The die is cast, finally. After months of speculation and dilly dallying, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa now appears to have embarked on a course of action he has not undertaken in a political career spanning almost fifty years: separate himself from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Rajapaksa’s decision last week to open an office at Nelum Mawatha in Battaramulla seemed to signal the next phase of his political life. A separate political entity is likely to emerge in the next few weeks, initially with the intention of contesting local government elections which, ironically, have not been called for just yet.
This sequence of events was always in the offing after Rajapaksa was sidelined following the ascension of President Maithripala Sirisena to the Presidency. However, initially at least, in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election there was hope among senior SLFPers that there could be a rapprochement between the two.
That however did not materialise despite the efforts of several party seniors. The reasons for this are manyfold: the smaller parties within the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) were constantly projecting Rajapaksa as the ‘real’ leader of the Alliance rather than the President and Rajapaksa himself was planning a return to Parliament at the general election and implicitly supporting calls for his endorsement as the prime ministerial candidate, a prospect the President didn’t relish.
That led to a series of decisions that were impulsive rather than the result of well-planned strategy: President Sirisena, besieged by his own party men, talking to the media to declare he would not appoint Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister and then appointing his loyalists instead of Rajapaksa’s nominees to Parliament through the National List, most of them being defeated candidates.
The Sirisena-Rajapaksa relationship has never been the same since then. The SLFP has found the lines of division between the two camps extending deep in to the fabric of the party both at the higher echelons as well as the grassroots. By virtue of being in power, President Sirisena commands the loyalty of a majority of party stalwarts including party officials, ministers, deputy ministers and most importantly, a majority of the party’s decision making body, the Central Committee.
There is a group of deputy ministers who owe the offices they hold to President Sirisena but are still in the Rajapaksa camp. Thus far, the President has refrained from taking action against them with the hope of winning them over eventually. Even so, with the detention of Yoshitha Rajapaksa at the Welikada prison, some of these deputies were emboldened enough to voice defiant sentiments in support of the Rajapaksas. That may well be the tipping point and the President could be compelled to act against them now.
Be that as it may, the Rajapaksa camp claims that it commands the support of the ‘people’ and the grassroots level network of the party. There is some element of justification in this claim. Firstly, that is due to Rajapaksa’s charisma and easy-going, people-friendly style of public relations that endeared him to the masses, especially the party faithful of the SLFP, during his long tenure as SLFP leader.
Secondly, during his period in office, Rajapaksa assiduously cultivated a network of loyalists at the grassroots level who he then shrewdly inducted into the lower levels of the political system as representatives of local government institutions. These representatives swear by Rajapaksa, owe their political life to him and are likely to fight or fall with him.
Always the astute politician, Rajapaksa is therefore very aware that with an army of local government representatives supporting him, his best opportunity to demonstrate a strong electoral performance comes in the form of the upcoming local government elections. Indeed, in the Rajapaksa camp, the mood is upbeat and while they readily realise that any division in the SLFP will only help the United National Party (UNP), they believe they can upstage the mainstream SLFP, pushing it into third place. Only time and the ultimate test- elections itself- will tell whether such optimism is misplaced.
What many forget to factor into this calculation is another issue that will come in to play: the system of elections. The next poll will not be held on an exclusively proportional representation (PR) system basis but will be a hybrid system between the PR and first-past-the-post systems.
This method will allow the party with the highest number of votes to have a relatively stable majority in a local government body, again a factor that could go in favour of the UNP if they emerge as the single largest party at the elections.
If the Rajapaksa faction is plotting a return to power using the local government elections as a stepping stone, they are likely to face several obstacles. At the most recent meeting of the SLFP’s Central Committee, President Sirisena made it clear that he would not indulge in the same level of tolerance in dealing with dissenters and disciplinary action would be taken against them. Therefore, expulsion from the SLFP looms ahead.
SLFP (S) and SLFP (M) factions
Such measures could initially be taken against members of local government bodies who have gone public pledging allegiance to the Rajapaksa faction.
Thereafter the whip would crack on dissident deputy ministers. That would be the real test for Rajapaksa: to determine who would continue to remain with him while running the risk of disciplinary action and expulsion from the party. Indeed, Rajapaksa seems to have foreseen this possibility already because he is now justifying the creation of a new party asking, “If all my loyalists are expelled, they need a place to go to”.
Such crises are not new to the SLFP. In late ’70s and early ’80s, in the aftermath of the SLFP’s heavy defeat at the hands of J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP and the subsequent deprivation of Ms. Sirima Bandaranaike’s civic rights, Ms. Bandaranaike resisted attempts by Maithripala Senanayake to take over the leadership of the party. The SLFP split into SLFP (S) and SLFP (M) factions and a legal tussle ensued between the two groups for control over the party’s headquarters at Darley Road.
Similarly, in the early ’90s, there was a tussle between the Bandaranaike siblings, Anura and Chandrika Kumaratunga for the party leadership. Anura had served long and hard while the party was in the opposition and was staking his claiming while Chandrika had left with husband Vijaya Kumaratunga to form the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) and then left the country with her two young children after Vijaya was assassinated.
Nevertheless, Ms. Bandaranaike preferred Chandrika Kumaratunga to succeed her and in that tussle, Mahinda Rajapaksa was firmly on Anura’s side, which in many ways was the beginning of the resentment between Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa. After the leadership mantle went to Kumaratunga, Anura quit the SLFP in disgust, joined the UNP and served briefly as a minister under President D. B. Wijetunga.
There is no doubt that the current crisis in the SLFP is of similar proportions, if not greater. While the cracks in the party appeared shortly after Rajapaksa’s defeat in January 2015, the party has been held together due to a combination of circumstances that includes President Sirisena’s hesitancy to go for the jugular and Rajapaksa’s reluctance to take the plunge. Soon, such inhibitions will be cast aside. Senior SLFPers as well as long standing voters of the party can take heart from the fact that the party did recover from past crises and remained in office for almost twenty years from 1994 to 2015, barring a brief period in 2001 when the UNP formed a government. Even today, the President of the country is from the SLFP, albeit elected mostly from UNP votes.
For better or for worse, the SLFP now seems on the brink of a major break up, unless one faction throws in the towel- and that is unlikely at this stage. One can only hope that history will repeat itself and when all these political convulsions reach their conclusion, the SLFP would revert to its former glory in the fullness of time because Sri Lanka needs not only a strong government, it needs a strong opposition too