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Freedom Party blues


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 23 January 2014 00:17


  • For years reams have been written about the crisis within the main opposition United National Party. Long winters in Opposition make parties prone to internal rifts and leadership battles. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the main party in the ruling UPFA coalition, meanwhile, has been embroiled in a silent crisis of its own, for the better part of nine years

 

Every once in a while an almost accidental snapshot will tell an eloquent story.

Hirunika Premachandra, freshly appointed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s Organiser for Central Colombo was making her way to her first Bala Mandala meeting on foot last Sunday, escorted by an adoring crowd. She would address her first meeting at Kolonnawa, her very own Ground Zero, the place her father and SLFP stalwart Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra was slain in a shootout on election day just over two years ago. His assassination had thrust the attractive but hitherto unknown daughter into the political limelight, moving hundreds of Blue party members with her tears and entreaties for justice for their beloved ‘Lucky Aiyya’.

The cameras caught Hirunika Premachandra last Sunday at an iconic moment, a hand raised in victorious salute, garlanded and smiling. At first the eye does not move past the image of the bubbly young woman flanked by her mother and party supporters. But behind the crowd, a massive hoarding with a New Year greeting bears the face of R. Duminda Silva, monitoring MP to the Ministry of Defence, Kolonnawa kingpin and the man Hirunika has openly accused of murdering her father. In an illusion created by the camera, Silva appears to be beaming down on the Hirunika procession, a fateful accident of the lens that sums up the irony of the young girl’s political journey.

Intra party struggle

The intra-party struggle that claimed Bharatha Lakshman’s life would come to epitomise the deeper conflict within the SLFP, the main constituent in the ruling UPFA coalition. Bharatha Lakshman hailed from ‘old’ SLFP, the political ally of Vijaya Kumaratunga and then Chandrika Bandaranaike. His competition in the Kolonnawa electorate, Duminda Silva represented a breed of new SLFP politicians, beneficiaries of a crossover political culture, who had pledged allegiance only to the current ruling dynasty.

The death of Premachandra, allegedly by the hand of Silva or his henchmen who are main suspects in the murder had a chilling effect on the SLFP Old Guard. Simmering discontent in SLFP ranks over the prominence granted to the ruling family over experienced old hands, bubbled to the surface with several party stalwarts going public with their frustration. After her father’s killing on 8 October 2011, when the 24-year-old Hirunika pledged to avenge her father and spoke tearfully of SLFP stalwarts who had been sidelined and abused by upstarts, the message resonated with Bharatha Lakshman’s old colleagues.

By speaking of the injustice against her father, she had exposed the plight of senior party men who were powerless against the clout of ruling family loyalists within the Government. After six long years, someone had finally given voice to their disgruntlement. If she persisted along those lines, Hirunika Premachandra would have galvanised the core SLFP group within the Rajapaksa Administration that was ripe for rebellion.

Charm offensives

For that reason, neutralising her became crucial for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He chose to win the Premachandra family over, starting with the slain politician’s wife. She was appointed Presidential Coordinator to ensure the family could keep their Government quarters in Colombo. Soon Hirunika herself appeared on Nil Balakaya (Blue Force) and Tharunayata Hetak stages, hand in hand with Hambantota District MP Namal Rajapaksa. During election campaigns, she was on UPFA platforms, urging the people to vote to strengthen the Government’s hand at local government levels and provincial councils.

In a trademark move, President Rajapaksa decided to make Bharatha Lakshman’s daughter a key organiser in the Colombo District ahead of the Western Provincial Council elections likely in March. Poetically, the appointment sets the stage for yet another colossal internecine battle between another Premachandra and Duminda Silva, as they vie for supremacy in the key Kolonnawa electorate in the provincial poll.

Last week, falling at his feet as she accepted her organiser post in the SLFP, Hirunika Premachandra declared herself to be the adopted daughter of President Rajapaksa, the latest addition to the ruling family. And so ends the campaign of another Freedom Party rebel.

