By Vishvanath


The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) may have thought it could go on riding roughshod over its coalition partners because their MPs had been elected on its ticket, and it could retain a comfortable parliamentary majority even if they left en masse. But they continue to strike discordant notes on vital issues in defiance of the SLPP leadership.

In what may be considered a snub to the government leaders, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader and Minister, Wimal Weerawansa, boycotted last Sunday’s SLPP parliamentary group meeting. Asked by reporters at a private sector function, on Wednesday, why he had done so, he said the SLPP MPs opposed to the controversial agreement the government had entered into with the US energy firm, New Fortress, over the Yugadanavi power plant, had sought a meeting to discuss the issue, and he did not think the SLPP parliamentary group meeting was the appropriate forum for that. He said they had asked for an SLPP leaders’ meeting for that purpose.

Weerawansa went on to tell journalists that the questionable energy deal had been cut at the behest of Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who should meet the leaders of the SLPP constituents for a discussion. There was no need for even the President or the Prime Minister to be present there, he said. The warring SLPP allies are thus planning to take on Basil, and the government has been careful not to give them an opportunity to do so; it summons SLPP parliamentary group meetings, where it has the numerical strength to have dissenters shouted down.

Ten SLPP constituents came together, on Saturday (23), to oppose the New Fortress deal, and they were represented by Ministers Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpial, and MPs Ven. Athureliya Ratana, Prof. Tissa Vitharana, A. L. M. Athaulla, Asanka Navaratne, Tiran Alles, Gevindu Kumaratunga, Weerasumana Weerasinghe and Dr. G. Weerasinghe, and former Minister D. E. W. Gunasekara. They have decided to conduct a public meeting on 29 Oct., in Colombo

In a dramatic sequel to Saturday’s meeting of ten dissident constituents, Minister Nanayakkara told Sunday’s SLPP parliamentary group meeting chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the SLPP coalition partners had a right to address national issues and express dissenting views on them in public and it could not be questioned. He is reported to have said so in response to some questions raised by several SLPP MPs such as Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena and Tissa Kuttiarachchi, who is one of the bitterest critics of the dissenters in the government. This is proof that the dissident group in the SLPP is determined to express their views and even be openly critical of the government policies they disagree with.

For some of the dissenting SLPP constituents, the surreptitious energy deal is not the only reason for their rebellion. They have crossed swords with the SLPP leadership over other issues and suffered humiliation at the hands of the latter. They include Ministers Gammanpila and Weerawansa. They have also got under the skin of the SLPP National Organizer Basil Rajapaksa by opposing the government decision to do away with the constitutional provision introduced by the 19th Amendment to prevent dual citizens from entering the parliament. Later, they softened their stand and supported the 20th Amendment at the instance of President Rajapaksa, but Basil does not seem to have forgiven them. The Communist Party represented by Dr. Weerasinghe and veteran leftist Gunasekera, the LSSP led by Prof. Vitharana, and Yuthukama represented by Kumaratunga, however, have taken a principled stand on the New Fortress deal.

Coalition politics is always problematic. Political alliances are characterised by internal disputes which could spin out of control. Dissension, however, does not necessarily point to disunity or presage a split. But it has the potential to divide governments, if the main constituent of a coalition government turns hostile towards dissenters and tries to railroad them into endorsing all its decisions and actions. Ideological differences could also lead to such situations as was the case the country witnessed in mid-1970s, when the SLFP-led United Front government suffered a breakaway; it leftist allies voted with their feet, and contested the 1977 general election separately much to the advantage of the UNP, which swept the polls.

The disgruntled leftists in the UF government blamed the late Felix Dias Bandaranaike for having smoked them out. Today, some SLPP coalition partners like Minister Weerawansa claim that someone in the SLPP is doing a Felix. The person concerned has not been named, but they are obviously referring to Basil, who controls the SLPP, which is widely thought to be working according to a plan to go it alone at a future general election in the hope that it will be able to win without coalitional encumbrances.

  1. R. Jayewardene had his MPs under his thumb. He was lucky that all his MPs had been elected from the UNP, and were bound by party discipline. They had been returned under the first-past-the-post system and the UNP regime was seemingly monolithic unlike the governments elected later under the proportional representation (PR) system. He managed to retain his huge majority in the parliament by holding a referendum in lieu of the 1982 general election.

President Jayewardene, however, did not leave anything to chance. No sooner had he formed a government in 1977 than he obtained undated resignation letters from all his MPs so that he could get rid of anyone who went out of control and/or challenged his authority.

President Premadasa was not that lucky. Some of his MPs rebelled against him and even made an attempt to impeach him in 1991. He had tried to suppress dissent and belittled some UNP stalwarts such as Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, compelling them to strike back. The impeachment bid fell through, but neither President Premadasa nor the UNP recovered from the resultant breakaway. The UNP suffered a split, with the rebel group, after being sacked from it, forming the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). This is the cost a government has to pay for mismanaging dissent and trying to bulldoze its way through.

In 2001, a group of People’s Alliance (PA) MPs rose against President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who antagonized them. Led by the then SLFP General Secretary S. B. Dissanayake, they subsequently crossed over to the UNP, causing the Kumaratunga administration to collapse.

A similar fate befell the powerful Mahinda Rajapaksa government, in 2015, because it did not care to win over its disgruntled members. President Rajapaksa sought to ridicule the ginger group in the United People’s Front (UPFA) administration, and even told them that his government had a batwing door, which opened both ways, and anyone could leave or join him. He had the shock of life after declaring a snap presidential election in November 2014. General Secretary of the SLFP and Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, left the government together with a group of UPFA MPs to contest the January 2015 presidential election successfully. It took former President Rajapaksa about five years to make a comeback.

The UNP-led yahapalana government also got into trouble because it took the disillusionment of some of its MPs for granted, and tried to wish away its internal problems. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe openly undermined President Sirisena’s position, and short-changed the SLFP partners of the government. It suffered a crippling split in October 2018, and never recovered.

The current SLPP administration is also antagonizing its disgruntled MPs and coalition allies. It does not seem to have learnt from the experience of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government or the previous administrations which were debilitated by crippling breakaways thanks to the mismanagement of internal disputes.

Coming events are said to cast their shadows before them. The SLPP government may not be in imminent danger of falling apart, but its internal problems are worsening by the day. Dissension is like the coronavirus; unless properly monitored and managed, it could spring surprises.


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