By Vishvanath

The Maithripala Sirisena faction of the SLFP has claimed that SLFP General Secretary Dushmantha Mitrapala’s office at Darley Road. Colombo 10, was broken open recently and some vital documents were removed by their rivals. Acting on a complaint lodged by Mitrapala, the Maradana police on Saturday sealed off the entrance to the SLFP headquarters. Mithrapala said he had only asked the police to prevent his rivals from gaining access to his office, but they had declared the entire building out of bounds for everyone. He accused the police of acting at the behest of the government, which, he said, was supporting the dissident SLFPers including ministers.

The rivals of Sirisena have claimed they never entered Mitrapala’s office forcibly or surreptitiously.

Mitrapala said on Saturday that he had summoned the SLFP District leaders to Colombo, on that day, for a discussion on the upcoming May Day rally, but they had not been able to enter the party’s Darley Road auditorium due to police action. The organizers held a protest opposite the party headquarters, condemning the government for what they called its relentless attempts to destroy the SLFP. They praised former President Sirisena, whose son, Daham, was seen among the protesters. Sirisena was seen being driven past the protest; he waved at the protesters, who cheered.

It is a case of history repeating itself for the SLFP, which is embroiled in an internecine intraparty conflict, which will cost it dear politically. What is unfolding in the SLFP is similar to the internal dispute that debilitated it following its humiliating defeat in 1977. Former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her son, Anura, clashed over party leadership. The police were called in to settle their dispute which led to a battle between their loyalists for the party headquarters. The SLFP’s internal problems stood the UNP in good stead for 17 years.

Subsequently, Sirimavo sacked Anura from the SLFP, and the latter joined the UNP. His expulsion paved the way for Kumaratunga’s return to the party, which she steered to victory in 1994.

Chandrika Vs. Sirisena

The ongoing battle for party leadership between former Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena has come to a head. On Thursday (04 April) Kumaratunga obtained an interim injunction from the Colombo District Court barring Sirisena from functioning as the SLFP Chairman. She has argued that Sirisena is not fit to be the SLFP chairman and her counsel maintained in court that his appointment was unlawful.

Kumaratunga was instrumental in making Sirisena leave the post of the SLFP General Secretary and contest the 2015 presidential election. Sirisena defeated the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, Kumaratunga has not been well-disposed towards him.

Having secured a second presidential term in 1999, Kumaratunga did not consider Sirisena fit enough to be the General Secretary of the SLFP, when that post fell vacant upon the demise of Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake.  Her choice was Minister S. B. Dissanayake, for whom she even cast her vote openly at an election to the post during an SLFP Central Committee meeting. She did so in breach of an agreement, which she had reached with the contenders, at a closed-door meeting, to ensure that Sirisena would be elected unanimously. Sirisena became a victim of a power struggle in the SLFP between the loyalists of former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and others loyal to Chandrika. He is reported to have said when he informed Sirimavo, over the telephone, that Dissanayake had beaten him, she was upset and had said in a quivering voice, that the party would be in trouble.

Subsequently. Kumaratunga was left with no alternative but to appoint Sirisena the SLFP General Secretary after Dissanayake’s defection to the UNP together with about dozen other SLFP MPs in 2001. Mass crossovers Dissanayake triggered brought down Kumaratunga’s weak government, and enabled the UNP to recapture power in the parliament.

In January, 2024, it was reported that Kumaratunga had consented to rejoin the SLFP, and Sirisena was willing to allow her to appoint the members of the party’s Central Committee. The SLFP seniors heaved a sigh of relief, and some of them went so far as to claim that they would be able to revitalize the party in time for the next election under the leadership of the two former Presidents. But Kumaratunga may have considered it infra dig to play second fiddle to Sirisena, whom she did not consider fit to be even the SLFP General Secretary when she was the President.

Sirisena recently struck back when the rival faction of the SLFP continued to undermine him. He sacked three SLFP seniors, Mahinda Amaraweera, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, and Duminda Dissanayake as the party’s Senior Vice President, Treasurer and National Organizer, respectively. He appointed his loyalists, K. P. Gunawardena, Hector Bethmage and Sarath Ekanayake as the SLFP’s National Organizer, Treasurer and Senior Vice President, respectively. Amaraweera, Alagiyawanna and Dissanayake moved the Colombo District court against their removal, and obtained interim relief on April 01.

Govt. hand in dispute

SLPP MP Dayasiri Jayasekera, whom Sirisena sacked as the SLFP General Secretary, met the pro-Sirisena protesters on Saturday, and received a rousing welcome. He blamed the SLFP parliamentary group members who had received ministerial posts for having engineered the SLFP’s crisis. He accused them of having enriched themselves at the expense of the SLFP, and claimed that they were trying to make more money by making the party enter into an electoral alliance with the UNP ahead of the next presidential election.

The SLFP had 14 MPs elected on the SLPP ticket in 2020, but nine of them have sided with the government. Two of them have joined the SJB, and Sirisena has been left with only two MPs. It is not clear what the SLFP’s plans are as regards the next presidential election. Sirisena is not likely to contest, and it is being speculated that the SLFP is trying to form an electoral alliance and field Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa as its presidential candidate. Rajapakshe attended a recent meeting of the SLFP Central Committee and delivered a lecture on how the party could turn itself around and win future elections. Most of those who were present there asked him to be the party’s presidential candidate, giving rise to speculation that Sirisena was planning to throw in his lot with Wijeyadasa.  

SLFP’s dilemma

The SLFP is not strong enough either to go it alone at the coming presidential election or to lead an electoral alliance. It is faction-ridden and Sirisena has ruined his image as a political leader. His opponents have succeeded in portraying him as a failure, and the Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that he and four others failed to prevent the Easter Sunday terror attacks, which killed about 270 people and left more than 500 others injured in 2019. The SC held that they had violated the fundamental rights of a group of petitioners and ordered him to pay Rs. 100 million from his personal funds as compensation to the surviving victims and the families of those who were killed in the attacks.  Former IGP Pujith Jayasundara and former SIS director Nilantha Jayawardhane were ordered to pay Rs.75 million each as compensation. Former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando was ordered to pay Rs. 50 million and former Chief of National Intelligence Sisira Mendis Rs. 10 million. The Catholic Church and the families of the Easter Sunday tragedy victims are demanding that Sirisena be prosecuted for his failure to prevent the terrorist attacks as the then President, Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief.

The SLFP hitched its wagon to the SLPP ahead of the 2019 presidential election and managed to avoid the same fate as the UNP, which failed to have at least a single candidate returned and was left with only one single National List slot, in the 2020 general election. But this time around, political parties are wary of coalescing with the SLFP with Sirisena as its leader for obvious reasons. How will the SLFP’s rank and file and the office-bearers try to overcome this problem? Will they consider Sirisena a Jonah and throw him overboard?


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