Former Presidents Maithripala Sirisena and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) have patched up a compromise. They were seen together attending a ceremony to mark the 125th birth anniversary of the SLFP founder and former Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, at the Galle Face Green, on 08 Jan. Previously, they had held separate commemorative events at the same venue.
CBK and Sirisena had been at daggers drawn for years, saying nasty things about each other. CBK turned hostile towards Sirisena when the latter, as the President (2015-2019), refused to be manipulated by the former, who also sought to gain control of the SLFP, which the Bandaranaike family has evinced a proprietary interest in. CBK was instrumental in enabling Sirisena to realize his presidential dream.
Arab and camel
Having regained a foothold in the SLFP, CBK is likely to go flat out to consolidate her power in the party. She is reported to have demanded that she be made the SLFP Chairman. She is not known to settle for less.
Sirisena now finds himself in the same predicament as the proverbial Arab, who made the mistake of sharing his tent with a camel. But he has no other way of preventing the rapid disintegration of the SLFP.
On Jan. 01, 2024, MP Shan Wijelal de Silva defected to the SJB. Several other SLFP MPs have switched their allegiance to President Ranil Wickremesinghe although they have not left the party officially. This is an election year, and the SLFP’s support base is expected to erode further due to defections. Therefore, Sirisena may have thought of enlisting CBK’s help to straighten up the party. What the rapprochement between CBK and Sirisena signifies is that anything is possible in Sri Lankan politics, where expediency takes precedence over principle, and politicians are guided by Machiavellian maxims more than anything else.
Sri Lankan politics is in a state of flux, and unpredictability seems to be the only thing constant about it. Hence nothing is more certain than the unexpected in it, and alliances of strange bedfellows abound, the coming together between the SLPP and the UNP being the best example. In late 2014, Sirisena, who was the SLFP General Secretary, and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe joined forces against the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Having secured the presidency, Sirisena turned against Wickremesinghe and closed ranks with Rajapaksa. Today, three of them are in the same government! It was also politically advantageous for CBK to patch up differences with Sirisena, for she could not remain relevant in national politics without being part of an established political party. She aligned herself with the newly-formed New Lanka Freedom Party (NLFP) led by MP Kumar Welgama, who broke ranks with the SJB. She ceremonially opened the NLFP headquarters in Sept. 2022. Welgama revealed in a television interview that his desire was to bring CBK’ son, Vimukthi Kumaratunga, to active politics. But CBK is now back in the SLFP’s fold!
What’s up CBK’s sleeve?
One does not take the trouble of harvesting a beehive just for licking one’s fingers, as a popular Sri Lankan saying goes. Why has CBK got back into the SLFP? Is the former two-term President planning to re-enter the Parliament the way her immediate successor Mahinda did in 2015 after his defeat in the presidential race. CBK is as ambitious as other politicians who thirst for power.
That was why she did her darndest to retain the presidency until 2006 by claiming that although she had been re-elected at an early presidential election in 1999, she had been sworn in for her second term later upon the expiration of her first term in 2000. But in September 2005, a five-member Bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the then Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, determined that her second and final term had begun immediately after her re-election in 1999 and therefore her term would end in December 2005. She had to retire. Her Prime Minister Mahinda successfully contested the presidential election held in that year. Thereafter, the Rajapaksas dominated the SLFP, and CBK chose to maintain a very low profile in domestic politics. She struck back during the latter stages of President Rajapaksa’s second term by persuading Sirisena to run for President and defeat President Rajapaksa, who sought a third term.
CBK, after completing her second presidential term, could have easily re-entered Parliament, the way former President Rajapaksa did in 2015. In fact, a few months after her re-election in 1999, she tried to abolish the executive presidency and return to Parliament as the Executive Prime Minister because she did not want to retire after serving her second term. She sought to amend the Constitution for that purpose, but her plan failed because the UNP withdrew its support, claiming that some sections had been incorporated into the draft Constitution without its consent.
In 2015, CBK succeeded in engineering a regime change, with the help of others, but Mahinda remained popular despite his defeat in the presidential race, and the SLFP’s rank and file remained loyal to him. That may have prevented CBK from re-entering active politics at that time. But the situation has changed today. The SLPP is in total disarray and the Rajapaksas are extremely unpopular. The UNP is not electorally strong although its leader Wickremesinghe was lucky enough to become President.
The JVP-led NPP has emerged somewhat stronger and so has the SJB. The SLFP has, under Sirisena’s leadership, become a shadow of its former self. CBK, as a veteran political leader, may have seen an opportunity in the current political scenario. Maybe CBK thinks she will be able to turn the SLFP around the way she did in the early 1990s after returning from overseas and rejoining the party. There was stiff resistance to her return, which led to the expulsion of her brother, Anura, from the party. Mahinda also resisted her comeback but came to terms with the reality, and fell in line. CBK had a stellar rise in national politics thereafter.
She took the country by storm and, in August 1994, steered the SLFP to its first electoral victory in 17 years. She became the Prime Minister and went on to secure the executive presidency in quick succession. If the SLFP, under a new leadership, can present itself as an alternative to the SLPP, the UNP, the SJB and the NPP, it may be able to improve its electoral performance significantly. If CBK personally campaigns for the SLFP, she may be able to deliver a considerable number of votes to the party.
She will not have to enter the election fray herself to do so. The next Parliament is expected to be hung. If no party succeeds in forming a stable government under its own steam, the SLFP’s bargaining power will increase provided it manages to obtain about 20 seats in the 225-member parliament; it may be able to act as a kingmaker holding the key to forming a government in such an eventuality. CBK may be able to enter Parliament if she so desires via the National List. This seems to be CBK’s plan.