Minster of Industries Wimal Weerawansa was instrumental in turning around Lanka Phosphate Ltd., which is currently earning impressive profits. But it has been removed from his purview and attached to the Ministry of Agriculture under Mahindananda Aluthgamage. The government has claimed that the state-owned venture been earlier under the Ministry of Agriculture, and what it has done is to restore status quo ante in view of the national fertilizer production drive. But this is not the whole truth. The removal Lanka Phosphate from Weerawansa’s ministry could be considered a manifestation of the government’s internal problems.


The relationship between Weerawansa and the ruling Rajapaksa family has turned sour. This became clear even before the last general election. Sarath Weerasekera was brought all the way from Digamadulla to Colombo, where he, backed by the Rajapaksa family, contested on the SLPP ticket and beat Weerawansa to win the highest number of preferential votes. This was seen as a move to reduce Weerawansa’s bargaining power and importance in the SLPP because he is not in the good books of SLPP National Organizer Basil Rajapaksa.

Many an eyebrow was raised recently when SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, MP, fired a broadside at Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila immediately after the announcement of fuel prices increases. Kariyawasam lost no time in blaming them on Gammanpila, and even urged him to resign from his ministerial post for having triggered a backlash against the government. Gammanpila retaliated by holding a media briefing, where he said he had only conveyed a government decision which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa were also responsible for. It is not possible that Kariyawasam was not aware of the standard procedure governments follow in revising fuel prices. If so, why did he launch into a tirade against Gammanpila? The clash between Kariyawasam and Gammanpila is symptomatic of the SLPP’s internal problems.

Kariyawasam is known to be close to Basil. Like other Basil loyalists, Kariyawasam is not well-disposed towards Gammanpila and a number of other ministers including Weerawansa. On an earlier occasion, Kariyawasam took on Weerawansa over a statement the latter had made in a newspaper interview, where he suggested that President Rajapaksa be appointed the leader of the SLPP to strengthen the bonds between the Executive and the Legislature. Kariyawasam misconstrued Weerawansa’s statement as a call for removing Prime Minister Rajapaksa from the party leadership, and demanded that Weerawansa immediately tender an apology for interfering in the internal affairs of the SLPP. Weerawansa, true to form, returned fire, but the issue died down a few days later. But Weerawansa’s problems are far from over.


Gammanpila and Weerawansa are among the SLPP MPs who vehemently opposed a government decision to do away with the constitutional provision preventing dual citizens from contesting elections. When the SLPP introduced the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, they wanted that particular section introduced by the 19th Amendment retained so that dual citizens could not enter Parliament. Their move, which failed, was widely seen as an attempt to prevent Basil, who is a US citizen, from returning to parliament as a National List MP. Their abortive bid incensed the Basil loyalists, who attack them at every turn. This is the reason why Kariyawasam lambasted Gammanpila for the fuel price increases.

The SLPP’s internal clashes are likely to take a turn for the worse in time to come, threatening the party’s unity unless the government leaders make a serious attempt to reconcile the warring factions.

Triumvirate and tridosha

The SLPP is basically dependent on three Rajapaksa siblings—Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil—for its strength and vibrancy. Minister Chamal Rajapaksa maintains a very low profile and is not interested in getting actively involved in party matters. He seems to have left the task of running the party to his younger siblings.

Mahinda, blessed with an abundance of charisma and political acumen, is the public face of the SLPP. He is capable of mobilising people. A political magnet, he was instrumental in forming the Joint Opposition, following the 2015 regime change, and building a political movement, which later became the SLPP. He is the linchpin holding the ruling coalition together. Everyone in the government respects him.

Gotabaya is known as a doer and implementor. He is not politically savvy and lacks Mahinda’s temperament. He is not interested in politics as such and remains focused on implementing his policy programme, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’. His military training gets the better of him at times when he tries to solve problems. He is a leader in a hurry. Sobering political realities, however, seem to have had a mellowing effect on his temperament, which is not as fiery as it used to be.

Basil is the SLPP’s strategist, organizer and political dealmaker. His long suit is springing surprises for his political opponents. It is he who engineered several defections from the SLMC and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress led by former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen in time for the parliamentary vote on the 20th Amendment, which was passed with a two-thirds majority.

