The SLFP is no stranger to dissention, conspiracies, revolts and breakaways. Its history has been replete with such instances. It suffered a debilitating split and lost the last presidential election in 2015 owing to a dispute over the premiership, which several key party notables had been eyeing. Maithripala Sirisena voted with his feet and went on to become the President. The SLFP-led UPFA failed to win the last general election, again due to a falling-off over premiership. President Sirisena refused to make his immediate predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister, so as to prevent the latter from making a comeback via Parliament. His announcement disheartened many UPFA supporters who did not care to vote as a result. Now, discord has emerged within the ranks of the Joint Opposition (JO) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) over who should be their presidential candidate.
Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has got his confidantes to throw his hat into the ring while pretending to be disinterested and claiming that his brother Mahinda will make a final decision. He talks like a presidential candidate and he walks like a presidential candidate. His sibling Basil, who shunned publicity following his elder brother Mahinda’s loss in 2015 and confined himself to behind-the-scene political manoeuvres, has crawled out of the woodwork; he has become very active all of a sudden and is asserting himself in such a manner that he is also seen to be having presidential ambitions.
Dinesh as a cat in hell
An attempt is also being made in some quarters to promote JO parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardena as the SLPP presidential candidate. They have taken upon themselves a Sisyphean task. With the Rajapaksas’ thirsting for power and ready and primed to go for the kill, as for being nominated to run for President, Dinesh has the same chances as a cat in hell or it may be said that his chances are even slimmer than those of the poor feline.
Those who are backing Dinesh may be doings so in good faith and, in fact, the country should not remain dependent on the Rajapaksas’, the Wickremesinghe and the Sirisena and the Bandaranaikes/Kumaratunga till the end of time. There must be alternatives. Maybe, someone other than the Rajapaksas can come up trumps in the presidential race. (Whoever would have thought Sirisena would beat Mahinda?) But, they are doing great disservice to Dinesh, albeit unwittingly. They should bear in mind the fate that befell the war-winning Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, who came to be considered equal to the task of challenging the Rajapaksas’ politically. Dinesh does not run the risk of being thrown behind bars on trumped –up charges, but there are other ways of destroying a man politically. Being a veteran in the game, politically speaking, he cannot be unaware of the danger of being seen to be a contender for presidency.
Blood, water and politics
Blood may be thicker than water, but power politics, in a manner of speaking, has a thinning effect on blood; this country has a history of members of ruling families committing even parricide to capture power and/or retain it, as chronicles reveal. Our ancient kings did not trust even their shadows and spared none in their quest for perpetuating their hold on power.
In more recent times, the members of the Bandaranaike family fought bitterly over the SLFP leadership so much so that Anura and his mother Sirimavo resorted to legal action against each other while the party was in the political wilderness in the 1980s. The members of the Ranatunga family, who were once considered inseparable, are at each other’s throat due to partisan politics. So, the possibility of the Rajapaksas having to contend with a family feud cannot be ruled out. It is not only narcotics which change one’s brain chemistry; power also does, perhaps in a far more dangerous manner than hell dust.
Former President Rajapaksa is in a dilemma. The task of naming the presidential candidate has landed him in an unenviable position, where he is having a thin time of it. Family always comes first for him, as is only too well known, but his quandary is to manage the political fallout of the decision he will have to make. It is bound to have unforeseen ramifications. His trusted lieutenants are already at daggers drawn on that issue. Two former Cabinet colleagues have crossed swords and are trading barbs. Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who is supportive of Gotabaya, has publicly called Kumara Welgama, who is not favourably disposed to that idea of promoting anyone other than Mahinda, has recently fired a broadside at the former. He has gone on record as saying that Mahinda and no one else should be the next head of state. This is an interesting development which went unnoticed by the Colombo-based commentariat.
Welgama has spoken for the SLFP veterans in the JO/SLPP, loyal to Mahinda. But how do they propose to make him the Head of State under the present circumstances; Mahinda is constitutionally debarred from seeking another presidential term. His loyalists keep arguing that what they call a loophole in the19th Amendment can be made use of by him to run for President. Hope is said to spring eternal in the human breast. Or, is it that they have some other idea, which is to help scrap the executive presidency? If so, the only way they can achieve that end is to back the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, moved by the JVP, and, thereby, make the Prime Minister the head of state. One may argue that a logical conclusion that follows from the aforesaid premises—some JO/SLPP grandees do not want Gotabaya as presidential candidate and they want Mahinda to be the head of state—is that they are supportive of the efforts being made to reintroduce the Westminster system.
