President Maithripala Sirisena

While the Parliament is heating up, with the committee stage debate on the budget in full swing, the SLFP, led by President Maihthripala Sirisena is preparing for a major membership drive.

The move comes in the wake of the Joint Opposition’s decision to form a new party under the leadership of G.L. Peiris who functions as a proxy for former President Rajapaksa.

The SLFP’s membership drive will start on December 04 in every district, with the participation of party MPs supporting President Sirisena - the party leadership has already informed electorate organisers to begin groundwork so that their drive to recruit more members is a success.

As a prelude to this programme, the SLFP held a membership promotion campaign in Galle over the weekend, with the participation of President Maithripala Sirisena. Many MPs representing the district attended the campaign and it elicited strong support from local members and supporters in the area. The President was thrilled to see highly successful party activity in the Southern province, ahead of an important Local Government election.

To counter this initiative, the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPF), the party headed by Prof. G.L. Peiris, also launched a programme to increase its membership. Former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who joined the SLPF two weeks ago, is leading the programme. The party has informed its supporters to visit their political office in Battaramulla to obtain membership. The SLPF is focusing heavily on attracting former Local Government representatives of the SLFP, as the party intends to prepare early for the Local Government election.

Alongside forming a party, the Rajapaksa group has also formed a media organisation to support its political campaign: Some journalists who worked closely with the Rajapaksa camp in the recent past will function as members of the organisation. It is still not clear, however, how this group intends to justify their support of the former President, as the country’s media freedom sunk to abysmal levels under the Rajapaksa administration.

Mahinda Rajapaksa

Dinesh Gunawardana

Minister Faiszer Mustapha

Meanwhile, a group of MPs aligned with the Rajapaksa group have begun discussions with SLFP authorities, giving strong indications that they are ready to abandon the former President in the event of a split within the SLFP.

“Although they support the former President, they are die-hard SLFPers. They don’t want to leave the party under any circumstances. If the Rajapaksa group forms a new party, they will remain in the SLFP, pledging support to the party leadership. Soon after the rebel group formed a new party, they started talks with the SLFP authorities. It is a good sign for the SLFP,” highly placed party sources told the Daily News yesterday.

SLFP's strategy

However, the SLFP has now made it clear that it is not ready to give in to the former President’s camp. The party has embarked on a comprehensive reform process to consolidate the position of the group supporting President Sirisena. It is clear that the party is preparing to face the election, without the support of the Rajapaksa faction. In this context, it can be assumed that the next Local Government election will be a three-cornered fight.

The Rajapaksa camp has repeatedly criticized the SLFP’s decision to enter into a national unity government agreement with the UNP. They claim that there is barely any difference between the UNP and the SLFP as both parties happily co-exist within the same government. The Rajapaksa group, therefore, has urged the SLFP supporters in villages to rally around with the new party to protect what they term “true Bandaranaike policies”.

This situation compels the SLFP to adopt a fresh strategy to differentiate itself from the UNP: Faced with the daunting prospect of being tarred with the same brush as the UNP, for simply the reason that the two parties are working together, in unity, as a government, the SLFP has to prove that it has different qualities and a different line of thinking, to attract grassroots level supporters at the Local Government election. This is one challenge the party is grappling with, at the moment.

It seems like the SLFP is relying on two main points to differentiate itself from the UNP, at this juncture. One is the party’s position on the political solution to the question of the North and East, and the mechanism for post-war accountability.

SLFP stalwart Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, addressing a recent public meeting, said in no uncertain terms that the party would not consider the federal system as a solution to the North and East problem. He said the party would never support a solution compromising the unitary status of the country. This line of thinking is appealing to the grassroots level voters, who form the core of the SLFP’s voter base.

The UNP, on the other hand, has a more open opinion on the matter: The UNP has a considerable support from minority groups in many districts. The party also believes in the devolution of power and more receptive of models supporting a decentralization of power.

Bond issue

Another important area the SLFP wields a lot of influence in, is the nature of the post-war accountability mechanism. The President has already stated, on several occasions, that he would not allow foreign judges to hear cases relating to war crimes allegations and human rights violations during the final phase of war. The President has also made it clear that he would initiate a credible domestic process to inquire into allegations, without seeking the assistance of foreign parties.

Several SLFP stalwarts have too echoed the same sentiments. They said the party would not support a “hybrid” or foreign investigation mechanism, under which, according to them, the country’s sovereignty would be undermined. It is an area in which the SLFP has distanced itself from the UNP at the policy level. The UNP has chosen to tread carefully over this contentious matter, without voicing its opinion in public. However, there are strong indications the party does not mind seeking the assistance of foreign parties in areas where Sri Lanka lacks experience and expertise.

