As the Government of ‘national unity’ celebrated the completion of its first year in office last week, President Maithripala Sirisena was grappling with a problem that preceded his presidency.
For nine years, while Mahinda Rajapaksa held the party reins and the presidency, the SLFP was in quiet crisis. Party seniors were sidelined and increasingly disgruntled. The SLFP brand had become synonymous with the Rajapaksa brand. In the Rajapaksa-SLFP the ruling family occupied all the space, all the resources and all the limelight. Fully aware of the growing discontent among party seniors, the former President drew his family in closer. His circle of trust included the party’s newer faces, a vast majority of them former UNP members who had switched allegiances during the Rajapaksa presidency.
That simmering discontent erupted into full-scale rebellion when Sirisena, a member of the party’s old guard, allegedly dined on hoppers with the former President on the night of 20 November 2014 and quit his Government the next day. Barely 24 hours after President Rajapaksa declared snap presidential elections the Opposition had pulled off a coup, stealing the incumbent President’s own Health Minister and party General Secretary to run as main challenger. Five other Government MPs quit the ruling coalition, precipitating a spate of defections and erosions of support from within the parliamentary coalition and at grassroots level. Many SLFP MPs promised to follow in Sirisena’s wake, in a bid to weaken the former President during his re-election campaign.
After the first shock of the defections however, the Rajapaksa family rallied, launching hectic negotiations led by former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, to convince party members to stay. In the final tally, the UPFA lost hundreds of local Government representatives to the Sirisena campaign, many of whom worked with the UNP to ensure an Opposition victory. But most SLFP Parliamentarians got cold feet and cast their lot with the incumbent.
Allegiances shifted dramatically again on 9 January 2015, once President Sirisena was declared the winner in the presidential election. Some of Sirisena’s most vicious critics on the campaign trail threw their support behind the new President and were rewarded with ministerial portfolios in the minority Government he formed in the wake of his election.
Over the next 18 months, SLFP allegiances continued to shift like sand. Eager to tap into the 5.8 million vote bank that Rajapaksa had mustered in the January 2015 election, scores of SLFP members, ignoring President Sirisena’s objections, strongly backed the former President’s bid for the premiership in August 2015. A disgusted President Sirisena refused to campaign on SLFP platforms during the parliamentary polls, but he held fast to the party leadership, striking back against Rajapaksa-led UPFA campaign at crucial times in the run up to the August poll.
The UNF victory at the Parliamentary election shifted the tide of SLFP support in Sirisena’s favour again. Having secured their seats by joining the Rajapaksa bandwagon during the poll, sections of the SLFP, including Susil Premajayanth and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who had conspired to ensure Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nomination on the UPFA list, defected to the Sirisena camp to become stakeholders in the Government of National Consensus formed following the election.
The rest would take the lead from UPFA constituent party leaders Dinesh Gunewardane and Wimal Weerawansa and remain within the Rajapaksa faction of the UPFA. Thus the ‘Joint Opposition’ (JO) was born, styling itself as a de facto opposition to the Unity Government in Parliament and acting as the former President’s proxies to push his policy agendas.
Soft on party discipline
For 18 months, President Sirisena has tried to use his position as Party Chairman to wrest control of the SLFP. Hours before the 17 August 2015 poll, he sacked the General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA – then Yapa and Premajayantha – and appointed loyalists Duminda Dissanayake and Wishwa Warnapala to those two positions. He has also proved that there is virtually no length to which he will not go to reinforce his position in the SLFP.
Sirisena has braved fierce criticism and abandoned good governance pledges to elevate some of the worst scoundrels of the previous regime within the party. The appointments of Nimal Lanza who was being investigated for drug smuggling and more recently Hambantota’s pistol-toting Mayor Eraj Fernando as party organisers were particularly damaging to a President who promised to take a hardline on corruption and abuse of power.
Yet, in spite of the compromises he has made to reinforce his position, President Sirisena’s hold on the SLFP remains tenuous. When it came down to neutralising the political force that is Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Sirisena has repeatedly faltered. This hesitancy has paved the way for the Rajapaksa movement, as it were, to loom large over the Government led by President Sirisena.
While hope remains alive for a Rajapaksa-led future, the SLFP membership teeters on the fence, ready to fall in with whichever faction is likely to prevail. Afraid of presiding over a major split in his party, President Sirisena has stayed his hand on disciplinary inquiries and suspensions, as SLFP Members of the ‘Joint Opposition’ railed against his Government and flouted party orders to attend rallies and marches led by Rajapaksa.