Fowzie’s acceptance

With her appointment, Hirunika becomes the third SLFP Co-Organiser for Central Colombo. The area has been the traditional power base of SLFP strongman A.H.M. Fowzie, but the Rajapaksa Administration in its wisdom, recently appointed Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha as its co-organiser for Colombo Central.

Senior Minister Fowzie who was seething about Mustapha’s appointment, appears to have adopted a different position about the entry of Hirunika to the fray. While early signs could be misleading, the vastly different reaction from Minister Fowzie to sharing power in Central Colombo with Hirunika may stem from the perception that as Bharatha Lakshman’s daughter, she is a legitimate SLFP heir to the electorate, while Mustapha – having crossed over from the CWC and gained swift access to the highest officials within the Rajapaksa regime – in the minds of SLFP old hands, remains an upstart and usurper in the region.

In the absence of a real threat from the Opposition, tensions between President Rajapaksa’s multi-hued coalition of constituents of varying ideologies and the simmering discontent of his own party are proving to be the biggest headaches for the regime. The spate of budget defeats at Pradeshiya Sabhas, where UPFA councillors joined ranks with the opposition in order to oust chairmen appointed by President Rajapaksa, were believed to have been subtly encouraged by ministers of cabinet rank from the various regions. The rebellions were largely products of localised rivalries, but it raised critical questions for the Rajapaksa administration about the extent of the discontent and the power of secret balloting. Would the Government survive a vote by secret ballot in Parliament for instance, if the SLFP frustration ran so deep?

The embarrassment has forced the regime to mull amendments to the Local Government Act, to repeal the clause that permits the ouster of a chairman after a council budget has been twice defeated. Similarly the quiet revolts in the North Western and Central Provincial Councils after the recent elections ensured the defeat of regime preferred candidates for office bearers of the councils when Government members voted with the Opposition nominated candidates for the positions.

JHU vs. PM

But all this has paled in comparison to the battle royale that is brewing between the Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne and the UPFA’s powerful constituent ally, the Jathika Hela Urumaya over a drug scandal that erupted recently. On Tuesday (21), the JHU’s Colombo Central Organiser was arrested for attempting to break into the Prime Minister’s office during a protest on 8 January. A monk involved in the protest has also been arrested, an unprecedented move that is likely an attempt by the Government to show solidarity with the Premier. The JHU is insisting on a public apology or the Prime Minister’s resignation, but Jayaratne is digging in his heels. An attempt by President Rajapaksa to bring the two sides together and force the Premier to apologise failed miserably, when the senior politician stoically rejected the President’s request.

Well aware of the backing he commands from the SLFP old guard, the Prime Minister has remained unmoved by the drug scandal. In fact, he has shown himself unafraid to take strong positions against the regime when he is personally affected by its actions. A few months ago, irked by the President’s treatment of his son, Anuradha, who obtained the most number of preferential votes at the Central Provincial Council poll but was still denied the post of Chief Minister, the Premier joined in a demonstration against the Government in Kandy. In the lead up to the Commonwealth Summit in Colombo last November, a large banner hung on the walls of the Prime Minister’s Office on Flower Road, declaring his son Anuradha the overall winner in the Central Province and the rightful holder of Chief Ministerial office.

With the JHU threatening to file legal action against Jayaratne, the President who prides himself on juggling these competing interests within his coalition, finds himself in a supremely awkward position. To force Jayaratne’s hand, on an apology or resignation would be to rile up the SLFP core within the alliance. Like the US Vice Presidency, the Sri Lankan premiership is important for one reason, and one reason alone. Constitutionally, in the event of the death of a sitting President, the Prime Minister would succeed him until elections can be held to choose a successor. It has happened only once since the establishment of the Presidential System, in 1993 following the death of Ranasinghe Premadasa. But for a regime that has made dynastic succession a fundamental facet of its rule, permitting Jayaratne to remain Premier is one major concession the Rajapaksa administration makes to the SLFP Old Guard.