The gargantuan task Mahinda is faced with is to preserve the unity of the JO/SLPP let alone help score another impressive electoral win. If he decides to field Gotabaya as the presidential candidate, he runs the risk of antagonizing his loyalists, some of whom may not throw their weight behind the former Defence Secretary. If he decides to field any other sibling of his, the loyalist of Gotabaya will rebel and the unity of the JO/SLPP will suffer. If he endorses the candidature of an outsider, his family might even disown him, so to speak. He will be faced with a similar situation if he backs the 20th Amendment because that move will not find favour with the JO/SLPP notables campaigning for Gotabaya’s presidential candidature.
It looks as though Mahinda was left with no alternative but to do an Alexander the Great, who, without taking the trouble of trying to untie the intricate Gordian Knot, simply cut it with his sword. He will have to act fast, for the JO/SLPP is coming under pressure from its own allies to name its presidential candidate. No less a person than Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera has made a strident call to that effect.
Sampanthan Vs Dinesh
The JO is aware that it is an exercise in futility to keep asking for the post of the Opposition Leader. It is not a recognised party in Parliament and its members are technically part of the UPFA, which is in the national unity government. If one is to become the Opposition Leaders, one has to be in the Opposition, in the first place or, at least, seen to be so. The JO has asked Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, in writing, that the JO consists of 70 MPs and, therefore, its leader Gunawardena deserves the post of the Opposition Leader. The Speaker consulted the UPFA on the issue. He has said he will announce his decision shortly.
The UPFA, controlled by President Sirisena, has already leaked it to the media that it will allow TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, to remain as the Opposition Leader. After all, President Sirisena, who was instrumental in giving him that post by manipulating the composition of Parliament, will not budge. So, why is the JO persistently demanding that post? There seem to be three reasons for its action.
The JO wants to project itself as the real Opposition and expose the TNA and the JVP as appendages of the government so as to attract the anti-government vote. Sampanthan keeps asking for a new Constitution with more powers devolved. The political fallout of granting provincial councils more powers will be to the disadvantage of the government, especially the UNP and the SLFP. Sampanthan’s demand is not popular among the voters whose support the JO has to enlist to turn the tables on the government. The JO has landed the UNP and the SLFP in a position, where they are seen to be favouring a party—the TNA—which is clamouring for federalism. An oppositional force needs rallying cries to prevent its members’ morale from sagging, and the fight for the Opposition Leader’s posts will help keep the JO members primed for action. So, the JO is likely to go on flogging the issue indefinitely much to the annoyance of the Speaker and the government.
A replay of the Rajapaksa drama
Both the UNP and the SLFP are in overdrive to initiate as many infrastructural development projects as possible before the next election, so as to be able to flaunt them as achievements. They are doing what the Rajapaksas did, having found fault with their predecessors for launching mega projects with borrowed funds.
The yahapalana leaders, captured power, promising a change. Their key promises were to provide economic relief to the public and usher in a new political culture devoid of bribery and corruption, nepotism and cronyism. But, today, those pledges have gone unfulfilled. The cost of living is soaring and people are being burdened with new taxes and tariff and price hikes. More loans are being obtained from China.
The UNP, which was once considered a good manager of the economy, has failed to live up to people’s expectations. Before the 2015 regime change it promised economic miracles. The SLFP is supporting the government’s divestiture programme against its pro-statist policies. The two parties are blaming each other for their collective failure on the economic front. President Sirisena, in the run-up to the last local government elections, held the UNP responsible for what he called the economic mess the country was faced with, and vowed to take over economic management. He has reneged on that pledge as well.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is like a magician who has run out of his tricks in the middle of a show. It is at a loss as to what to do next and improvising while the JO is stepping up anti-government protests. Government propagandists made a vain attempt to make the recent Janabalasena protest in Colombo out to be a failure, but the truth was otherwise. Today, information cannot be suppressed.
The internal problems of the JO/SLPP camp may warm the cockles of the yahapalana politicians’ hearts, but there’s no escaping the fact that the issues the UNP and the SLFP are faced with are far more serious.