The former President himself is a member of the SLFP, and therefore bound to abide by party dictates. But President Sirisena’s soft approach with rebels within his Party has emboldened sections of the SLFP aligning with the ‘Joint Opposition’ spurring them on to ever more disruptive action against their Party Leader and his President.Over the past year and a half, SLFP members have openly defied their party leader and suffered no consequences. Such defiance on the part of SLFP Members would have been unthinkable during the Rajapaksa years or even when former President Chandrika Kumaratunga held the party reins,
Last week it appeared that President Sirisena’s patience was finally running out. The Joint Opposition Paada Yatra and the subsequent antics in Parliament when the Government was attempting to pass legislation to set up a permanent office to trace and investigate missing persons seemed to suggest that the pro-Rajapaksa group was stepping up the tempo. Between now and November, the Government has several pieces of key legislation to enact, including the unpopular VAT bill and the 2017 Budget. With 51 MPs, the Joint Opposition has been unable to block or defeat legislation, but it has shown considerable skill in disrupting or delaying legislative business.
Daring the Rajapaksa faction to go ahead and form the new party they have been threatening, the President unceremoniously sacked several high profile members of the Joint Opposition, who had continued to hold office as electoral organisers in the SLFP. Several others, including Dulles Alahapperuma and Bandula Gunewardane resigned in protest of the move, while more members of the Joint Opposition are likely to follow suit. Party Organisers are allocated funds from the SLFP for polls campaigns and work in the electorate. The sacking of Joint Opposition members from organiser positions will deprive them of these funds and also prevent pro-Rajapaksa rebels from commandeering SLFP cadres at the grassroots level.
The President’s decisive actions of the past week may be part of a calculation that the Joint Opposition, now finding itself forced to act, also appears to be making. A SLFP or UPFA splinter group may successfully divide the party’s vote base between them at local government elections. But what is more certain is that it will give the United National Party a major electoral advantage over the SLFP. Supporters of splintered political parties, disillusioned and torn in loyalty, tend to stay away from the polling booth on election day. Party workers will be divided and disorganised. So while the new pro Rajapaksa front will garner a considerable portion of SLFP votes, whether this share will be able to surpass the UNP support and allow them to set up local government administrations is another question entirely. This will give the Joint Opposition pause, as it plots its next move, and may be the motivation behind the decision to form a new ‘front’ rather than register a new political party for the time being.
Secondly, any new party formed by the Joint Opposition will face a massive leadership crisis from inception. Dinesh Gunewardane and Wimal Weerawansa, leaders of the MEP and the NFF respectively are both SLFP outsiders. Basil Rajapaksa, once the party’s National Organiser is wildly unpopular and has become a powerful force of division even within the Joint Opposition ranks. Dulles Alahapperuma, a SLFP stalwart continues to hold considerable sway within the pro-Rajapaksa faction, and remains the only viable candidate to lead a pro-Rajapaksa front.
The Namal factor
There is of course, the former President himself. Since his defeat in the presidential election last January, Mahinda Rajapaksa has allowed his loyalists within the UPFA to fight all his battles. Even after he contested and won a seat in the August 2015 Parliamentary election, the ex-President has shown little inclination to participate in the business of Parliament, whether to make policy statements or oppose Government legislation.
During contentious days in the Legislature, Rajapaksa is not even in attendance. But the JO dances for him, in the House like puppets on a string, pushing his nationalist agenda and positions. In every instance, Rajapaksa is careful to be seen as supportive of the JO faction, but only as its spiritual leader rather than an activist in the cause. If the JO eventually breaks ranks with the SLFP, the Kurunegala District MP and former President will most probably stay behind.
His motivations are as simple as they have always been. He must put the interests of his family. For nine years, Mahinda Rajapaksa groomed his eldest son Namal for succession, as President of the Republic and the leader of the SLFP. When it comes to securing his son’s political future, the dream is still very much alive and Mahinda Rajapaksa will do nothing to endanger Namal Rajapaksa’s future within the SLFP. He certainly will not sacrifice Namal Rajapaksa’s chance to lead the SLFP for the sake of the lost boys of the Joint Opposition, who have no hope of being nominated on the SLFP ticket at a future election. It is the Weerawansas and the Gammanpilas who need to strike out independently in order to protect their interests electorally. But their success depends almost entirely on the former President’s decision to stay or go.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has been here before. When the Maithripala Senanayake faction tried to cleave the SLFP in the 1980s, Rajapaksa faced similar choices. Senanayake at the time was strongly backing Anura Bandaranaike for the leadership of the party, after SLFP Leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike was stripped of her civic rights under the J.R. Jayewardene administration. Fast friends with Anura Bandaranaike at the time, Rajapaksa backed the SLFP (M) faction in principle, but never compromised his own position within the party. In the end game, Anura Bandaranaike was suspended from the SLFP, while Rajapaksa remained in the party and went on to become a Minister in the Kumaratunga cabinet and subsequently Opposition Leader and Prime Minister.
