What’s in store for the Blues? | Daily News

What’s in store for the Blues?

Picture by Sulochana Gamage

 

If local political observers waited with bated breath for a political bombshell at the 65th anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), they would have been disappointed. The occasion however did have its headline grabbing moments as well.

The main focus of this year’s anniversary celebrations was whether it would widen or perhaps even resolve the differences between the two factions in the party supporting President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There was also growing speculation that Rajapaksa and his loyalists would use the celebrations as a mean to demonstrate the support it enjoys among the rank and file of the SLFP, especially after what it perceives as a highly successful protest against the Sirisena led ‘National Unity’ government in the form of the recent ‘paada yathra’ march from Kandy to Colombo.

As the celebrations were held in Kurunegala, it only added to this speculation. That was because Rajapaksa is now a Member of Parliament for the Kurunegala district. The region is home to a large Sinhala Buddhist population as well as a large number of armed forces personnel; both these demographics are thought to be at the core of Rajapaksa’s support base.

Rajapaksa camp

Indeed, there was a view in the Rajapaksa camp that its stalwarts, including Rajapaksa himself, should attend the celebrations. Had he done so, it would have caused considerable discomfiture for President Sirisena. It was highly unlikely that Rajapaksa would have been subjected to boos or jeers because he still retains his charisma and commands respect, especially in the SLFP. In that sense, Rajapaksa had nothing to lose and everything to gain by attending.

The first hint that the Rajapaksa faction was not attending the celebrations came after the recent sacking of his loyalists as electoral organisers by President Sirisena. Many of them, livid with the leadership, asked how they could attend these celebrations with any degree of self-respect, a sentiment with which Rajapaksa wholeheartedly agreed.

Why did Rajapaksa baulk at attending the celebrations himself at the eleventh hour? Even if the sacking of organisers was a catalyst to the decision not to attend, the real reason became apparent only later: it was the hectic preparations that are now being undertaken to form a separate political party. Basil Rajapaksa is the livewire behind this exercise.

New political party

The rationale behind this move is quite simple. Those proposing it firmly believe that rapprochement with the mainstream SLFP is a non-event as long as President Sirisena leads the party and as long as former President Chandrika Kumaratunga influences events within the party. In the current political scenario, this is likely to continue for at least another four years, barring any unforeseen events. Rajapaksa would be seventy five years of age by then.

Even Minister Rajitha Senaratne alluded to this. Never one to fight shy of stating his opinion, Senaratne was to say that Rajapaksa was now “too old” to start his own political party and embark on a new political journey.

While Mahinda Rajapaksa is no stranger to the vicissitudes of political life and is prepared to wait, that does not seem a viable option at what must be the tail end of his political career. Also, he cannot simply retire and walk away from politics like J. R. Jayewardene did because unlike Jayewardene, he has an heir to protect and promote. If Mahinda Rajapaksa chooses to languish in the SLFP as a dissident for another four years, it would hurt Namal Rajapaksa’s political prospects as well.

So, the Rajapaksa faction is going full steam ahead with plans to form a new political party. While they do realise that fielding a ‘third force’ has its own pitfalls, their expectation is that eventually, the mainstream will join them again, when the circumstances are right.

Because forming his own political party is now almost certain, Rajapaksa didn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite, attending the SLFP’s celebrations and pretending to be part of it. Hence the decision of the Rajapaksa faction to keep away from the event in Kurunegala en masse.

However, if other Rajapaksa loyalists were quite outspoken about it and declared defiantly that they would absent themselves from the proceedings, Rajapaksa opted for another strategy: he took wing to Malaysia, the latest country he has visited.

That visit has had its own share of controversy with Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur Ibrahim Ansar being assaulted, Sri Lanka expressing its displeasure and summoning Malaysia’s envoy in Colombo to indicate its anger at this turn of events. Malaysia has already expressed its regrets and initiated an inquiry into the attack.

This would undoubtedly have been an unexpected boost for Rajapaksa because those protesting against him were mostly pro-Eelam activists. Their protest against Rajapaksa allows Rajapaksa to claim- yet again- that he is the saviour of the Sinhalese community, a mantle he calls his own anyway.

Anniversary celebrations

Rajapaksa’s Malaysian visit allowed him to state unabashedly that he is ‘unable to attend’ because he is ‘not in the country’. Few actually believe this is the reason. It was known months in advance that the anniversary celebrations would be held in September and Rajapaksa had every opportunity to reschedule his visit to Kuala Lumpur only if he so wished, they point out.

Others have castigated for Rajapaksa for taking wing to Malaysia while leaving his loyalists at the mercy of the party hierarchy, as they have openly declared they will not be attending the anniversary celebrations because of the treatment being meted out to Rajapaksa loyalists, sacking them from electoral organiser posts.

They have even likened Rajapaksa’s visit to Malaysia to Australian cricket captain Steven Smith’s return to Australia when his team was at the receiving end of a spirited whitewash at the hands of the Sri Lankan cricket team in the recently concluded test series.

The Kurunegala celebrations itself were conducted in a dignified manner and there were no major incidents that marred it. A substantial crowd participated in the event. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga attended and was seen in animated conversation with President Sirisena for some time. Of course, who she endorses in recent years has never been a secret.

Local Government elections

President Sirisena was also astute enough to seize the chance to make an important announcement: he declared that the SLFP would contest the next Local Government elections under its historic ‘hand’ symbol.

This was a clear signal sent to the previous members of the now dissolved local government councils, most of whom are handpicked Rajapaksa loyalists. The underlying message was that if they chose to continue following Rajapaksa, they would have to be contesting against- and not from- the SLFP.

Had they been allowed to contest from the broader coalition of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), there would have been room for Rajapaksa loyalists to ‘infiltrate’ the nomination lists under the guise of being nominees of other constituent parties of the Alliance.

The President has been clever enough to put a stop to that, perhaps even before the Rajapaksa camp thought about this manoeuvre.

The other message that the President was trying to convey was that it is he who now made decisions for and on behalf of the SLFP, in much the same manner that Rajapaksa did for ten years when he was President, often with an iron hand.

There are still diehard SLFP supporters who dream of the day when the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions would ‘come together as one’ and the UNP being in power is only a nightmare they had just woken up from.

For the present time though, a third political party bearing the Rajapaksa imprimatur is now very much on the cards. Now, it is more a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ it will happen.


 

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