Never in the history have we witnessed a strange relationship like the one between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the SLFP faction led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is unclear whether they are friends or foes. At times they challenge each other, while attempting to unite at another.
The existence of two factions of the SLFP is not a matter of policy differences. It is merely a power struggle between two leaders – Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa – and a few of their close acolytes. There cannot be policy differences between the two factions when there are no such differences even between the two main parties in the country- the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP).
There was a time when the UNP was backed by the traditional bourgeoisie groomed by British colonial rulers while the SLFP was sponsored by the capitalist class that had emerged mainly after Independence. The two parties were chanting different slogans. With the passage of time, both parties gradually won over sections of both those backers, but by 1970s, the SLFP was ardently and strictly pursuing a closed economic policy which was the main reason for the humiliating defeat of the SLFP led United Front government, headed by world’s first Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1977. The UNP then campaigned for an open economy including the creation of free trade zones.
It goes without saying that there are no policy differences between Maithri and Mahinda factions for them to fight over.
The open economy that was introduced by the UNP after the 1977 parliament election invited foreign investments and President J.R. Jayawardene also brought in the executive presidency and the proportional electoral system with a view to protect his economic system through a stable UNP government. However, by the time the next SLFP led government came to power in 1994, the leadership of that party too had embraced the open economy policy. Also, it has since been attempting to hang on to the executive presidency, while promising the country to scrap it.
MS will have to expel SLFPers who contest under and campaign for SLPP
Party has divided with MS taking full control of the official SLFP
Leaders of official SLFP and SLPP having cold feet ahead of LG polls
Hence, it is vivid that except for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) and several other small political parties, all others follow similar policies, despite those parties adopting, at times, different strategies to implement them. Therefore, it goes without saying that there are no policy differences between Maithri and Mahinda factions for them to fight over.
It all began with SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena breaking ranks with the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa over premiership being denied to him. He successfully shrouded his defection from Rajapaksa with democratic slogans such as ‘good governance’ and Rajapaksa had also given him enough ammunition for it with his high-handed activities and mass-scale corruption. Also, he successfully challenged Rajapaksa at the last presidential election.
It all began with SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena breaking ranks with the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa over premiership being denied to him
Even then, the SLFP was united under the leadership of Rajapaksa, despite a small group of party men joined hands with Sirisena. It was Rajapaksa or his close aides who paved the way for the division of the party by handing over the chairmanship of the SLFP to Sirisena which he never laid claim to. They could have, with their majority power in the party’s central committee, expelled Sirisena for contesting the presidential election under another party, or changed the party constitution which provided for a member elected to the country’s presidency to take over party chairmanship.
When President Sirisena struggled to rein in the Rajapaksa loyalists in his efforts to sustain his party leadership during the last three years, many people in the civil society who supported him at the presidential election argued that he shouldn’t have accepted the party chairmanship. However, Sirisena had been much prudent than them. The results of the general election in August 2015 would have been different had Rajapaksa controlled the party all by himself. And the country in turn would have been different by now had the Rajapaksa led SLFP won that election. President Sirisena could avert that situation using the SLFP chairmanship.
After the presidential election, the country witnessed a strange situation where the SLFP chairman was running the government with the party’s arch-rival, the United National Party (UNP), while the majority of party members worked against his government; first with Rajapaksa’s blessings and then with his active participation. The situation came to a head when the party chairman demoralised the supporters with various statements and was instrumental in defeating the very party at the general election in August 2015.
Now, the party has clearly divided with President Sirisena having taken full control of the official SLFP and gradually relieving Rajapaksa loyalists of party organiser posts while Rajapaksa with his group floating a borrowed party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), as their own. However, the local government elections, scheduled to be held on February 10, are going to be crucial as it will be the first test of strength for both groups as well as the UNP.
With the elections fast approaching, the leaders of both the official SLFP and SLPP seem to have got cold feet. In spite of the fact that SLPP is confident that a majority of grassroots level membership of the SLFP is still with Rajapaksa, it fears a trend of erosion in its vote base towards the next presidential or parliamentary election, in the event of the official SLFP with its shrewd leadership winning a considerable number of local government bodies this time. It also fears the UNP would capitalise on SLFP infighting to win the February elections.
On the other hand, the president and his SLFP fear they would be pushed to the third position at the LG polls and seem to engineer defections from other parties including the UNP, its partner in governance. It was Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF) that suffered a blow in the process with three prominent leaders of it including its Deputy Leader Weerakumara Dissanayake and National Organiser Piyasiri Wijenayake joining hands with the president.
Whatever the results of the upcoming elections may be, President Sirisena will have to expel all SLFP leaders including Rajapaksa who contested under and campaigned for the SLPP as his party constitution provided for, although he too did the same at the last presidential election. He probably will resort to such drastic measures only if the official SLFP wins a considerable number of local government bodies and that will split the real SLFP right down the middle. The reality is that there is no political goal or specific policies towards it. The party and its gullible membership have been taken hostage by two men engaged in a do-or-die power struggle.