He will likely follow a same pattern in 2016, and ensure his eldest son does the same. There is no path to political leadership in Sri Lanka without the backing of major political party. If he is to realise the dream of presidency one day, Namal Rajapaksa must remain a member of the SLFP and his loyalty to the party must be unswerving. The Rajapaksas will permit the JO to rail and rant and threaten because it currently serves their personal interest to undermine the Government. But at the moment of truth, it is more than likely that they will choose to be true-blue SLFPers.
President Sirisena, who has watched the SLFP rebellion and Rajapaksa’s role in it play out once before, seems to comprehend the likely trajectory of this latest party crisis. The fact that the SLFP remains to this day, an extremely feudal party will also play to the President’s advantage as he tries to neutralise the JO threat. Party members tend to adopt an almost servile attitude towards the leadership, a trend that has continued in President Sirisena’s time, with MPs worshiping at his feet as they accept new appointments.
As evidenced after the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2015, and their attitudes after President Rajapaksa ousted and sidelined former President Kumaratunga from the party leadership, SLFP members tend to back the leader in power, rather than set much store by loyalty to a predecessor. If SLFP members in the Joint Opposition fail to match actions to all the sound and fury and choose to remain with their party, the pro-Rajapaksa constituents of the UPFA will find their numbers dwindling, a factor that will further erode its electoral chances.
Undoubtedly then, President Sirisena has much less to lose by cracking the whip, even at this late stage.
For too long, averting crisis within the SLFP has been a primary preoccupation for President Sirisena. Since January 2015, the party has gone from crisis to crisis, distracting the President from key national issues including reconciliation and constitution-building. Undue SLFP influence repeatedly causes the President to second-guess his own Government’s progressive policies including the decision to sign the UN’s anti-landmine treaty, the co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council resolution and more recently, the enactment of the Office of Missing Persons Act.
SLFP considerations have overridden national ones as he reneged on his own pledges to keep his party intact. Perhaps the better option would have been to allow it to fail, in the hope of one day rebuilding the SLFP as a less regressive, more inclusive political party. Had President Sirisena chosen to act decisively much earlier, and commenced a purge of pro-Rajapaksa elements from high offices within his party, the SLFP may have already been on the path of evolution.
Most republicans should welcome the emergence of a strong, progressive SLFP, one that does not carry nationalist baggage from the Rajapaksa era and believes in a pluralistic, multi-cultural Sri Lanka. The JO is a less than ideal opposition force. Its nationalist positions and determination to oppose for the sake of opposing, makes it a far-fetched and irresponsible choice as an alternative government.
A reformed SLFP would be an entirely different story. Already, as partners in Governance, there have been glimpses of the SLFP’s potential to keep a check on the excesses of the UNP led administration. In the Central Bank Governor crisis, the SLFP old guard adopted a principled position, deftly outmanoeuvring the UNP as ‘champions’ of good governance by urging the President to refrain from reappointing Arjuna Mahendran to lead the financial regulator at the end of his term.
This opposition within is crucial to ensuring the UNF stays the course, and ensures that they must continue to compete to remain custodians of the 8 January mandate. And if the SLFP continues to play this watchman role, and reinvents itself as an inclusive political force, under the stewardship of President Sirisena the party will have an opportunity to present itself as a credible alternative to the UNP in 2020.
Barring a major political transformation in the country that will turn back the clock, this is an alternative that the Joint Opposition can never be given its propensity to defend and embrace the corrupt and its hardline positions on reconciliation and the ethnic question that no longer tallies with the current political ethos.
If he continues to act decisively as party leader, and throws off the hesitancy that has paralysed him over the past 18 months, President Sirisena may even find himself equal to the task of saving the SLFP from itself.
In the meantime, he has three years left to build a presidential legacy. The time has come to get on with it.