As Local Government Elections approach us, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) will be tried in untested waters to determine their political future. However, having delayed the Local Government polls for over two years, the future of SLFP appears bleak and on the verge of political demise.
The presidential election in 2015 was the most successful political conspiracy to oust an incumbent President in Sri Lankan history, yet nobody gained more than the United National Party (UNP). They are the hawks that almost always ended up second to SLFP. Their only chance of victory accompanied a split in the SLFP ranks which they achieved in 2015, and ever since, they have learned not to cede power easily.
In 2015, the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe knew better than to contest the elections. After 20 years of election defeat under his leadership, Wickremesinghe aimed at a modified target. They chose to support a candidate who belonged to the SLFP who betrayed his party leadership and party principles which lay in the Pancha Maha Balavegaya. However, soon after he attained power, he upheld his promises to the UNP while holding the SLFP to ransom.
This was sufficient for the UNP to capitalize. Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed his new role as Prime Minister under a vastly UNP-based cabinet. Prior to the 2015 elections, the UNP was fast becoming economically drained. Therefore, taking over the Cabinet infused fresh funding from the private sector into the UNP. The corruption which came amid the Bond Scam was concealed in the political agenda. Nonetheless, the infusion of fresh funding resulted in enriching the political image of the UNP once again.
Even the victory of Maithripala Sirisena as President in 2015 was seen as a victory for the UNP more than a victory of the SLFP. It meant that every attempt made by the new President to hijack the political leadership of the SLFP was seen as an attempt to break the SLFP. Every attempt he made to induce the supporters to sway from a Mahinda Rajapaksa view to a different view appeared to the voters as a UNP endorsed view. Despite his own feeble attempts to revive the party in his own way, he was fast failing to convince the people.
The biggest problem with Sirisena is his lack of support from party stalwarts. While he had managed to convince a few to remain with him in Government, he had failed to win their confidence. Only a few Parliamentarians of the calibre of Duminda Dissanayake, Faiszer Musthapha and Mahinda Amaraweera would utter the name of the incumbent President with their chests held up. Other SLFP stalwarts such as Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha among others prefer to promote the SLFP but would generally refrain from lionizing the President.
It is reliably learned that Sirisena maintains only a small group of confidantes, while he keeps most other party members in the dark. This mode of leadership has failed to draw support from his own party members, especially, when accompanied by lack of trust. Too many political decisions were taken during the two years of Sirisena rule to silence the Party stalwarts and to instil powers in the confidantes. For example, the sudden decision to strip Anura Yapa and Premajayantha of their positions as General Secretary of the SLFP and the UPFA, proved to be ground shaking move on the short run but a vastly detrimental move on the long run.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Maithripala Sirisena has neither stood firmly with the UNP nor the SLFP, which has caused him to be stranded in the middle. For example, when a new Constitution was proposed by the UNP, Sirisena undertook to form a Constitutional Assembly of the whole House, which may even border unconstitutionality. Yet, again when the Bond scam was being investigated, the UNP accused him of purposefully slinging mud at them to cause people to lose trust in the UNP. These, among many other reasons, are why many from among the people have referred to Maithripala Sirisena as a leader without a backbone.
Even in the case financial frauds and other instances of corruption in the previous regime, no person has been arrested thus far. All of those who placed trust in the Government to make arrests have hence lost that confidence. However, it is not merely financial frauds and corruption scandals, but also the murders of Wasim Thajudeen and Journalists such as Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Ekneligoda which continue to remain pending in Courts. Furthermore, racism continues to persist, and the Government continues to ignore it.
The people have found fault with the Government for its failures mostly, but a message has been successfully inculcated in the minds of most people that the failures of the Government are due to the inability of both parties to coexist in a common Government. At this juncture, the UNP appears to be full and formidable, while the SLFP appears broken and shattered. If the supporters of the Government were asked to vote between the two parties, they would ideally choose the UNP.
SLFP Vote Bank
While the SLFP has had a very strong unrelenting vote bank in the past, the confidence of the voters have been shattered after a string of betrayals and political melodrama was displayed to confer leadership in the Party upon Maithripala Sirisena. Up until 2015, the irrefutable leader of the SLFP was Mahinda Rajapaksa. To the people, Rajapaksa was ousted from leadership through a conspiracy and Sirisena was the puppet that betrayed the party.
On the other hand, since Maithripala Sirisena became President, he has tried his very best to please the minority vote banks. In particular, Sirisena had exceeded general boundaries to please the Tamil masses. While he did seem appealing to the minorities, he was purportedly tapping into the voter bases of the UNP and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The problem however, was that the voter bases of UNP and TNA are not acclimatised to become SLFP supporters.
It is therefore felt that the previous SLFP vote bank has now split between the Mahinda Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Maithripala Sirisena led SLFP. Due to the enormous amount of political melodrama that has been displayed in the past, people have generally favoured Mahinda Rajapaksa to be the undisputed leader and the face of the SLFP.
Meanwhile the ‘hand’ symbol of the SLFP, which will be utilized by a Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP, has widely perceived by the SLFP voter bases to be a hijacked symbol.
Furthermore, the SLFP voter bases have become acquainted with the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa sits in the opposition and stands with the SLPP, and not with the Maithripala Sirisena led SLFP. Therefore, it is widely felt that the SLFP voter bases will opt to vote for the SLPP, which will campaign with the ‘Flower Bud’ symbol.
Meanwhile, Maithripala Sirisena had drawn support from the UNP and TNA during the presidential election, but they shall be compelled to part ways as they all campaign for elections separately. If Maithripala Sirisena had hoped he could tap into their vote banks, he may have noted by now that the UNP and TNA had already taken steady precautions to differentiate between the SLFP and UNP. In fact, every victory for the Government was hailed as a victory for the UNP including those that belong to Maithripala Sirisena alone.
What next for SLFP?
The Sirisena led SLFP now remain stranded. They attempted to reach out to the Mahinda-led faction but they failed to reach a consensus. Therefore, they can only look in the direction of the UNP for support. They shall have to stand alone at the forthcoming elections and hope that the people rally around them still.
As the SLFP voters strayed into the camps of the SLPP over the last year, more SLFP members displayed a preference to cross camps too. However, Sirisena had pleaded with them to decide by the end of the year and not sooner.
Given the current position of the parties, it appears that the decision making time had come a little sooner than expected and the remaining SLFP members may have to decide which side to pick. At present, certain experts have speculated that the UNP will compete with the Mahinda led SLPP for the top two slots, while the SLFP will compete with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) for third place.
If, as predicted, the SLPP does indeed return victorious in the Local Government polls or even if they emerge second place, the mass appeal will once more see a paradigm shift in that direction and many politicians, especially from the SLFP, will want to crossover to the SLPP to contest future elections.
The SLFP have much to lose this election, which would explain the prolonged delay in conducting elections. A defeat at this point appears next to inevitable. However, in order to salvage some amount of dignity in defeat, they must fight tooth and nail to emerge above the SLPP. Losing to the SLPP would spell imminent doom for the 66-year-old Party. It shall also lead to the rise of a new party under its de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.
(The writer is a political analyst and an independent researcher of laws. He holds a Postgraduate Degree in the field of Human Rights and Democratization from the University of Colombo and an Undergraduate Degree in Law from the University of Northumbria, United Kingdom)