It is against this backdrop that President Sirisena said he would write to US President-elect Donald Trump to seek his support in freeing Sri Lankan troops from war crimes allegations by the U.N. Human Rights Council: At the membership drive for the SLFP in Galle over the weekend, the President said he would forward the UNHRC proposals to President-elect Trump and hold discussions with him through several representatives, in a bid to have him drop the charges. The President said he was confident that Sri Lanka would be successful in this endevour.

Aside from these, the SLFP has also decided to continue its campaign against the Treasury bonds issues.

After the COPE report on the Treasury bonds issue was presented to Parliament, the SLFP appointed a Committee to examine the report and decide the party’s future course of action on the matter. The Committee held its final meeting at State Minister of Finance Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena’s house, last week. Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Sarath Amunugama, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, John Seneviratne, Faizer Mustapha, Dilan Perera and Lasantha Alagiyawanna attended the meeting.

“We examined the COPE report and a number of other documents. I can, at this point, say that the SLFP will take the matter very seriously,” a committee member, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Daily News.

The Committee, party sources said, would prepare its report soon and present it to party authorities.

“The Central Committee, the main decision making body of the party, will study the report closely and recommend future measures. The President - as the party leader - has assured the country that he will not leave space for any wrongdoing,” the Committee member added.

The SLFP believes that these issues will give the party an edge over its competitors at the Local Government election. The delay in the electoral process also gives the SLFP more time to strengthen its position at the grassroots level. This is one reason why the Joint Opposition group is pushing the government to hold the Local Government as soon as possible. The JO group knows that the SLFP can cash in on this delay, by implementing party reforms and they want to derail this process by pressuring the government to hold the elections soon.

Dinesh Vs. Faizer

The issue of delaying the election surfaced again, on Tuesday, when UPFA MP Dinesh Gunawardana raised the matter in Parliament.

Gunawardana questioned Local Government Minister Faizer Mustapha as to whether the Local Government election would be held soon, and Minister Mustapha, in his response, said it could not be held until delimitation issues are resolved.

“Many appeals have been made against the delimitation carried by the previous government. They should be resolved first,” the Minister responded. “I have never delayed the elections. When the hearings of the appeals are over, the government will hold the Local Government election,” he said.

Meanwhile, the rumour mill in Parliament is agog with speculation that the first reshuffle of the Cabinet of the national unity government is imminent. Although official government sources are yet to confirm the story, some speculate that the reshuffle will happen early next year.

They believe the reshuffle was likely to be made based on the performance of ministers over the last twenty months. Be that as it may, both the President and the Prime Minister have made it clear that they will not hesitate to take action against ministers and officials whose performance are below par.

“Any change would be made after deliberations between the President and the Prime Minister. It would be done in a manner that will strengthen the unity of the government. The UNP and the SLFP – the two main parties in the government – will share key responsibilities,” a senior government spokesman told the Daily News, on Monday.

“It is not difficult to identify under-performing Ministers. The President and the Prime Minister, as the leaders of the national government, carefully monitor the progress of all government ministries - they have already identified areas that need to be fixed. It is in this context that the topic of a Cabinet reshuffle surfaced,” he explained.

He added that the composition of the Cabinet would not change as a result of any reshuffle.

These rumours come in the wake of an announcement that the performance of ministers would be measured, come January 2017, against objectives laid out in a Key Performance Index (KPI). Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, in his budget speech on November 10, reiterated the government’s commitment to introduce KPIs to the top strata of the state sector, including Cabinet ministers. The Finance Minister said this would streamline state sector institutions, usually known for inefficiency and mismanagement.

Members representing civil society, who were instrumental in President Sirisena’s victory at the Presidential election, also urged the President for an urgent Cabinet reshuffle in the recent past. They said drastic measures were needed to remove whom they termed “under-performing ministers”. Civil society representatives presented their request to the President in writing at a dinner at the President’s House, last month. Although the President did not give any undertaking at the meeting, he agreed to consider their request.

It can be assumed that the UNP and the SLFP - the two main parties representing the national government - will face a challenging time in the run up to the Local Government election. While working together as coalition partners of the government, they will have to contest at the grassroots level, as separate political parties. And even while vying against each other, the UNP and the SLFP will have to treat the Rajapaksa group (SLPF) as a ‘common enemy'. This will make the forthcoming Local Government polls one of the most interesting elections in the recent times.

Add new comment