By Kassapa 

For the politically naïve, every opportunity is a crisis. For the politically astute, every crisis is an opportunity. The political party which has ruled Sri Lanka for the longest period of time, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), is very much in crisis and at such a crossroads. The question is whether they will see an opportunity in this crisis which appears to threaten its very existence.

The man who precipitated this turn of events was none other than former President Maithripala Sirisena. Engaging in seemingly incomprehensible political manoeuvres of late, he first sacked his General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera some months ago and sacked three other seniors recently. In between, he declared that he knew who masterminded the 2019 Easter Day terror attacks.

It was the sacking of three party stalwarts- Mahinda Amaraweera, Duminda Dissanayake and Lasantha Alagiyawanna- that finally made the SLFP decide that something needed to be done about Sirisena’s ‘bull-in-a-china-shop’ shenanigans. When the retaliation came, it was a masterstroke: former President Chandrika successfully obtained an injunction against Sirisena, preventing him from acting as SLFP Chairman.

Now the pro-Sirisena faction and those against him are locked in multiple legal tussles that will only weaken the party at a crucial time, an election year. Kumaratunga’s choice as ‘Acting Leader,’ albeit for the brief period until the injunction against Sirisena is heard and disposed of is veteran SLFPer Nimal Siripala de Silva.

De Silva has been chosen more for his seniority than his ability to rally the ranks of the SLFP together. His love for ministerial portfolios is well known in political circles which explains why he has been a minister for most of the past thirty years under different leaders. Turning eighty years of age this year and older than Kumaratunga, Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, he does not have the charisma- or the time- to turn around the fortunes of the SLFP. De Silva therefore is a stop-gap leader, a compromise made due to necessity, not choice. Nevertheless, whether the higher echelons of the SLFP realise it or not, this is also an opportunity which, handled correctly, could lead the SLFP to a resurrection of its political fortunes.

The downfall of the SLFP began when Sirisena, elected to the Presidency with votes that were mostly from the rival United National Party (UNP) coveted the SLFP leadership. Due to a quirk in the SLFP Constitution Mahinda Rajapaksa was compelled to begrudgingly hand over the reins of the party to his successor. The rest is history: The Rajapaksas went on to form the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which went from strength to strength and the SLFP, under Sirisena, spiralled downhill.

The attempted constitutional coup by Sirisena in October 2018 was both an effort by Sirisena to get rid of Wickremesinghe who he found it exceedingly difficult to work with, while at the same time being an effort to appease the Rajapaksas and bring them back to the SLFP, where he would still be at the helm. That failed spectacularly.

Now, there is a dire need in the country for established political parties. Both the UNP and the SLFP are skeletal shadows of their glory days. The offshoots they spawned- the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the SLPP respectively have both lost the voter confidence they once enjoyed. The SLPP blotted their copybook in style under Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SJB has been hamstrung by the awkward and inconsistent political posturing of their leader, Sajith Premadasa. It is into this political lacuna that the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) has stealthily crept in, aided and abetted by the general dissatisfaction of the average voter with the established ‘two-party’ political system.

If it had a smart leadership, the SLFP could have exploited the current political situation to the hilt. With the UNP still in hibernation, the SLPP in the doldrums and the SJB being handicapped by internal squabbling and a weak leadership, the SLFP could have attracted those personalities with potential and formed at least a strong opposition if not a credible government.

It can still do so. It is no secret in the corridors that the repellent that kept decent politicians away from the SLFP is Maithripala Sirisena, in as much the same way they veer away from the SLPP because of the Rajapaksas. If the party can now get rid of Sirisena for good, then reforming the party can begin in earnest.

It is true that the Bandaranaikes used the SLFP as a family heirloom for its first fifty years and more of its existence. However, the manner in which they conducted themselves was relatively dignified in comparison to how the Rajapaksas used the SLPP. We are not advocating that the SLFP be returned to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga but she can till play a formidable role getting the party back on track.

Certainly, there is firstly a legal landmine that the reformists in the SLFP must confront and carefully walk through. If the party can be removed from the clutches of Sirisena and his hangers on, then it will require a new and dynamic leadership to steer it towards a new era. Neither Kumaratunga nor Nimal Siripala De Silva fits that job description although the former can stay in the background because the Bandaranaikes- unlike the Rajapaksas- do still enjoy some goodwill among the masses.

We will not delve deep into the many legal issues that have enveloped the SLFP today. Obviously, all of that needs to be disentangled before any reforms could occur. It can be assumed with a high degree of certainty that Sirisena and his loyalists- of which, not many more are left now- will fight these legal battles to their bitter end. In any case that is unavoidable.

This is not to say that all the past sins of the SLFP should be forgiven. Rather, this is to argue that the SLFP has been given a rare opportunity to make amends for its mistakes of the past decade and reinvent itself. Not to do so will lead it to oblivion. More importantly, the nation will be deprived of a political party that can at least be a viable alternative to whoever forms the next government- and Sri Lanka does not deserve to suffer in that manner anymore.   


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