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Ranil’s tactical success, Mahinda’s strategic victory


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“Who will make the Revolution? The people, with or without the Communist party!’

 – Fidel Castro

Who will defeat the UNP? The people, with or without the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. That was proved at the local government election and will be proved at every forthcoming election up to and including next year’s presidential and subsequent parliamentary election.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe scored a tactical victory in the power struggle with President Sirisena. He won it on terrain that was favorable to President Sirisena. This means that in the art of infighting and manipulation, Ranil Wickremesinghe has no peer in Lankan politics. What of Mahinda Rajapaksa who won the battle for the SLFP vote base, one may well ask. Mahinda did not win that battle by the art of infighting. He won it by taking the battle outside, to the people, and by reposing his trust in the people. Ranil has won the battle in the corridors and the backrooms. Mahinda won the ground game.

What makes it tactical is that it comes on top of an unprecedented defeat in the local government elections at the hands of a political party which is only a few months old, and a political phenomenon—the MR comeback—which is only three years old, if you date it back to the Nugegoda February 2015 mass mobilisation. What makes it tactical rather than strategic is also the fact that the only change that has happened at the level of mass popularity is the UNP’s drop by 13% and 1.3 million votes. At least the official SLFP has the factor of a split to blame. The UNP remains intact and the loss was therefore not the result of a split but rather of a drastic reduction of support at the ground level.

Strategic victory

Why then do I say that Mahinda Rajapaksa won a strategic victory? Firstly, he and his brother Basil have repeated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s and D.A. Rajapaksa’s achievement but in a compressed timeframe. The founders of the SLFP built a third force that swept to the top, but it did not do so on its first electoral outing. The SLFP was formed in 1951, contested the election of 1952 but could not displace either the UNP or the Left, which remained the main Opposition. The SLFP broke through at the next general election in 1956. By contrast, the Pohottuwa beat the UNP, the official SLFP and of course the JVP, at its very first electoral outing, mere months after formation.

Mahinda Rajapaksa not only holds the largest chunk of votes in the country (45%) but he has also probably jumped the 50% mark by now, thanks to the way in which the UNP won the recent power struggle. That struggle has been won by the UNP at the expense of President Sirisena.

The President’s power base is the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He has no other political power base, only an institutional one. That power base is being drastically undermined.

That undermining was because its votes were haemorrhaging to the breakaway Pohottuwa. That haemorrhage was because the Sri Lanka Freedom Party was in alliance as a subordinate partner with the UNP. 

The breakaway organisation was the natural result and reaction of the SLFP shifting drastically from its traditional role as moderate nationalist opposition to the UNP.

It was a subordinate partner of the UNP in government because the SLFPers who crossed over to the project of a unity government with the UNP could not carry their party with them. They could neither convince the majority of their fellow MPs nor their vote base. 

The President’s 

need for action

The SLFP’s vote base was repelled by the policies and profile of the UNP as it was led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe was taking the Government in a direction that was anathema to SLFP voters.

Therefore, the official SLFP failed to retain the bulk of their base. Thus, it was weakened at this last election and by direct extension the President’s powerbase was weakened. Therefore, the President had to act.

That action initially took the form of seeking to persuade the UNP to drop Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister because he was toxic to the SLFP base. The President was willing to stay with the alliance with the UNP and the SLFP was willing to remain within it provided the main centre of neoliberalism and anti-nationalism, the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, was surgically removed.

When the UNP stayed with Ranil and he eyeballed it with the President, the latter finally blinked. What happens next—or rather, now—is predictable, almost inevitable.

Though the Chandrika faction of the SLFP, supported by some who came from the UNP and were always UNP at heart, will remain within the Government, some SLFP MPs may not. They may constitute the second wave of resistors, after the first wave that stayed with the August 2015 mandate against a coalition with Ranil’s UNP. The official SLFP may well suffer its second split, this time a smaller one, but one which will leave Mahinda Rajapaksa with a larger number of SLFP MPs than before 10 February. 

In terms of MPs, Mahinda is not back to the day of the August 2015 election, at which he won 96, but sooner rather than later he certainly will have more than the 50-plus he had after 44 SLFPers defected to the unity coalition with the UNP and the 56 he has now.

Shift in the voter base

More important in the strategic character of Mahinda’s success, is the shift in the vote base. Though the number of SLFPers who may cross over might be smaller than those who remain in government, what will almost certainly happen is that the bulk of the 13% of the SLFP vote which stayed away from Mahinda’s camp will switch to it. 

That switch will come either with the move of the SLFP MPs from Government to Opposition, or simply by a shift of allegiance, as the official SLFP leadership has shown itself unwilling or unable to make good on its signals of dumping the UNP and forming an SLFP government or at the very least of retrenching Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. 

The ensuing disappointment will shift a significant part of the official SLFP’s 13% vote to the Opposition. This 13% was basically an anti-UNP vote which stayed with the SLFP leadership because those voters gave him the benefit of the doubt especially after his critique of the UNP over the bond scam. All that is over now with the imminent formation of a government in which President Sirisena is weaker, his SLFP’s strength is smaller and the UNP’s grip is greater.

The shift of much of the residual SLFP vote to the Opposition, accompanied by or accompanying several SLFP MPs, will mean that three years after Nugegoda, Mahinda now has vaulted the magic 50% mark of popular support. 

This puts him in a situation better than he was when he lost in January 2015. Thus Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s tactical victory in the eyeballing or hand wrestling with President Sirisena would have meant a strategic enhancement for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The factor of the discrediting and thereby weakening of the Sirisena-ist SLFP at the expense of the rightist UNP can only help the populist Opposition which had already won the 10 February election. Either the moderate centre shifts to or slipstreams behind the populist Pohottuwa/JO, or the Pohottuwa/JO absorbs and becomes the moderate centre.

The final factor that helps Mahinda and enhances his strategic gains are the policies that a predominantly UNP government is almost certain to impose or rather, continue to impose on the people.

 The result will be observable when the Provincial Council elections are held—and the later that is, the more pronounced Mahinda’s victory will be, as we saw with the delayed local government elections. And then comes the Presidential election next year, followed by the parliamentary one. It is all visible on the horizon, and the trend — the “real dynamic” as Trotsky termed it – is clear.


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