By Vishvanath

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is often heard saying that anyone is free to leave the SLPP government or join it. This is what he told the SLPP rebels a few months ago in no uncertain terms. But he struck a conciliatory note at an event to mark fifth anniversary of the SLPP in Colombo on Tuesday (02). Praising the SLPP allies for their contribution to the ruling coalition’s success, he urged them to help preserve the government’s unity.

When Mahinda speaks, everyone in the government listens, but it is doubtful whether even he will be able to pacify the warring constituents of the SLPP; they have crossed the point of no return in opposing the government’s controversial agreement with the US energy firm, New Fortress. On the other hand, other SLPP leaders such as Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa have turned hostile towards the dissident group.

The SLFP is prominent among the SLPP constituents that are at loggerheads with the government leadership.  Its leader and former President, Maithripala Sirisena, is becoming more assertive these days. He is expressing his views freely unlike in the past, when he maintained a very low profile and exercised control over his tongue. He has therefore attracted the attention of political observers.

Sirisena scores brownie points

On Sunday, Sirisena visited a group of farmers engaged in a fast at Bakamuna. The protest was launched by 41 farmers’ associations in Elahera and Moragahakanda, Polonnaruwa, demanding fertiliser. He cleverly absolved himself of responsibility for the farmers’ woes in spite of being a coalition ally of the government, whose experiment with organic fertiliser has not yielded the desired results, and riled the farming community beyond measure.

Sirisena claimed in his conversation with the protesting farmers from his home district that he had taken up the fertiliser issue with the Agriculture Minister, but the government did not heed his voice. He told the farmers what they wanted to hear; the government should not have banned chemical fertiliser all of a sudden, and no country in the world had been able to end the use of inorganic fertiliser. Even Australia had opted for a 1:1 ratio, and there had to be a transition period as regards the changeover to the organic fertiliser, he said, complaining that the government was slinging mud at him following his recent statements that he would not be able to visit the Polonnaruwa District because of the fertiliser shortage, which had to be solved. He thus endeared himself to the protesting farmers as a leader who had incurred the wrath of the government leaders and was at the receiving end of a vilification campaign because of his concern for them.

Sirisena always markets his family’s agricultural background and the fact that he himself has been a farmer. He told the farmers that the present Agriculture Minister was a person who did not know how to walk on a ridge in a paddy field. The protesters were amused.

A protester at the farmers’ fast asked Sirisena how he would handle the fertiliser issue if he came back to power. Sirisena said he would not make life difficult for the farming community, and he would solve the problems systematically. He had looked after their interests as the Minister of Agriculture in the past, and he intended to do so again, he said.

The Q&A session looked stage-managed for Sirisena to get his message across to the irate farmers, especially in the North Central Province (NCP), where his son, Daham, is expected to run for Chief Minister. Winning over farmers who constitute the vast majority of voters in the province is half the battle in winning the next Provincial Council election in that part of the country.

The Polonnaruwa District is Sirisena’s stronghold, where the SLFP is sure to perform well at a future election, and in the neighbouring Anuradhapura District the former President could depend on the likes of State Minister Duminda Dissanayake, loyal to him, for support. If the SLPP refuses to field Daham as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the SLPP, the SLFP can go it alone at least in the NCP. If the SLFP can bag the province, under its own steam, its bargaining power will increase tremendously.

The farmers’ called off their fast, on Tuesday, when a group of prominent Buddhist monks of the areas visited them and undertook to take up their grievances with the authorities concerned.

Learning from Premadasa and Mahinda

Sirisena has not accepted a Cabinet portfolio in the SLPP government for two reasons. He has entered Parliament, as a former President, only to retain his hold on the SLFP and remain relevant in national politics until time is opportune for the next step—trying to capture power. He is not interested in being a minister again. It is said that he who pursues the stag regards not the hare.

Sirisena is eyeing something much bigger. Second, he knew that if he became a Cabinet member, as the SLFP leader, he would have to share the blame for the government’s bad decisions and would thereby ruin his chances of presenting his party and himself as an alternative to the government. Today, with 14 SLFP members in the SLPP parliamentary group, he is in a position to woo the public by speaking up for them while being part of the government, as he did last Sunday.

Sirisena seems to have learnt from the late Ranasinghe Premadasa and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa how to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Premadasa as the Prime Minister from 1978 to 1988, had the public believe that he did not agree with President J. R. Jayewardene on certain issues that made the UNP government unpopular. This enabled him to remain popular enough to run for President when Jayewardene retired at the end of a disastrous second term.

Mahinda Rajapaksa also did likewise. He was also at loggerheads with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who had to make him the Prime Minister in 2004 against her will. She did not care to mask her antipathy towards Rajapaksa, who, therefore, was able to remain unaffected by Kumaratunga’s loss of popularity towards the end of her second term; he successfully contested the 2005 presidential election.

Current Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has also done somewhat similarly. As the Deputy Leader of the UNP, he was careful not to support his party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s policies openly. Wickremesinghe’s unpopularity therefore did not affect Sajith, who formed the SJB, before the last general election, and secured 54 seats while the UNP was left with only a single National List slot.

Outfoxing foxes

While Sirisena was the President, we, in this space, called him ‘the man who outfoxes foxes’. No other person would have been able to secure the post of General Secretary of the SLFP under President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who tried to prevent his elevation to that position. He then chose to stomach many indignities at the hands of the Rajapaksas, and wait while dreaming of the premiership, which he later realised he would never be able to secure in a Rajapaksa government. Then he took a big leap of faith by leaving that administration to challenge the most popular political leader at the time, President Rajapaksa, in the 2015 presidential election.

Sirisena, being an experienced politician, is aware that the SLPP will not remain popular forever, and the SLFP will be able to make a comeback if it plays its cards well. The SLPP coalition has already developed cracks with a group of its Cabinet Ministers, State Ministers and ordinary MPs protesting against some of its key policies and projects.

Rebuilding what he ruined

Sirisena, however, finds himself in an unenviable position, striving to rebuild the SLFP, which he ruined in 2014, while being its General Secretary, to achieve his presidential dream. He dislodged the SLFP-led UPFA government, first thing after being sworn in as the President, in January 2015, and appointed a UNP-led caretaker government with Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. Then he grabbed the leadership of the SLFP, and prevented it from winning the 2015 general election because he did not want former President Rajapaksa to return to Parliament as the Prime Minister. Now, he is trying to form an SLFP government!

In his above-mentioned conversation with the protesting farmers of Polonnaruwa, Sirisena did not reveal how he was planning to form a government. He only said how he was planning to handle the agricultural sector. There are two ways in which he could strive to achieve that goal. He can contest a future parliamentary election as the Prime Ministerial candidate, and if the SLFP succeeds in obtaining more than 113 seats either on its own or with the help of other parties, he will be able to form a government. Or, he can even contest a future presidential election. The law does not prevent him from doing so because he has served only one presidential term. The Constitution allows a person to be elected President twice.

Diehard government supporters may accuse Sirisena and the SLFP of fishing in troubled waters. But that is the name of the game in coalition politics.


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