President Rajapaksa cannot sideline Jayaratne without implying that he has taken the side of the JHU against his own party man in this struggle. To do so would further alienate the SLFP core from the President at a particularly fragile moment. He will therefore have to permit the cold war to continue, without taking a side until the last possible moment. The JHU looks unwilling to back down from the fight just yet, but President Rajapaksa has an arsenal of charm that could succeed in convincing the ultra-nationalist party to bury the issue at least until the end of the provincial elections.

Premier stakes

But the regime’s end game with regard to the premier stakes is quite a different matter, according to highly-placed Government sources. It is strongly believed that the JHU battle against Premier Jayaratne is being sanctioned by a senior Rajapaksa regime official, whose elevation as Prime Minister has been fervent desire of hardline Sinhala Buddhist groups rallying against the minorities.

As it did with National List MP Malini Fonseka some months ago, the Rajapaksa Administration is currently contemplating calling for the resignation of yet another national list MP to facilitate the passage of another family member to Parliament. If the Government decides to follow through with its plan, Kamala Ranatunge, a 76-year-old SLFP member, may be called upon to resign her seat to pave the way.

Although speculation is rife about Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa – who has strong SLFP credentials – being called upon to serve as Premier, these sources claim that he is likely to remain Speaker of Parliament. Fearing the prospect of an impeachment motion at some stage, the Rajapaksa Administration remains determined to ensure that one of its own holds all the cards within the legislature. If Chamal Rajapaksa were to exit as Speaker, the regime would be forced to nominate another senior SLFP member to the position and ensure he is elected.

President Rajapaksa, after nine years in presidential office, has grown deeply wary of the old SLFP membership and no longer trusts them to look after his interests in Parliament. He is far more inclined as the years wear on to trust MPs who have cast their lot with him, by crossing over from the UNP and other Opposition parties during the Rajapaksa tenure. With no loyalty to the SLFP as a party, having grown accustomed to traditional rivalry with the blues, these crossover MPs serve entirely at the President’s pleasure and are wholly dependent on him for positions and sheer survival within the hostile ranks.

President Rajapaksa’s faith in these MPs, many of whom hold top positions within his Government, is buoyed by the notion that he can count on their support even against the rising threat of the Chandrika Kumaratunga phenomenon. As rivals of Kumaratunga during her tenure, President Rajapaksa is confident of the UNP dissidents’ support in the event the former President attempts a comeback. Of his SLFP MPs, he remains less certain.

A coterie of President Rajapaksa’s senior ministers is strongly suspected of maintaining old connections with Kumaratunga, despite the fact that the former President’s movements are under close scrutiny. The fact that bribery charges have been brought against at least two of these senior SLFP members is no accident. The fear of Kumaratunga’s re-entry galvanising the SLFP old guard has also prompted the Rajapaksa Administration to hunt its former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, whose relationship with President Kumaratunga remains rock solid.

Samaraweera has long been seen as the eventual Kumaratunga envoy, who will be tasked with tapping into the disgruntlement of the SLFP core membership at the right time. Every opportunity it is granted to harass Samaraweera therefore, is an opportunity to be grabbed. A recent robbery at the MP’s home has been exploited by the State media and other private networks seeking to discredit Samaraweera to expose scandalous details about his personal life. The ongoing attacks, that make less-than-veiled references to Samaraweera’s sexuality, have gone so far as to suggest the MP could be arrested under Section 365A of the Penal Code for deviant sexual behaviour.

Samaraweera hits back

“My private life, though private, has never been a secret. My mother, my family and friends as well as most of my Parliamentary colleagues including my constituents whom I have represented with love and dedication for the last 25 years have appreciated my honesty and for never allowing my private life to get in the way of public service. However, today the Rajapaksa regime, in preparation for provincial elections to be followed by Presidential elections seems to be hell bent on destroying me using the confused hallucinations of a misguided youth,” Samaraweera said in a candid statement released to the press about the witch-hunt against him by the Government.

