The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) celebrated its 72nd Anniversary on a grand scale, with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena as the Chief Guest, at Monarch Imperial, Sri Jayewardenepura, on Sunday (03 Sept.). What does the future hold for the SLFP, which has passed another milestone?

Decades of dynastic politics, crippling leadership struggles and coalition politics have weighed heavily on the SLFP, and eroded its vitality to a considerable extent. The SLFP is a shadow of its former self; it is struggling to remain relevant in politics in spite of its past achievements and progressive policies and programs that have stood the ordinary people in good stead.

Much is being spoken these days about the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), the biggest superannuation fund in the country, and the negative impact that the incumbent government’s domestic debt restructuring programme has had on it. But hardly any mention is made of the fact that the EPF was established by an SLFP government in 1958. It should also be given credit for some progressive laws and the establishment of banks, etc., for the benefit of the public.

Fiery rhetoric and sobering reality

On Sunday, the SLFP leaders were at their oratorical best. There were fiery speeches, which were in fact streams of rhetoric with invectives thrown for good measure. But nothing can hide the fact that the faction-ridden SLFP is currently in the doldrums and its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena as well as other party seniors was putting on a bold face and papering over the cracks. It will be a gargantuan task for them to revitalize the SLFP in time for the next election.

Sirisena has declared that the SLFP is ready for any election. But reality is otherwise. He is adept at stretching the truth. The SLFP is far from ready for an electoral contest, given its internal problems. It is likely to suffer another split, a major one at that, come the next election. Some of its senior members, who are holding Cabinet positions against the will of the party leadership, have thrown in their lot with President Ranil Wickremesinghe for all practical purposes. They were seen flanking Sirisena on Sunday, and claiming that the party remained united! They included Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. The SLFP tried to sack them but later got cold feet; and the SLFP ministers are thought to have chosen to reconcile their differences with the party leadership, and attend the party’s convention to prevent themselves from being sacked and deprived of their parliamentary seats.

Leadership battles and SLFP

The SLFP is no stranger to internecine leadership struggles which often get down and dirty and lead to defections. Even the members of the Bandaranaike family were at one another’s throat for over a decade, following the SLFP’s ignominious defeat in 1977. They debilitated the party beyond measure. It took about 17 years for the SLFP to make a comeback under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s leadership. Its return to power became possible owing to some high-profile assassinations the LTTE carried out; its victims included President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. The SLFP’s crippling leadership disputes were due to personality clashes among ambitious party seniors rather than ideological differences.

The birth of the SLFP itself was due to personal differences and ambitions of some key members of the then UNP government more than anything else. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike left the UNP government, upon realizing that his chances of succeeding Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake were remote as Senanayake was grooming his son, Dudley, as his successor. Bandaranaike broke ranks with the UNP and formed the SLFP in 1951.

Realizing the need to make his new party an alternative to the UNP if it was to build its own support base and gain traction, he, as a pragmatic leader, charted a new course for it in keeping with the emerging local and global politico-economic trends at the time. Sri Lanka had just obtained independence from the British, and there was a resurgence of nationalism, which he effectively harnessed to power his political movement and steer his party to victory in 1956.

Decades later, SLFP had to come to terms with the new world order, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It abandoned its statist policies, which became anachronistic and unsustainable in a unipolar world, and adopted the same economic policies as the UNP. But it managed to retain the support of nationalistic forces until the breakaway of the Rajapaksas, who formed the SLPP with a nationalistic appeal. It lost most of its traditional support base to the SLPP, which is in deep trouble at present.

SWRD’s son, Anura, himself joined the UNP in early 1990s, after being expelled from the SLFP by his mother Sirimavo for rebelling against the party leadership and opposing his sister, Chandrika’s return to the party’s fold. He was eyeing the party leadership. But the party managed to turn the tables on the UNP despite Anura’s crossover. It lost power again due to mass crossovers from its ranks in 2001, when its General Secretary S. B. Dissanayake himself decamped together with more than a dozen other members of the parliamentary group of the SLFP-led People’s Alliance.

Sirisena’s comeuppance?

The SLFP’s current predicament is also a personal dispute. In late 2014, the SLFP-led UPFA government had a two-thirds majority in Parliament, when Sirisena pulled out to contest the 2015 presidential election as the Opposition’s common candidate. His victory against the then sitting President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential fray caused the collapse of the UPFA government. Having secured the presidency, he grabbed the SLFP leadership, causing the Rajapaksas and their loyalists to vote with their feet and form the SLPP.

President Sirisena received praise for having toppled the corrupt Rajapaksa administration, but the fact remains that he has had to rebuild the party, which he was instrumental in ruining. This is a textbook example of irony. Sirisena, who was a Cabinet minister at the time of his defection, is only an ordinary MP, today, with no prospect of steering his party to victory at a future election.

Sirisena is feeling insecure as evident from his desperation to consolidate his hold on the party leadership. Former President Kumaratunga, who persuaded him to leave the Rajapaksa government and helped him secure the presidency, is now trying to oust him and grab the leadership of the SLFP. She did not attend the SLFP convention on Sunday despite being invited. She is rallying support for her campaign to take over the party her father founded 72 years ago.


As the SLFP turns 72, it is facing some daunting challenges on the political and economic fronts. It has to reimage itself and make it appealing to the public, especially the youth, who are disillusioned with politics and demanding a system overhaul. This is not something the SLFP will be able to achieve by presenting the same old faces to the public. It is badly in need of an infusion of young blood and   a course correction. Most of all, it will have to overcome the ongoing leadership struggle and achieve unity, which continues to elude it. On the economic front, it will have to offer an alternative to the incumbent SLPP-UNP administration’s strategy to help the country come out of the current crisis.

The SLFP would have been able to attract the disgruntled SLPP members including dozens of MPs if it had turned itself around under a dynamic, charismatic leader capable of infusing them with hope of a secure future. Those who are disillusioned with the SLPP are gravitating towards either the UNP and the JVP. The UNP is all out to revitalize itself, and stands a better chance of achieving its goal because its leader, Wickremesinghe, is the President. The JVP is also emerging strong, and the SLFP might have its work cut out to beat the JVP at a future election, let alone be the winner. The general consensus is that the JVP is carrying out an effective propaganda campaign both here and overseas.

It looks as if those who backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential race have thrown their weight behind the JVP perhaps for want of a better alternative. The SLFP has failed to make the most of the situation, turn itself around and offer itself as an alternative to the SLPP-UNP combine, the SJB and the JVP.

The SLFP will have to knuckle down and work hard to recover lost ground, if at all. Mere rhetoric and theatrics will not do.