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Political bargains

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Political bargaining has begun between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), with both sides attempting to put together an alliance to contest the upcoming elections together. The conjoining of the two parties makes sense, given that they need each other to compete against the United National Party (UNP), but the road ahead is far from smooth. 

For starters, even though President Maithripala Sirisena may appear to be the weaker of the two leaders, in terms of popularity, he nonetheless holds several powerful cards. It has been clear for months that President Sirisena wants SLPP de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to back him to run for a second term. The writing has been on the wall since the constitutional crisis was triggered on 26 October, when President Sirisena removed sitting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

The 52-day political crisis is still fresh in everyone’s mind, and the upshot of it was the ending of the coalition Government and the establishment of a United National Party (UNP) Government. The exodus of Parliamentarians from the SLFP to SLPP started right after Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister in October, but after the Supreme Court order that upheld the 19th Amendment in December, they had no choice but to remain in no man’s land between the SLFP and SLPP. 

On the strength of the SLFP, Rajapaksa became the Opposition Leader - a post he largely owes to President Sirisena deciding to not dismiss the Parliamentarians who obtained SLPP membership from the SLFP. Since the SLPP was formed after the 2015 Parliamentary Elections, it is not a party that is represented in the House. This means that if President Sirisena, for whatever reason, should chose to look more closely at the MPs who have aligned themselves with Rajapaksa, those Parliamentarians could lose their seats. This includes Rajapaksa himself and his son, as well as many other key loyalists. 

President Sirisena also has Executive powers on his side, which could be used to assert his power in a multitude of ways. In addition, if talks between the SLFP and SLPP are not successful, there are signs that President Sirisena would make a go of it by himself. He has already been engaged in restricting the party and appointing new organizers, as well as recruiting more organisations to form a SLFP coalition. So it is clear that he has every intention of running, even by himself, which would splinter the vote base that the SLFP and SLPP has traditionally banked on, giving the UNP an edge. 

However, voices from within the SLPP have insisted that they should have the freedom to field their own candidate. Given that Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot run for a third term and since abolishment of the Executive Presidency still seems a long shot, given the shortage of time before an election must be called, an alternative candidate is needed. There are several candidates from the Rajapaksa camp, as well as President Sirisena, but the SLPP has so far emphasized that Rajapaksa should be allowed to decide who the candidate will be. 

The SLFP and SLPP need each other. But navigating past these landmines and finding a political compromise, along with a candidate both parties can be happy with, and have acceptance from voters will be far from easy.

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