By Vishvanath

Group dynamics could be problematic. They have the potential to impact the unity of any organization adversely, be it social, political, economic or otherwise. Even close-knit families tend to disintegrate when group dynamics are not managed properly. The Bandaranaike family serves as an example. Its members would fight over the leadership of the SLFP so much so that a dispute between former Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and her son Anura led to a legal battle. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was smoked out of the SLFP, and it was years before she returned to the party’s fold and went on to become the President. Anura was sacked from the SLFP.  

Power politics, characterized by ambitions and competing interests, ideological differences and other such differences, is divisive in nature, and therefore political parties are the most vulnerable to rifts and splits due to group dynamics. Elections in Sri Lanka are the times when internal issues of political organizations usually take a turn for the worse, even threatening their unity.  

The next presidential election is months away, but the realignment of political forces has already begun, and political parties are experiencing internal problems. The SLPP is troubled by the prospect of rifts in its ranks developing into debilitating splits again. Some of its stalwarts have indicated their intention to throw in their lot with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has thrown his hat into the ring as the UNP’s presidential candidate. SLPP MP Nimal Lanza has formed an outfit, called the New Alliance, consisting of several like-minded lawmakers, to back Wickremesinghe’s candidature. Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatunga, who has stood by the SLPP through thick and thin, is widely expected to side with Wickremesinghe come the announcement of the next presidential election.

The morale of the SLPP MPs has sagged badly, and unless the SLPP stops dilly-dallying and bellowing rhetoric and announces its presidential candidate soon, it is likely to lose some of its key MPs to the UNP and the SJB. The ruling party usually announces its presidential candidate before its rivals. The UNP, the SJB and the JVP have already named their leaders as presidential candidates. As for the delay on the part of the SLPP in announcing its presidential candidate, there are three possibilities: it lacks confidence to face the next presidential contest, or it is without a formidable candidate, or it is planning to skip the presidential election and hitch its wagon to President Wickremesinghe or someone else to secure a considerable number of seats in the next parliament.

The SJB would have the public believe that it is confident of winning the presidential election, as the largest party in the Opposition. But some of its MPs seem convinced otherwise. Two of its prominent MPs—Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando—are already in the government as Cabinet Ministers, and some others are expected to leave to join the UNP.

Discord in the SJB’s parliamentary group members came to light, again, on Feb. 07, when President Wickremesinghe opened the fifth session of the current parliament and made the government’s policy statement. The SJB staged a walk-out before the President commenced his speech, but several of its MPs remained in their seats much to the consternation of the party leader, Premadasa and his loyalists. The SJB MPs who did not join the protest were Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka, Kumara Welgama, Ishak Rahuman, Vadivel Suresh, Faizal Cassim and A. H. M. Fowzie.

MP Ranawaka has complained of a witch-hunt against the MPs who did not walk out on Feb. 07. He has told the media that Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella did not allocate time for him to take part in the adjournment debate on the President’s government policy statement. Fonseka has taken on the SJB leadership for accommodating former military leaders he dislikes immensely, such as Ex-Army Commander General Daya Ratnayake.

Ranawaka has presidential ambitions, and his party, the United Republican Front, has announced his candidature. Welgama is the leader of the New Lanka Freedom Party. He is said to be well-disposed towards President Wickremesinghe.

The biggest task before the SJB ahead of the next presidential election will be to preserve unity among its MPs and prevent defections.

In what may be described as a last-ditch attempt to revive SLFP leader, former President Maithripala Sirisena, has patched up a compromise with his former leader Chandrika, who used to blame him for having ruined the party her father founded.

The loyalties of most SLFP seniors were divided between Sirisena and Chandrika. Sirisena may have thought that if he and Chandrika made peace, they would be able to revitalize the SLFP and improve its electoral performance.

The SLFP has also not announced its presidential candidate. It is thought in some quarters that Sirisena, 72, is likely to run for President.?

Some of the SLFP MPs have sided with President Wickremesinghe to all intents and purposes. Some of them are Cabinet Ministers and others have secured state ministries. Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Amaraweera and several other SLFP MPs, elected on the SLPP ticket, remain in the SLFP for fear of being sacked from the party. SLFP MP Shan Wijelal de Silva has joined the SJB, which has appointed him its Ambalangoda organizer. More SLFP MPs are expected to join either the UNP or the SJB once the next presidential election is declared.

The SLFP has decided to revive the UPFA coalition to contest future elections, but it is facing the uphill task of vying with the SLPP to shore up its support base.

Chandrika never plays second fiddle to anyone, and Sirisena will have to come to terms with this fact. Sirisena is currently in the US, and some changes are to be effected to the SLFP’s commanding structure, according to media reports. What is in store for the SLFP, with both Sirisena and Chandrika at the helm remains to be seen.

The biggest Tamil political party, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), failed to elect its incumbent leader by consensus, and the party had to hold an election for that purpose for the first time in its 74-year-long history, last month. Political observers predicted that the contest between MP S. Sritharan and MP M. A. Sumanthiran would have a detrimental impact on the ITAK’s unity, but the party has apparently been able to bring the situation under control. Sumanthiran, who lost to Sritharan, has struck a conciliatory note.

In an interview with YouTube channel, ‘Neetrikkan’ anchored by the editor of the ‘Tamilan ‘ daily R. Sivarajah, Sumanthiran offered to cooperate with Sritharan. Explaining why he had failed to lead the ITAK, he reportedly said: “I think that the Tamil people feel the need to vent their feelings to the South and the outside world in the current situation where there is no hope. On my return to Colombo from Trincomalee after the election, the leaders of many political parties in the South expressed surprise about the result of the election. I retorted to them that our people see me as a failed politician because there is no solution to our problem and there is no point negotiating. That is the real situation. I think our people are desperate for someone who at least expresses their feelings to the outside world even if the problem is not resolved. So, they have chosen my fellow parliamentarian Shritharan.”

But the ITAK is not as united as it is made out to be, according to political analysts specializing in Tamil politics, and there are said to be some undercurrents of disgruntlement in the party.

The JVP is the only political party that is not troubled by rifts and splits—at least for the time being. It has only three MPs, and they remain united, but the JVP’s old guard is said to be unhappy with some of the public statements that NPP MP Harini Amarasuriya makes on key issues. But the JVP is dependent on the likes of Harini to improve its public image, which has suffered considerable damage over the years. It has therefore been left with no alternative but to tolerate views that are at variance with its ideology.

Internal disputes of the main political parties are likely to intensify as the presidential election draws near, and the process of political forces being realigned might even take an unexpected turn the way it happened ahead of the 2015 presidential poll. Sri Lankan politics is never short of dramatic twists and turns. Whoever would have thought in 2020 that the SLPP and the UNP would opt for a political honeymoon?


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