SLFP, UNP and the Common Candidate | Daily News

SLFP, UNP and the Common Candidate

Almost unexpectedly, last week saw the emergence of a new political strategy from President Maithripala Sirisena who is attempting to consolidate his leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is beset with internal divisions.

The first hint of this came at the commemoration of the 76th birthday of Venerable Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera who provided inspirational leadership to the campaign against the Executive Presidency in late 2014, leading to the resignation of then Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena and his emergence as the ‘common candidate’ against Mahinda Rajapaksa.

To say that President Sirisena was forceful in his remarks is an understatement. Perhaps he was annoyed by the comments made at the ceremony by a Buddhist monk, Ven. Mugunuwatawana Siddatta Thera who stated that the ‘yahapalanaya’ government lost track of its objectives only after President Sirisena took the leadership of a ‘certain’ institution, a thinly veiled reference to the SLFP.

Visibly annoyed, President Sirisena lashed out. Observers noted that his speech was similar in tone and content to the speech he made prior to the general election in 2015, when he declared that he would not appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister even if the SLFP won the poll- only this time, at the receiving end was not only Rajapaksa but also the United National Party (UNP).

President Sirisena again alluded to the Central Bank bond sale, even though UNP stalwart Ravi Karunanayake who lost his Cabinet portfolio over the issue was seated in the front row of the audience. The late Venerable Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera didn’t advocate a ‘common candidate’ to rob the Central Bank, the President declared.

100-day programme

The President stated that he and other SLFP ministers were instrumental in blocking legislation at Cabinet level, which he said would have seen the transfer of funds from state banks to private sector banks. If this was allowed, the major state banks would have collapsed, he declared.

Other issue raised by the President was the ‘yahapalanaya’ government’s 100-day programme which, the President said, was a ‘stupid’ plan and he did not know who its author was. Because of this programme, the dissolution of Parliament was postponed and with that the government lost the chance of obtaining a stable majority at the general election, he argued.

President Sirisena also referred to the provision of helicopters for his predecessor, Rajapaksa, to travel to his native Medamulana, after his election defeat. This was done without his approval, the President said, also noting that he had to use ‘old’ vehicles for two years as President.

The President’s speech did raise eyebrows, more within the government than in the opposition ranks. The question that was being asked was whether it was a spur of the moment emotional outburst in response to the veiled accusation made against him by the Buddhist monk- or whether it was a calculated strategy. The President was not reading off a script but it did appear that he had given considerable thought to what he had to say.

In the wake of the presidential outburst, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe moved into damage control mode. Addressing a UNP meeting at Sirikotha, the party headquarters, he told his parliamentarians to hold their horses. Clearly, the Prime Minister wanted to avoid an escalating slanging match between UNP and SLFP parliamentarians.

It is understood that a group of UNP ministers also held discussions with senior SLFP ministers in a bid to defuse the situation. The ministers were due to report to their respective leaders and the dialogue was set to continue, indicating that the coalition between the two parties will continue at least for the foreseeable future.

The questions raised by the President’s speech are many. If it is assumed that it was part of a deliberate strategy- because President Sirisena is too mature a politician to give into the temptation of making a temperamental outburst- it raises the obvious issue of what the rationale behind the speech was.

JO faction

While it was abundantly clear that the President was not pleased with the UNP, its leadership and its policies, he also made it clear that there still was very little love lost between himself and the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP. Hence the repeated references to concessions granted to the Rajapaksas, after the 2015 presidential election.

A hint of what that rationale could be emerged later in the week when President Sirisena chaired a meeting of the SLFP’s Central Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body at the ‘Apey Gama’ complex at Battaramulla on Sunday.

The meeting was billed as a move towards ‘restructuring’ the SLFP and was previously touted to be a first step towards rapprochement with the Joint Opposition (JO) faction of the SLFP. However, whether the changes made would meet that objective remains to be seen. It appears that the President has directed the party only partially in this direction.

The most significant change was replacing General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake with an acting General Secretary, Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa. It was an open secret in the SLFP that there was little goodwill between Dissanayake and the JO faction.

Dissanayake was one of the few SLFP stalwarts to leave the party when the President, then serving as Health Minister, resigned to contest the election and as such, has every right to feel hard done by because of this decision. However, he has been appointed the national organiser of the party.

Piyadasa, a Professor in Mass Communication at the Kelaniya University is a veteran SLFPer but not an active politician. In this respect, the SLFP appears to be moving in the opposite direction to the UNP which previously had professionals in the post of general secretary but now has full time politicians in that role.

The other noteworthy appointments were the designation of Rajapaksa, along with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne as advisors to the party. Rajapaksa’s appointment is ironical in that he is the de facto leader of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which is in effect the dissident faction of the SLFP. Rajapaksa was not present at the meeting on Sunday and has not commented publicly as yet on his appointment.

Presidential and general elections

The SLFP will now also have four Senior Vice Presidents in Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva and former Ministers W.D.J. Seneviratne, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha. Except de Silva, the others recently quit the government and decided to sit in the opposition. Their allegiance is likely to be towards the Rajapaksa faction at the next elections. Therefore, their appointment appears to be a compromise with the dissidents.

Significantly, those directly professing their loyalty to the JO have not been appointed to the highest positions in the party. This appears to be a deliberate decision by President Sirisena to retain his hold on the mainstream SLFP while still making some concessions to the dissidents. The President, while meeting the JO aspirations halfway, has clearly indicated that he intends to be at the helm of the party’s affairs.

These moves by President Sirisena, both within the SLFP and also against some actions of the UNP, his coalition partner, suggest that he will be very much in the running from the SLFP at the next presidential and general elections. It is also a signal to the JO and the SLPP that any reconciliation appears distant right now, although the national elections are eighteen months away- but that is a very long time in the volatile climate of Sri Lankan politics.

 


 

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