The SLPP MPs can be roughly divided into three groups with competing interests—the Gotabaya loyalists, the Mahinda loyalists and the Basil loyalists. Unlike the three siblings who stay united no matter what, their loyalists vie for dominance in the government and, therefore, are at loggerheads; differences among them find expression in heated exchanges from time to time.

These three groups could be considered the tridosha of the SLPP: as ‘Va‘, ‘Pith‘, ‘Sem‘ (wind, bile and phlegm) are to the human body so are these factions to the ruling coalition. When there occurs a tridosha imbalance, a person falls sick, and the same happens to the SLPP when the members of the three camps clash with one another. Several such instances have been witnessed during the past few years, Kariyawasam’s stinker to Gammanpila, and the removal of Lanka Phosphate from Weerawansa’s Ministry being the latest. The government seems to have been adversely affected by the SLPP’s tridosha imbalance, which augurs ill for the ruling coalition.

Competing interests

The SLPP’s ability to remain united and retain power hinges on the co-existence of the above-mentioned three groups, which are however promoting their masters to further their own political interests. Soon after the announcement of the fuel price increases, which angered the public, State Minister Nimal Lanza publicly stated that if Basil had been in the country, he would never have allowed the fuel prices to be increased. The significance of this statement was lost on political observers, who may not have taken it seriously because Lanza happened to make it, and the claim that Basil cannot influence government decisions without being physically present in Colombo is ridiculous. What Lanza has left unsaid is that he considers Basil, whom he is loyal to, a better leader than others in the government.

Aged 46 years, Lanza can remain in politics for at least two more decades, and knows which side his bread is buttered.

The SLPP’s ginger group consists of those who feel slighted by the Basil loyalists. They include even some ministers, who have had meetings to discuss their grievances. A meeting they attended at the SLFP headquarters a few months ago received a lot of media attention. It is reported that they have even stopped visiting the SLPP headquarters, where they do not feel welcome.

The SLPP’s warring factions, however, are pulling in the same direction without endangering the interests of their coalition, but there have been situations where they did not cooperate. Their differences became obvious in 2018, when the Mahinda loyalists were fully supportive of the SLPP’s abortive bid to capture power in Parliament. They went all out to defend the hurriedly formed minority government, which was struggling to muster a working majority in the parliament. Those loyal to Basil were not so keen to prop it up as there was no love lost between President Maithripala Sirisena and Basil. The Gotabaya loyalists were furious and openly critical of Mahinda for having taken that plunge at the instance of Sirisena; they knew if that government survived, Sirisena would consolidate his power and seek a second term. They did not that to happen because their choice for the presidential contest was Gotabaya. They were jubilant when the short-lived government collapsed.

SLPP’s future

The government remains stable despite its internal problems, and chances are that the Opposition will not be able to capitalize on the SLPP’s trouble to regain lost ground in politics. The SJB is also experiencing intraparty disputes; it is troubled by the prospect some of its MPs switching their allegiance to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to be sworn in as a National List MP shortly. There is also the possibility of some MPs who belong to the constituents of the SJB crossing over to the government. The SLPP, therefore, seems to think it is free from formidable political and electoral challenges, and winning future elections will be an absolute breeze. But politics is like weather—highly unpredictable. Nobody thought the UPFA government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa would suffer a major split in late 2014, and the then weak Opposition would turn the tables on it the following year.

Mahinda, Gotabaya, Basil
Mahinda, Gotabaya, Basil

The SLPP will be able to absorb political shocks, overcome challenges from within and from without, and remain a formidable political force so long as Mahinda remains its leader and Prime Minister. When he talks, everyone in the government listens. It is doubtful whether the SLPP will be able to find a replacement for him if he opts for early retirement.

Mahinda has accomplished what he set out to do in January 2015, after suffering a humiliating defeat; he wanted to make a dramatic comeback and prove himself. He did so in 2019 itself. What he is doing at present is only a victory lap. It is thought that he is grooming his eldest son, Namal, who is a Cabinet Minister, for premiership, but being a political veteran who rose through the ranks, he cannot be unaware that one’s elevation to that position is not a passport to one’s success in politics, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s experience being a case in point. But as a caring father, he is very likely to promote his son.

The unravelling of the SLPP will begin the day Mahinda bows out.B


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