By Kassapa 

Last week, we wrote in these columns how, if the beleaguered Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) navigates its current crisis intelligently, it could reinvent itself and regain its position as one of the major parties in the country at a time when there is a vacuum for bona fide political leadership.

Those hopes were dashed only a few days later with the announcement that the Maithripala Senanayake faction had appointed Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms in President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Cabinet, as its ‘Acting Chairman.’

This is to counter the appointment of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva as Acting Chairman by the Chandrika Kumaratunga faction a few days prior, following a court order that suspended Sirisena’s role as Chairman of the SLFP. Rajapakshe’s appointment begs the question: can this get any more ridiculous?

Now we have a comical situation of De Silva and Rajapakshe, both senior ministers in Wickremesinghe’s Cabinet and both close confidantes of the President vying for the same position in the same party and going to courts over it. To boot, Rajapakshe is the Minister of Justice under whose purview the court system falls!

It is indeed difficult to make sense of this nonsense. On the one hand, the Sirisena faction claims that what the Kumaratunga faction is doing undermines the SLFP and is a conspiracy to bring it under the control of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP). Yet, the same faction then appoints Rajapakshe, a loyal servant to Wickremesinghe ever since the latter assumed the Presidency, as Acting Chairman!

The motives of Sirisena can be deduced. He faces a hundred million rupee compensation claim from the Supreme Court which he is yet to pay. He has been grilled by the Police about his claims that he knew who the mastermind of the Easter Sunday attacks was but has refused to make a statement to courts about it. He has been prevented from functioning as SLFP Chairman. Faced with all these skirmishes with the law, what better insurance policy can he get than appointing the Justice Minister as ‘Acting Chairman’ of his party?

If Sirisena believes he can restore his credibility and standing to what it was in 2015, he is delusional. We do not believe he thinks so. This is not a battle to become President again, that will never happen and Sirisena knows that. For him, this is a battle for survival: avoid hefty compensation claims, jail time and, if everything goes well, maybe even obtain enough votes to secure a seat in the next Parliament. From Sirisena’s perspective then, this is an understandable gambit.

What is in it for Rajapakshe? There has already been talk of Rajapakshe as a candidate at the presidential election. Asked about it, Rajapakshe was careful not to dismiss the possibility saying he had many requests to put himself forward but was even more careful to add a caveat to that: he will do so only if Wickremesinghe doesn’t contest. Clearly, he doesn’t want to upset his current boss.

Does Wijeyadasa seriously see himself as a future leader of the SLFP? He probably does. He knows that, despite being Wickremesinghe’s ‘go to’ person in Parliament when questionable legislation needs to see the light of day, the President’s UNP is governed by a tighter inner circle of which he is definitely not a part of. He can only go so far with the UNP and he seems to have already done that, holding the portfolio of Justice that he covets so much.

Rajapakshe claims he is a politician of principles. He has, on occasion, taken a stance on principle, such as when he resigned from his position as a State Minister in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. However, he has also been quite free in criss-crossing the political divide, being in the SLFP, UNP and then the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). He was one of the few ministers who were part of Sirisena’s original ‘yahapalanaya’ government but also chose to be a minister under Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in the illegal and ill-fated 52-day government. That tells you that his conscience is wafer-thin.

So, for Rajapakshe, this is all about projecting himself on to the national stage as a potential leader, a task which he hasn’t been able to do despite being in Parliament for two decades. If he is aware of his limitations, he will know that he cannot become President- not at the next election, anyway- but he could mark his imprint on the voter by being a candidate, especially if he represents a well-established political entity such as the SLFP. This is, of course, if Wickremesinghe doesn’t contest. It is also probably a great ego trip for a man with humble beginnings.

Where does the Rajapakshe vs. De Silva battle leave the SLFP? Those familiar with legal process will know that, given the spate of legal proceedings the crisis in the SLFP has spawned, it is unlikely to be resolved in a hurry- and certainly not in time for the presidential elections which is now less than six months away.

One can argue that Rajapakshe’s appointment as Acting Chairman is a masterstroke by Sirisena to stall the Kumaratunga faction who were relying on the courts to give them relief. What better countermove than to appoint the Minister of Justice as the principal adversary? That may be so, but it takes the SLFP nowhere.

What the SLFP needs right now is a popular, charismatic leader with sincere intentions acceptable to both factions, maybe even as an ‘interim’ Chairman, to clean the cesspit it finds itself in, so that its next leader can start resuscitating the party. Sadly, no one fits the bill- certainly not Nimal Siripala de Silva nor Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe.

Rajapakse’s appointment only guarantees a prolongation of the leadership crisis in the SLFP and with it will perish any hope the SLFP has of becoming great again. In that sense, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is the final nail in the SLFP’s coffin- and Ranil Wickremesinghe will be laughing when the funeral rites are eventually held.      


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