By Vishvanath

There seems to be no end in sight to the SLFP’s problems, which are legion. It never rains but it pours for the once formidable centre-left party, which is now a shadow of its former self. The Election Commission has not yet officially announced the exact date of the upcoming presidential poll, but the election campaigns of the UNP, the SJB and the JVP-led NPP are already in overdrive. The SLFP has its bigwigs fighting internecine legal and political battles, which are not going to be over anytime soon; it cannot even decide whether to field a presidential candidate or hitch its wagon to someone else in the fray. It seems to be all at sea.

Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, whom former President Maithripala Sirisena brought in as his successor, may have thought his path was clear after his controversial appointment as the SLFP leader. In a surprising move on May 12, Sirisena, MP, who has been prevented by a Colombo District Court (CDC) interim injunction from functioning as the SLFP leader, stepped down, and the SLFP Executive Committee, which met in Kotte, elected him as the SLFP leader despite a CDC interim injunction barring him from functioning as the Acting Chairman of the SLFP. That was how Sirisena and Rajapakshe sought to circumvent the legal obstacles in their path. On May 14, two SLFP Executive Committee members loyal to Sirisena, namely, Isuru Abeywardena and Sumith Wijayamuni de Zoysa, filed a petition before the Kaduwela District Court against 20 SLFP Executive Committee members as respondents and obtained an enjoining order preventing their rivals from obstructing Rajapakshe and newly-appointed Acting General Secretary of the SLFP, Keerthi Udawatte, who is also a lawyer. 

Sirisena, Wijeyadasa and their loyalists were on cloud nine.But their euphoria was short-lived. They were busy doing everything in their power to consolidate their hold on the SLFP amid relentless efforts by their rivals led by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to oust them, when the Kaduwela District Court, on Thursday, held that the SLFP Executive Committee meeting, where Wijeyadasa was elected the party leader, was illegal and lifted the previously-issued interim injunction. Further hearing was postponed for June 12. 

Now, the Kumaratunga faction, which, the loyalists of Sirisena say, is supportive of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, is sure to make the most of the situation in a bid to consolidate its position. It appointed Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva as the Acting SLFP leader some weeks ago. The SLFP’s internal conflict is sure to take a turn for the worse with clashes between the two rival factions intensifying in the coming weeks. The unfolding drama in the SLFP looks like a replay of what one witnessed between 1977 and 1993. The SLFP was in deep crisis during that period and finally Chandrika returned to its fold, revitalized it and steered it to victory.  

What is Wijeyadasa’s game plan? He cannot be unaware that winning a presidential election is not a walk in the park for anyone. He is still an SLPP MP. As for the prospects of their re-election to the parliament, most SLPP MPs have the same chance as a cat in hell, in a manner of speaking, given intense public resentment towards the incumbent government and its members. It is doubtful whether even the dissident SLPP MPs who left the government more than two years ago and took on the Rajapaksa family with might and main will be able to retain their seats. Under such circumstances, if Wijeyadasa’s plan is to ensure his reelection to the parliament, position himself in national politics as a party leader and gain adequate bargaining power to strike a deal with the winner of the next parliamentary election so that he can continue to be a Cabinet minister, then he will stand to gain in the event of his efforts to grab the SLFP leadership reaching fruition. If it is only the coveted presidencythat he seeks, he will have to brace himself for a big disappointment; that goal will be unattainable even if he becomes the legally recognized SLFP leader and the party throws its weight behind him unwaveringly. Even the JVP-led NPP seems to have overtaken the SLFP as well as its offshoot, the SLPP. But ambition knows no bounds. It is as unstoppable asa runaway train and blinds politicians to reality. Hence every political party is full of presidential hopefuls, who vote with their feet in a bid to realize their ambition if they feel they are denied opportunities by their political bosses. This has led to the emergence of so many political parties in this country since Independence. 

The SLFP has become rudderless to all intents and purposes with no legitimate leader to manage its affairs and steer it out of crisis thanks to the ongoing legal battles. The debilitation of a major political party takes its toll on a country’s democratic wellbeing, as was evident from the emergence of dictatorial governments during the past several decades. The SLFP’s failure to recover lost ground owing to its crippling internal problems, following its crushing defeat in the 1977 general election, enabled the UNP to suppress democracy to its heart’s content. The SLFP-led governments did likewise thereafter, especially from 2005 to 2015, because the UNP was too weak to function as an effective countervailing force during that period. Today, the SJB is playing the role of the main Opposition party, but what would be the situation if the SJB and the UNP happened to coalesce by any chance, the way the SLFP and its offshoot, the SLPP, did after the abortive 2018 constitutional coup staged by Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The SJB has vehemently ruled out the possibility of such a tie-up, but in Sri Lankan politics expediency always takes precedence over principle, and therefore anything is possible. Whoever would have thought that Sirisena would close ranks with the Rajapaksa family, whom he went all out to destroy politically after winning the presidency in 2015.

The SLFP’s seemingly never-ending crises, which havecome about due to its leaders’ greed for power and personal rivalries more than anything else, is likely to provide a fillip to the people’s disillusionment with mainstream political parties and the proliferation of ultra-radical politics, which nurtures anarchical forces.


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