SLFP a force to reckon with | Daily News

SLFP a force to reckon with

President Maithripala Sirisena greeting party supporters at the SLFP convention on Tuesday. Picture by Sudath Silva
President Maithripala Sirisena greeting party supporters at the SLFP convention on Tuesday. Picture by Sudath Silva

The outcome of Sri Lanka’s next presidential election will heavily hinge on the ongoing talks between two major parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) with intense negotiations that could prove critical to both sides presently underway.

The SLPP has already proclaimed former Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their candidate. It is mobilising its grassroots network in preparation for an election campaign. Organisations affiliated to the party have already have already begun work for the polls. It is ‘all systems go’ as far as the SLPP is concerned, with its strategies being led by Basil Rajapaksa.

This is while the SLPP is negotiating with the SLFP regarding a potential alliance for the presidential elections. These discussions are occurring at several levels. There have been brief meetings between President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor and SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also met with the SLFP. This is an addition to the main deliberations between delegations of the two parties where the nuts and bolts of a future agreement are being discussed.

Despite these intensive discussions, still there are mixed messages emanating particularly from the SLFP camp. The two general secretaries of the parties which are headed by President Sirisena, Dayasiri Jayasekera of the SLFP and Mahinda Amaraweera of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) have been publicly voicing disappointment at the decision of the SLPP to announce Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their candidate before talks between the two parties could be concluded.

 

SLPP presidential candidate

“Nominating Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the SLPP presidential candidate was an arbitrary decision. The SLPP also breached the consensus the two parties had reached on many issues by giving membership to UPFA National List parliamentarians S. B. Dissanayake and Dilan Perera,” Jayasekara pointed out.

Dissanayake’s cross-over was particularly irksome for the SLFP and President Sirisena. Known for his political somersaults, Dissanayake was a former general secretary of the SLFP under Chandrika Kumaratunga’s leadership. He then fell out of favour with Kumaratunga and was instrumental in bringing down her government and bringing the United National Party (UNP) to power in 2001.

While in the UNP he made disparaging remarks about the Supreme Court and was sent to prison, only to be pardoned by Mahinda Rajapaksa who had assumed office as President. Dissanayake then remained loyal to Rajapaksa even during the 2015 presidential election campaign but switched sides after the poll.

When he was not returned to Parliament after the August 2015 general election, it was President Sirisena who offered him a slot on the National List. After many years of being a Sirisena loyalist critical of the Rajapaksas, Dissanayake has crossed over to the SLPP now.

SLFP General Secretary Jayasekara was also critical of public comments from SLPP stalwarts that were critical of the SLFP. “Basil Rajapaksa has a genuine desire to conclude talks on a positive note, but some party members do not share similar sentiments,” he said.

UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera was more forthcoming in his assessment of the SLFP-SLPP deliberations, even raising the prospect of the discussions not being successful. In the event the ongoing talks collapse and there is no possibility of forming an alliance, the SLFP will consider contesting the presidential poll with an electoral agreement with like-minded parties, Amaraweera said.

“Although there were a few electoral setbacks in the past, the SLFP is still a mainstream political party. It cannot forget its national duty. We have no option but to contest the presidential poll if talks among the two parties collapse. The SLFP Central Committee will select the candidate. Although party leader and President Maithripala Sirisena had not declared his intentions yet, he is our candidate. If we fail to form the alliance, the SLFP will become the kingmaker. It will be helpful if other parties realise this,” Amaraweera said.

Amaraweera was also scathing in his criticism about Dissanayake and Perera crossing over. “That was wrong. They were appointed from the UPFA National List. The UPFA leader is President Sirisena. They betrayed the President and the UPFA. When a politician does not have a policy or dignity, they resort to any devious act. They are only interested in survival,” he said.

Therefore, mixed signals are emanating from different sides of the negotiating table. While there appears to be a concerted effort to form an alliance, there also appears to be a sense of defiance from within the SLFP camp which is demanding its share of the spoils if it is to enter into a political partnership with the SLPP. Its belief – which it has articulated at negotiations- is that without its share of the vote bank which it believes it can rely on, the SLPP will never win the presidential election.

More than the policy issues of a proposed joint alliance, what is concerning to the SLFP is the fate of their remaining parliamentarians. They would need to be accommodated in any partnership with the SLPP but the latter already has organisers for electorates in place, making this a difficult task. Having both these groups in the same nomination list could lead to an ugly all-out war for preference votes at a future general election.

There has also been deliberation about the composition of a future government, in the event a SLFP-SLPP coalition wins office. This is in the context of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which limits the number of members in the Cabinet to thirty.

In the scenario where there is a SLFP-SLPP coalition, there will be many aspirants for Cabinet office. Such a government would again have to resort to the strategy of calling it a government of more than political party, if it is to accommodate more than thirty Cabinet ministers. However, to do so, it would have to contest separately and this is where the difficulty would arise. If it contests the election as one entity, it would not be entitled to more than thirty Cabinet ministers.

This is a predicament faced by the current government as well after the SLFP left the ‘government of national unity’ in October last year. There was an attempt by the government to raise the prospect of having more ministers because one of its members contested separately from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. However, a motion to that effect, submitted to Parliament was not pursued earnestly, most probably because it would have provoked public criticism in the run up to elections.

There has also been some speculation as to whether the SLPP would be amenable to changing their presidential candidate. Some analysts foreshadowed a situation where candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa finds himself encumbered by a court decision going against him prior to the presidential election. However, SLPP and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa categorically ruled out such a possibility.

The former President was also asked whether it was possible to change the candidate if the SLFP insisted on doing so. “Absolutely not. We are not ready to change anyone we appoint. When a decision is taken, we have to abide by it,” Rajapaksa said. Commenting on the two-party talks, he said that it is not an attempt by one party to engulf the other. “We are simply trying to join together to ensure the victory of one presidential candidate. The two parties have their own identity but they are also like two brothers,” he said.

 

SLFP convention

It was against such a backdrop that the SLFP held its 68th annual convention at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium in Colombo on Tuesday. The event saw the SLFP hierarchy attend in full strength, including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne. Government ministers Arjuna Ranatunga, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Rishad Bathiudeen were present. SLPP stalwarts were conspicuous by their absence. Dinesh Gunawardena and Vasudeva Nanayakkara from the Joint Opposition however attended.

If the party faithful expected a definite announcement about the SLFP’s stance on the presidential candidate and whether President Sirisena would contest, they would have been disappointed. In his speech the President did refer to upcoming elections but he refrained from announcing his intentions.

This can be interpreted as an indication that the SLFP would not be contesting the presidential poll because, if it had aspirations to do so, this convention would have been the ideal opportunity to make that announcement.

The President instead directed his ire at the UNP, blaming Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the postponement of provincial council elections indefinitely.

Those remarks came after it was announced that the Supreme Court had responded to President Sirisena’s inquiry as to whether provincial polls could be held under the previous system of elections, because the newly enacted system was not yet operational. The Court determined that the polls could not be held under the previous system.

The President also stated that “a person larger than (former Central Bank Governor) Arjuna Mahendran would stand in the dock”, for the Central Bank bond scam. It was a clear indication that his rapprochement with the UNP has come to naught now. However, whether that reflects a commitment to the Rajapaksas and the SLPP-even if it is for political expediency- remains to be seen.

 


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