers or aappa, which have since taken a whole new political connotation; they have come to mean treachery! Going by the way the SLFP has chosen to get even with the SLPP, the question is whether Sirisena is looking for an opportunity to ‘eat hoppers with the President’ on the eve of a future election, and preparing the ground for such a move.

Mutually Assured Destruction – MAD

The SLPP and the SLFP cannot be unaware that both of them will suffer heavy damage in case of a breakaway even before completing the first half of the coalition government’s parliamentary term. The government mustered 153 votes for its Budget at the conclusion of its second reading, the other day, with the help of the SLFP members of its parliamentary group, numbering 14, and eight Opposition MPs. The SLMC has sacked three of its MPs who voted with the government for the budget. If the SLPP and the SLFP part company, the government will lose its two-thirds majority, but it will try to raise the numbers at the expense of the SLFP, which is likely to lose some of its MPs to the SLPP in such an eventuality. About four or five SLFP MPs are likely to cross over to the SLPP, according to political observers.

Some of the SLPP constituents such as Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front and Minister Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya are not on good terms with the government, and in fact they have locked horns with the SLPP leadership, but whether they will join forces with the SLFP in case of a split is doubtful although they have had several rounds of meetings with Sirisena to discuss intra-coalition issues affecting their interests.

So, a split in the SLPP is not imminent, as it stands, but the wounds that the SLPP and the SLFP have inflicted on each other are not likely to heal anytime soon. SLPP heavyweights like PM Rajapaksa are sure to step in to keep the warring factions together, and a meeting of the SLPP leaders can be expected within the next few days.


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