He notes that any attempt to invoke the archaic law would be a direct violation of the Commonwealth charter, whose current custodian is President Rajapaksa. “Under the Rajapaksa presidency, the country has been sucked into a black hole of intolerance, hypocrisy and despair. This in fact makes me more determined to fight against this dark and evil regime with more vigour and dedication in the months ahead,” Samaraweera vows.

Samaraweera remains one of the staunchest critics of the Rajapaksa regime and a liberal, whose worldview is a direct threat to the ideology and agendas of the current regime. Making an example of him, the Rajapaksa Administration believes, would deter both the opposition and members of the ruling coalition from taking arms against the regime in a hurry.

In fact, within the ruling coalition, experience and loyalty to the SLFP has ceased to matter. The only distinction within the UPFA membership now is whether a MP or minister is with the Rajapaksas or against them. Therefore President Rajapaksa remains much less concerned about the dilution of the SLFP as a result of the influx of UNP members than the rest of his party.

Unprecedented dynasty building

But despite the obvious tensions, the SLFP has stopped short of open rebellion, despite intense provocation, such as the murder of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. Some might say that the apathy of the SLFP membership against this rolling tide of Rajapaksa consolidation is natural for a party that has historically had a single family at the helm of its affairs. From 1951-2005, the SLFP was commandeered, both in Government and Opposition by the Bandaranaike family, that survived its founder S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Accustomed to the feudal state of affairs within the Party, the present status quo need not overly concern the core SLFP membership.

Yet fundamental differences remain. S.W.R.D.’s widow’s entry into politics was heralded by an untimely assassination. It took major persuasion before Sirimavo Bandaranaike would agree to allow her daughter Chandrika to contest against the UNP as the SLFP’s newest rising star. And Chandrika Kumaratunga made it a point to keep her children out of politics. The UNP has long been called the Uncle Nephew Party, because of the legacy of the Attygalle sisters that saw the rise of three key party leaders who were closely related to each other. But with the exception of D.S. Senanayake, no other UNP Leader, Prime Minister or President has actively nurtured the entry of their sons or daughters into political succession.

The ‘Uncle Nephew Party’ also saw the rise of the wildcard Ranasinghe Premadasa, who broke all feudal myths with his ascension as the second executive president of Sri Lanka hailing from the UNP. Not even Premadasa, who was an aberration in the UNP lineage, attempted to create a dynasty and if anything, stood strongly against the entry of his son, Sajith Premadasa into active politics.

Heavy cost

It is safe to say, therefore, that Sri Lanka is experiencing an unprecedentedly dynastic incumbency. The patience the public has shown with the Rajapaksa Administration’s dynasty-building stems largely from gratitude for their contribution to ending the war. The SLFP feels no such sense of gratitude or loyalty and the constant prioritisation of family over party continues to rankle. SLFP members are given low-profile ministries that are allocated meagre sums of money from the budget. With the regime monopolising projects, most Ministers find themselves bereft of funds to serve their electorates with the random and casual handouts and welfare programmes that ensure votes at an election.

The web page of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and a quick comparison with the web presence of Rajapaksa family members and projects are deeply symbolic of the fact that the ruling family’s meteoric rise has been at the cost of the SLFP. It may be the main party in Government, but the truth is that its members are little better off than the Opposition, destined to be sidelined and neglected as long as they put party before its current leadership.

So with the country gearing up for major national elections within the course of a year, Opposition activists are adamant that the end game battle will not be a traditional one. For years, presidential and parliamentary elections have been fought between the country’s two major political parties – the UNP and the SLFP. With tensions high within the ruling coalition and disillusionment growing within the SLFP, if the Opposition can muster a credible alliance of significant strength, the sparring parties in any major polls battle are likely to be the pro and anti Rajapaksa forces.

It is a war the Rajapaksa Administration knows is coming. For as long as it can, it will keep a lid on the tensions, pacify, pander and cajole. When he can juggle the factions within his coalition no more, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will permit the erosion, hoping against hope that he has sufficiently weakened their ranks and commands enough support from the defectors and ultra nationalists to pull him through.


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