By Vishvanath

There was an interesting rags-to-riches story in the newspapers some years ago. A tea maker working in a canteen at a state institution in Monaragala won the first prize in a lottery. He failed to manage his fortune, and a couple years later, the newspapers carried what may be called a riches-to-rags story about him; he dissipated the prize money by living the high life and returned to the same job. A similar fate seems to have befallen the SLPP, which failed to manage its electoral fortune and is trying to revitalize itself.  

The SLPP is making elaborate preparations for its national convention to be held on a grand scale under the chairmanship of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on Dec. 15, at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. The event is to be attended by SLPP National Organizer Basil Rajapaksa among others. Its timing could be considered an indication that 2024 will be an election year.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself told the parliament recently that the presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in 2024 and the local government and provincial council polls would follow in 2025. He has drawn heavy flak from the Opposition for that statement. Pointing out that the EC is the institution constitutionally empowered to handle matters related to elections, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has demanded to know how come the President is deciding when elections are held.

The SLPP had a meteoric rise in national politics after being formed in 2016. It won three elections in a row—2018 local government elections, 2019 presidential polls and 2020 general election. The local government institutions and Provincial Councils remain dissolved. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who polled 6,924,255 (52.25%), quit last year due to protests.

The SLPP is now left with only control over the legislature, but it is at the mercy of President Wickremesinghe, who can dissolve Parliament anytime, causing a general election to be held. It polled 6.85 million votes and obtained 145 seats at the 2020 general election; it went on to secure a two-thirds majority by engineering crossovers from the Opposition, but today its parliamentary strength has dwindled to about 124 seats, and the government’s approval rating has plummeted to 9%, according to an opinion survey conducted by Verite research.

Shadow of its former self

The SLPP is now a shadow of its former self. All political parties have their ups and downs. The UNP, which used to be the biggest political entity in the country, has been left with only a single National List MP. The SLFP is too weak to be on its own and therefore dependent on coalitions to have parliamentary representation. If it had contested the last general election (2020) under its own steam without hitching its wagon to the SLPP, it would have faced the same fate at the UNP.

The debilitation of the UNP and the SLFP however did not occur overnight; it progressed over the years unlike that of the SLPP, which happened in a matter of a few years. There is no other party that has mismanaged its electoral fortunes during such a short period as the SLPP has done. It is struggling to remain relevant in national politics and arrest the erosion of its support base and parliamentary group, some of whose members have already thrown in their lot with President Wickremesinghe.

What has gone wrong for the SLPP?

Family put before party

The SLPP has lost its popular appeal and suffered debilitating splits mostly because the Rajapaksas have run it like a family concern by subjugating its interests to theirs. Dissent is not tolerated in the SLPP, and anyone who disagrees with the Rajapaksa family runs the risk of being smoked out; the party has lost about 30 of its popular MPs as a result. Speculation is rife that some more disgruntled SLPP MPs will defect.

Ambition and capability are conjoined twins. Capable politicians are naturally ambitious, and when they realize the existence of a glass ceiling in a political party, preventing their upward mobility beyond a certain point, they vote with their feet. Maithripala Sirisena, who was a Cabinet Minister and SLFP General Secretary in 2014 left the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to run for President because he was denied the premiership. He defeated President Rajapaksa in the presidential race and brought down the UPFA government, which had mustered a two-thirds majority in the parliament.

The SLPP seniors are aware that they will never be able to lead the party so long as the Rajapaksas are around. It is now like the SLFP under the Bandaranaike family. Dynastic politics is antithetical to meritocracy and breeds internal problems in any political organization.

Nationalism vs deprivation

It may be said that when the wolf comes in at the door nationalism flies out of the window. The SLPP won elections by campaigning on a nationalistic platform and undertaking to safeguard national security and ensure public safety. Nobody expected the economy to go into a tailspin in 2019, when the last presidential election was held. But the economic crisis upended the people’s priorities. Shortages of essential goods, especially fuel, turned the people against the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, which was groping in the dark, unable to figure out the problem, much less tackle it. Economic difficulties drove the people to hold street protests, which were mismanaged. Goon attacks the SLPP carried out on the Galle Face protesters who called themselves Aragalaya activists led to the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Cabinet in May 2022 and the ouster of President Rajapaksa two months later.

A nationalistic agenda alone does not enable a government to retain popular support and cling on to power; it has to be coupled with a considerable economic growth with benefits accruing to the public.

The current economic crisis that has ruined the SLPP’s chances of making a comeback in the foreseeable future is multifactorial. Immediately after winning the presidential election and forming a government in 2019, the SLPP blundered by slashing taxes and fuel prices with an eye to the general election. That politically-motivated action caused a drastic drop in the state revenue, and when the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, necessitating prolonged lockdowns, the situation took a turn for the worse with the government distributing cash handouts and dry rations haphazardly. Money printing increased exponentially, causing inflation to go through the roof and the rupee to devalue against all major foreign currencies. When foreign earnings from tourism and worker remittances decreased owing to the pandemic, foreign exchange reserves began to dwindle, but the government did precious little to shore them up; it delayed seeking IMF help and tried homegrown remedies, which did not work. The country had to declare itself bankrupt.

Last year, SLPP had to elevate Wickremesinghe to the presidency because it has no other way of retaining its hold on power and reviving the economy, but there are signs of its top guns undermining Wickremesinghe. What is observed in the SLPP in respect of its relations with Wickremesinghe could be considered the political version of transplant rejection.  

Whither the SLPP?

The SLPP has its work cut out to recover lost ground, given public resentment, which is palpable. Its parliamentary group continues to provoke the public by exuding arrogance and displaying a cavalier attitude. Its chances of regaining public trust and being able to win an election in the foreseeable future are bleak.

The SLPP will spare no expense in making its upcoming national convention a success. It will be a colourful event with its supporters bussed from various parts of the country, but no such gimmicks are likely to help the SLPP gain sufficient traction on the political front and be fighting fit politically and electorally.   


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