Leaders, Ministers, MPs, local councilors and members of the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) for the first time yesterday held a joint public rally in the Southern heartland of Matara. This was to mark the first anniversary of the formation of a consensus Government between the two major parties for the first time since independence in 1948.
The joint rally took place two days after President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as SLFP leader, imposed an uncharacteristic but widely called-for crackdown on party dissidents. As many as 40 of the party’s electoral and district organisers were sacked, while Matara district organiser Dullas Alhapperuma resigned from that post yesterday saying he was acting in solidarity with the dissidents or Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists.
In their place Mr. Sirisena appointed organisers who are known to be loyal to him and the mainstream SLFP.
For more than one year SLFP ministers had been calling for tough disciplinary action against the dissidents including about 50 MPs who were openly defying Mr. Sirisena and the party leadership.
They went to the extent of holding a separate May Day rally in Kirulapona, while the mainstream SLFP held its rally in Galle. The breaking point was apparently the Kandy-Colombo march by the dissidents and their supporters. Nasty slogans were chanted against Mr. Sirisena, while one group even hooted outside SLFP headquarters. SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake and the United People’s Freedom Alliance General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera, both ministers had, repeatedly promised that disciplinary action would be taken against the dissidents but critics and Rajapaksa loyalists scoffed at the threats. Eventually, Mr. Sirisena apparently acting on legal advice, removed 40 electoral and district organisers from their posts.
If they were sacked from the party then there is provision for them to appeal to the Supreme Court against any move to remove them as MPs and this would have meant a long legal process.
The SLFPs 65th annual convention is scheduled to be held on September 4 in Kurunegala. The choice of the venue is significant because it is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second home base and officially he is an MP from the Kurunegala District.
The SLFP General Secretary said Mr. Rajapaksa and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had been invited for September 4 convention. But hard hitting and sarcastic comments made by Mr. Rajapaksa and his loyalists this week indicate they are not likely to take part in the Kurunegala convention, while some reports indicate the dissidents may even hold a separate convention.
The Yahapalanaya Government to a large extent has restored good governance, democracy and the rule of law with the judiciary functioning independently and many decisions being given against the Government.
But history has shown that for the vibrant democracy, there needs to be a strong Opposition. In 1977 and again in 2010 Sri Lanka saw how there could be authoritarian trends, when the ruling party or parties have more than a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Mr. Rajapaksa and his dissidents though they often talk of toppling the consensus Government are aware of the reality that in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution there cannot and will not be a change of Government till 2020. Mr. Rajapaksa must also be aware of the reality that though he sought a third term in the January 8 Presidential Election last year and perhaps wished to go on for a fourth term, the 19th Amendment does not allow him to contest for the Presidency again. If he retired gracefully after being defeated not once but twice last year, history would have given him a special place mainly because of the strong leadership he gave in defeating the LTTE terrorists in May 2009.
But the apparent desire or craving to continue in power—even amidst growing allegations that the Rajapaksa family and the clique around it plundered billions of rupees in public money is casting a shadow over Mr. Rajapaksa’s credibility.
With the Olympic Games reaching their climax today he needs to take a vital lesson from sport’s main principle to be magnanimous in victory and gracefully bow out when defeated without trying to split the party and shake the foundations of democracy.