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A new path?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 10 October 2019 01:33

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) backing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not come as a surprise to many. For months now, negotiations between the two parties have focused on hammering out a compromise that would provide support for Rajapaksa. On the cards was the political survival of both the party and its leader President Maithripala Sirisena but the question remains whether either goal has been achieved. 

It is obvious that the SLPP stands to gain from the agreement, which is to be signed today, where the SLFP will formally pledge support to the SLPP. Rajapaksa will need the estimated 4-5 million vote base of the SLFP to offset the limited minority support he is expected to gain at the polls. 

So far the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as well as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) of Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen have indicated support for National Democratic Front (NDF) presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa with at best second-tier minority politicians backing Rajapaksa. So it is in the SLPP’s interest to get the SLFP behind them. 

In addition, the policies of the SLPP duplicates large chunks of the SLFP platform while mixing it with Rajapaksa populist policies that gained prominence during the nine years Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power. It brings together a mix of protectionist policies, a strong agrarian tilt and State capture of business and mixes it with unified political power in the Executive and not within institutions.

At Rajapaksa’s inaugural rally in Anuradhapura, the focus was on loan write-offs for farmers, stipulated prices, fertiliser subsidies and public sector jobs. He also pledged to release any Armed Forces personnel who were remanded under the present administration the very next day after becoming President. It is an almost carbon copy rendition of the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ policy framework seen earlier.  

In such an atmosphere, the SLFP will struggle to maintain a distinctive political ideology. Clearly SLFP parliamentarians feel that joining the SLPP is their best bet to survive the upcoming Presidential Election. Bereft of public support to field its own candidate and unable to support the United National Party (UNP), which is its ideological opposite, the SLFP had to throw its lot in with the SLPP. 

President Sirisena, by deciding to remain neutral, is hoping that once the Presidential Election is over he will be able to rebuild the party to have a stronger stake at the upcoming Parliamentary Election. But he runs the danger of having his party overrun and its key parliamentarians and loyalists lured away by the SLPP in the meantime. 

Party leaderships operate much like a feudal system. The person at the top has to ensure the loyalty of key party members by giving them quid-pro-quo opportunities. Enough parliamentary seats must be retained, Cabinet seats given and influential positions doled out regularly to keep them in line. If they think another party can provide them with better positions, the leader runs the risk of losing his place and in this instance what makes him relevant. The SLFP for decades has been at the forefront of Sri Lankan politics. Now it faces a battle for survival and its leader a reckoning with history to decide his legacy.     

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