The UPFA government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s stewardship faced the same fate as the Titanic, in 2015. That regime was widely thought to be invincible; Rajapaksa had been re-elected with a mammoth majority about five years before, and the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) led by the SLFP had formed a very stable government by winning as many as 144 seats. The SLFP alone had about 132 MPs in that parliament. President Rajapaksa mustered more than 150 MPs by engineering crossovers, and it was jokingly said, at the time, that the UPFA government had more UNP MPs than the UNP-led Opposition did! It was plain sailing for the UPFA,or at least it was thought to be so. Everyone aboard the UPFA ship was happy and cocky. Alas, unbeknownst to those at the helm, the vessel sailed right into an iceberg of dissension, which ripped open its hull below the waterline. The rest is history.


The current government leaders, who survive the 2015 electoral disaster thanks to a political lifeboat ride, do not seem to have learnt anything from their past mistakes. They have gotcocky again and are courting trouble. The SLPP is like X-Press Pearl, which sailed on, regardless of a nitric acid leak from a cargo container, although it had all the time in the world to take precautionary measures to avert disaster.


There have been clashes between two rival factions of the government for the past several months. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, a die-hard Basil Rajapaksa loyalist, has publicly asked Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila to resign as the Energy Minister over the recent fuel price increases. Minister Wimal Weerawansa is also facing hostile action from the SLPP leadership; Phosphate Lanka Ltd.,which he was instrumental in turning around, has been removed from his ministry. He is being sidelined in the government. The Basil group of the SLPP is vying with its rivals for dominance.

Basil makes his move

It is against this backdrop that Basil’s plan to enter Parliament via the National List should be viewed. At least four of his loyalists in the SLPP parliamentary group have offered to resign so that he could be sworn in. Speculation is rife in political circles that MP Dr. Ranjith Bandara, an economist by profession, will leave Parliament to become the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) allowing Basil to become an MP. This is the most likely scenario because it will help Basil have one of his trusted lieutenants as the head of the CBSL, and the elevation to that post will be a dream come true for Dr. Bandra, who is not even a state minister at present; he may not be able to become at least a deputy minster in the foreseeable future, given the sheer number of senior SLPP politicians aspiring to ministerial posts.

What Basil is eyeing cannot be a mere Cabinet post. He is already more powerful than all ministers save PresidentGotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, although he is not even an MP. But he has to hold a powerful ministerial post to consolidate his power in the government. He must also be under pressure from his loyalists to enter the parliament fast so that they could emerge stronger at the expense of their rivals.

Basil is not getting any younger and, therefore, cannot wait any longer to realise his political ambitions. In politics, nobody is given anything on a platter; everybody has to fight for what he or she wants. Hence Basil has thrown his hat into the ring.

Whispers in the corridors of power indicate that Prime Minister Rajapaksa is planning for retirement before the expiration of the current parliamentary term. He must be tired after a marathon political innings spanning five decades, and has achieved what he strove for, following his humiliating defeat in 2015. He is now the PM and there is no higher political goal for him. He is a former two-term President still influential innational politics. So, he may want to hang up his boots while being a force to be reckoned with. Who will be his successor?

There are two schools of thought. One opines that PM Rajapaksa is grooming his eldest son, Namal, who is a Cabinet Minister, for the coveted post. Namal is seen chairing important meetings attended by senior ministers and high-ranking state officials, and trying to punch above his weight apparently in a bid to prove that he has maturity and gravitas to become the PM. No other minister dares stake claims for the post lest he or sheshould incur the wrath of the ruling family, which does not want to appoint any outsider as the PM. But Basil’s entry into the parliament is likely to change the SLPP’s group dynamics and lead to a realignment of forces at the decision-making level of the government.

Will Namal feel overshadowed by his ambitious uncle? Or, will Basil consider his ambitious nephew an obstacle in his path? How will the family handle such a possible scenario?

Blood is certainly thicker than water. But this is not true where power politics is concerned. The members of the Bandaranaike family fought among themselves for power. The late Anura Bandaranaike even resorted to legal action against his mother, Sirima Bandaranaike, over the SLFP headquarters. Sirima subsequently sacked Anura from the SLFP. Anura and his elder sister, Chandrika, also clashed publicly before sinking their differences in the end when they found a mutual enemy in the person of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

After all, Sri Lanka’s history is replete instances where uncles and nephews fought internecine battles for the throne.

Acid leak aboard SLPP

It is too early to guess what kind of impact Basil’s entry into the parliament will have on the family politics of the Rajapaksas, but it is sure to affect the government’s intraparty relations. With Basil in Parliament, his loyalists in the SLPP parliamentary group will intensify their battle for supremacy and attack the ginger group with renewed vigour. Besides Gammanpila and Weerawansa, there will be some more ministers among the casualties in the dissident camp. Some of the ministers have stopped visiting the SLPP headquarters as they are made to feel unwanted there.

