Ex-President and leader of the SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena, is in the news again. A video of a Siyatha TV interview (17 Nov.) with him is doing the rounds on the Internet. Having maintained a very low profile for two years, or so, since the formation of the present government, Sirisena is becoming assertive. Time was when he would stomach all indignities at the hands of SLPP politicians without protest, but of late he has been giving as good as he takes so much so that one wonders whether he has thrown down the gauntlet. One thing, however, is clear; the SLFP has plucked up enough courage to fight back. 

The SLFP’s dual role in politics is of interest. It acts as an Opposition party while being part of the ruling SLPP coalition. It thus has the best of both worlds. There are other SLPP constituents that do likewise, such as Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front and Minister Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya; they too are benefiting from the government while being critical of it, but the SLFP’s role is different because as it has a sizeable, traditional vote base and is capable of winning a significant number of seats under its own steam in case of pulling out of the SLPP. It has 14 members in the SLPP parliamentary group, which numbers 145, not counting crossovers.

The SLPP leaders seem to think they have finally outfoxed and checkmated Sirisena, and he is now dependent on their party for his political survival. They made a huge political miscalculation in 2014, when Sirisena broke ranks with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government; they are making the same mistake again. Sirisena may not have been a good President, but he is blessed with enough political acumen and made of sterner stuff. He has an enormous amount of patience, and therefore never gets tired of waiting until the time is opportune for him to make his moves. With the SLPP becoming increasingly unpopular owing to its poor performance on many fronts, corruption, abuse of power, arrogance and cavalier attitude towards the suffering of the public, the SLFP is slowly dissociating itself from the government, and presenting itself as an alternative to the SLPP. Whether it will succeed in its endeavour is, however, in doubt.  

There is an element risk, if not danger, in what Sirisena has chosen to do in that he is at the mercy of the SLPP where the Easter Sunday attacks are concerned; he is bound to incur the wrath of the SLPP leaders, who are ready to go to any extent to subdue anyone who poses a political challenge to them. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed the 2019 terror attacks has recommended criminal proceedings against Sirisena, and the government has prevented their implementation. Speculation is rife in political circles that if Sirisena tries to leave the SLPP, he will have to face legal action recommended by the PCoI. If so, why is Sirisena openly criticizing the SLPP?

The government is mired in multiple crises, and its popularity is at a very low ebb. A rift is the last thing it wants at this hour. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who got tough with the SLPP dissidents a few months ago, and went so far as to tell them that his government had a swing door and anyone was free to exit or enter, has softened his stance. In his speech at a ceremony to mark the fifth anniversary of the SLPP, on 02 Nov., he struck a conciliatory note; he said all SLPP constituents were equal regardless of their size, and acknowledged the role they had played in making the SLPP’s victory possible. He was obviously trying to pacify the resentful coalition partners including the SLFP. The government’s difficulties seem to have emboldened Sirisena to criticize the government, and gain much-needed political mileage, as he did in the Siyathainterview.  

Causes of multiple crises

Sirisena’s assertion is that the current crises are not solely due to the pandemic and attendant unprecedented problems, and the government, having completed two years in office, should pause, take stock of the situation and adopt remedial action. He has implied the government has been moving in the wrong direction!

The biggest crisis the country is faced with is the foreign exchange shortage, which has adversely impacted essential imports, and debt repayment. Unless foreign exchange inflows improve significantly within the next few weeks, there will be no dollars for fuel imports come March 2022. There will be no foreign exchange for the importation of food and medicine as well. Sirisena thinks Sri Lanka should get its foreign policy right if the crisis is to be resolved. Assistance from other countries and international lending agencies should be sought, but a prerequisite for the success of such an exercise is good governance, he has said in the aforesaid television interview. In other words, he has said the present government is not equal to the task due to the absence of good governance on its watch, and its failure to win over the international community. He has claimed that he had the best foreign policy while he was the President, after the late Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike. He has thus given the impression that chances of economic recovery are remote under the present government, and he would have managed the situation better and is capable of doing so.

Huge majorities a curse

Sirisena, in answer to a question from the Siyathainterviewer, reminded the SLPP that all past governments that obtained two-thirds majorities in the parliament had ruined things for themselves during their first terms and failed to get re-elected. He said it was the political novices in the SLPP who antagonized the coalition partners of the government and dared them to leave the government. Urging them to learn from history, he recalled what had befallen the governments with steamroller majorities. He made special mention of the SLFP-led United Front government (1970-77) and the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-14). Both administrations could not secure second terms due to internal disputes and resultant breakaways. He also mentioned the J. R. Jayewardene government, which obtained a five-sixths majority at the 1977 general election. That regime avoided a general election in 1982, and extended its term until 1988 with the help of a heavily-rigged referendum. President Jayewardene won a second term only after depriving SLFP Leader Sirima Bandaranaike of her civic rights and thereby disqualifying her from challenging him in the presidential race. Sirisena seems to think that the present government will not be able to secure a second term, and the time has come for him to act.

Sirisena’s message to the SLPP is loud and clear: the SLFP is ready to break ranks with the government if push comes to shove, and the SLPP is making a big mistake by antagonizing its constituents and trying to drive them away.

The SLFP leadership would have us believe that it is under severe pressure from the party’s rank and file to go it alone at future elections. Some of its activists are openly calling on the SLFP members of the SLPP parliamentary group to leave the government. The latest call to that effect was made at last week’s SLFP organizers’ meeting at Anuradhapura, chaired by State Minister Duminda Dissanayake. A young party organizer proposed that the SLFP contest future elections alone, and the proposal was adopted. There have been several such instances during the past few months, and they all looked well-scripted; the SLFP is apparently trying to impress on the ruling family and its associates that pressure is mounting on it to leave the government and it is doing the SLPP a favour by remaining in it.   


After leaving the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in November 2014, Sirisena said he had decamped because that administration was characterized by nepotism, corruption and abuse of power, among other things, but today he is in another Rajapaksa government. Does he think the present Rajapaksas administration is different from the previous one which he considered beyond redemption? When the Siyatha journalist posed this question to him, Sirisena laughingly said he did not see any difference between the two governments. He added in the same breath that the SLFP Central Committee and parliament group had decided to close ranks with the SLPP, and he had not tried to force his views on them. He did not tell the whole truth, though. When they joined the SLPP, he and other SLFP seniors acted out of expediency as they did not want to face a crushing defeat by going it alone at the 2020 general election. After the SLPP’s impressive victories at the 2018 Local Government polls and 2019 presidential election, the only way available for him and the SLFP to avoid an electoral disaster was to throw in their lot with the SLPP.

Now that the SLPP government has ruined things for itself, Sirisena pretends that he had nothing to do with the SLFP’s decision to coalesce with the SLPP. He is obviously trying to absolve himself of the blame for what has gone wrong under the present dispensation. Most of those who had high hopes when they voted for President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019 are now disillusioned, and some of them are even claiming via social media that now they see hardly any difference between Nandasena and Sirisena. President Rajapaksa has already made known his intention to seek a second term, and is tirelessly working towards that end. Is Sirisena readying himself for throwing his hat into the ring with a view to securing a nonconsecutive presidential term? Or, is he pretending to be doing so in a bid to leverage the SLFP’s strength and thereby increase his bargaining power and up the ante when negotiations take place between the SLPP and the SLFP over nominations for future elections? It is too early to answer these questions, but anything is possible in Sri Lankan politics. Whoever would have thought Sirisena would come forward to challenge the then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential race?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here