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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

President Kumaratunga and President Sirisena – Winning the Battle for the SLFP

By Harim Peiris –

President Maithripala Sirisena‘s election victory at the head of the National Democratic Front (NDF), was an amazing democratic exercise of a beleaguered Opposition which only a few weeks before the elections, no one would have believed would ever be a politically viable alternative to the mighty Rajapaksa regime, came from behind to topple a deeply entrenched and authoritarian regime. The credit for the victory and this amazing turn of events has to largely go to the political foresight and adroit hard work of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who quite early on realised that the simple but near impossible formula to defeat the Rajapakse regime, was a united opposition, a divided regime and a high turnout. It was President Kumaratunga who had the relationships and the political trust of both Ranil Wickramesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena to craft the deal that led to the formation of the National Democratic Front. The rest is now history.

The election defeat was not even considered a possibility by the inner circle of the Rajapakse regime, including the brothers and propagandists Dallas Alapperuma and Wimal Weerawansa. They forgot or disregarded to their peril a key teaching of Buddhism, that nothing is permanent in life. The Rajapaksa regime, acted like it was a monarchy organising a coronation rather than a political party contesting an election. Leading lights of the regime issued dire threats against those that dare oppose them. President Rajapaksa himself spoke darkly of the famous ‘files” and violence was unleashed upon the Maithri campaign, with a number of meetings attacked and sadly one fatality. The NDF’s campaign hardly had a grassroots presence except in a few places and was completely outnumbered in terms of airtime on TV. But a mature electorate watched the Rajapakse antics quietly and delivered their verdict last week on 8th January, which resulted in only forty five (45%) to Mahinda Rajapakse and over fifty one (51%) to Maithripala Sirisena, now president of Sri Lanka.

A possible violent response to the defeat

The initial response of the Rajapaksa regime to imminent defeat was hardly democratic. According to former Maithri campaign spokesman and current Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s formal complaint to the CID, the Rajapaksa camp facing the inevitability of an electoral defeat conspired to thwart the democratic will of the people through the use of military force. A week or so before the election, there was a massive military troop deployment plan drawn up by a section of the security establishment by passing the normal channels and without the knowledge of the Commissioner of Elections or the concurrence of the Inspector General of Police. However, the democratic elements and wiser counsel in the state apparatus asserted itself, especially in the person of the Elections Commissioner and the IGP, who denied any request for military deployment and thwarted the attempt. The complaint to the CID by the new Foreign Minister is that his predecessor and an inner coterie of Rajapaksa loyalists were present during the plans to thwart the election results. The military’s lack of support for any illegal and extra constitutional measures meant that the Rajapakse family was on an early morning flight back to Hambantota.

Parliamentary politics and SLFP

It was apparently not clear to the inner coterie of the Rajapaksa’s that with their defeat at the polls the center of political gravity had shifted away from the Rajapaksa’s and towards the Sirisena, Wickramasinghe, Kumaratunga combine. If this wasn’t apparent due to the results, the post election defection of yet more SLFPers to President Sirisena resulted in the parties of the NDF now enjoying a simple majority in the parliament. However, parliamentary polls are to be held within three months (or at the end of the one hundred days) and it has to be a particularly politically fool hardly exercise of anyone to hitch their wagon to a fading Rajapakse brand.

The breaking news as this article is being penned is that Mahinda Rajapaksa is prepared concede the Chairmanship of the SLFP to Maithripala Sirisena, acknowledging perhaps the inevitability of the political trend. This situation, where President Sirisena controls the SLFP, actively supported by former President Kumaratunga and the UNP led by Ranil Wickramasinghe, promises the unique opportunity a truly national government or a grand coalition of the two principal political formations in the country towards implementing a nation building agenda. There is much to do to rebuild and repair the damage which the Rajapakse years did to the fabric of a democratic and free society in Sri Lanka, including the judiciary.

Electoral Reforms and General Election

The one-hundred day programme of the National Democratic Front (NDF) promises electoral reforms and the introduction of a mixed electoral system, where there will be voting in constituencies and a “top up” of the seats proportionately to parties which poll higher than their seat allocation. The NDF is well advised to try and contest as an alliance, denying nomination to the tainted elements of the previous regime and exploring a grandnational governing coalition which works towards creating a genuinely new Sri Lanka.


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