This kind of acrimony is the political version of nitric acid that leaked from the ill-fated X-Press Pearl and triggered a fire on board. Unless its internal disputes which are likely to take a turn for the worse in time to come are settled, the SLPP may run the risk of having an explosion aboard like the one the UPFP had towards the latter part of 2014.

The only person capable of reining in the warring factions of the SLPP is Prime Minister Rajapaksa. Conflict resolution is not President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s strong suit. He lacks patience and has no time for matters political. He has apparently left politicking to his elder brother, Mahinda.

If PM Rajapaksa fails to reconcile the rival factions in the government, the SLPP may face the same fate as the United Front government in mid-1970s, when the SLFP smoked out its leftist allies at the instance of the late Felix Dias Bandaranaike, who was the power behind the throne. The UF government, which had a two-thirds majority in the parliament, collapsed in 1977. There were other factors that contributed to its downfall,and they include its economic experiments that caused unbearable hardships to the public, but it is the the UF’s internal disputes that crippled the SLFP-led government irreversibly.

The SLPP dissidents have gone on record as saying that someone is doing a Felix in the SLPP. They have stopped short of naming names. But it is obvious that the person they lack the courage to name is Basil, who is not well disposed towards some of the SLPP constituents, and is said to be keen to form an SLPP government without any coalition partners. The fact that the SLPP alone has more than 130 MPs in the ruling coalition may be the reason for his thinking.

Electoral realities

The Proportional Representation (PR) system has come to stay whether one likes it or not. It has given rise to coalition politics so much so that the two main political parties, the SLPP and the SJB, are alliances consisting of several political entities each, besides being registered political parties. Under the current electoral system, even a few thousand votes do matter where the allocation of seats is concerned.

It is difficult to form strong governments under the PR system, but in this country, there have been some exceptions. In 1989, when the first general election was held under the PR system, the UNP won enough seats (125) to form a stable government. But that election was held amidst JVP violence, which was matched by a ruthless state terror campaign, and the then ruling UNP resorted to widespread election malpractices such as the stuffing of ballot boxes to win enough seats.

The SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) could obtain only a razor thin majority in the parliament in 1994, that too with the help of some minority parties like the SLMC and the Upcountry People’s Front. A similar situation occurred in 2000, when the PA did not have a comfortable majority in the parliament. That administration fell, the following year, due to mass crossovers, and the UNP-led UNF government, which came into power, had a wafer-thin majority. In 2004, the SLFP formed the UPFA with the JVP as a coalition partner, but could not form a stronggovernment.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who became the President, in 2005,resorted to engineering defections from the UNP-led UNF to shore up his government while fighting a war. The war victory enabled him to form a rock-solid government in 2010. But in 2015, the UNF could win only 106 seats, and had to enlist the support of some minority parties to form a government. Last year, the SLPP proved all pre-polls forecasts wrong by winning145 seats.

The SLPP alone has more than 130 seats in the current parliament. It may be this feat that has prompted the SLPP to think less of its coalition allies and consider them as mere passengers riding on its coattails. But the SLPP is being overoptimistic, and its assessment of its electoral strength is unrealistic.

The Basil faction of the government seems to think the SLPP will be able to form the next government under its own steam with a comfortable majority. It is not being realistic. The SLPP has won so many seats in Parliament because the UNF government ruined things for itself, and there were serious threats to national security, and the Easter Sunday terror attacksproved to the be the undoing of the UNP-led administration. The present government will not remain as popular as it was at the beginning of its current term. It will be more dependent on smaller parties electorally towards the end of its present term. Overconfidence leads to disaster in electoral politics.

SLPP sails on

The SLPP is making the same mistake as X-Press Pearl, which did not have the leaky container of acid removed post-haste, and sailed on. Bitter acrimony has had a corrosive effect on the government’s unity, and it is bound to cause an explosion aboard sooner than expected unless remedial action is taken urgently.

Basil’s entry into the parliament as a National List MP is expected to aggravate the internal problems of the SLPP. Only Prime Minister Rajapaksa is capable of restraining the warring factions and brining about reconciliation, but he will cease to be influential in the government if he retires. Even at present, he does not seem keen as to involve himself in party affairs, much less the running of the government. Buddhist monks such as Ven. Muruttetuwe Ananda keep asking the PM why he refrains from making decisive interventions to steer the government and the SLPP on the correct path, but their questions go unanswered. The PM only smiles, and that says a lot.


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