The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), now in its third or fourth month, is no longer a third force. The numbers, the percentages and the seats won should convince anyone with a modicum of political sense that it has gone beyond being just an alternative party, a feat considering that the JVP has strived hard to transcend the limits of being such an alternative for more than two decades with no notable success. It’s a populist wave we’re seeing here, and like all populist waves the momentum, while intermittent when accounting for the long term, can be spoiled, improved on, or sustained depending on whether the primary tenets of the party are adhered to. Those who voted for the Pohottuwa were, by default and for the most, voting for a Rajapaksa Restoration. Naturally, they were by no means dim enough to think that the LG elections would be enough for such a restoration to occur anytime soon.
The SLPP won a mandate at the grassroots level, but that mandate does not and will not transcend the larger mandate given by the people on January 8, 2015. These two mandates are now interlocked, and will for a long time be pitted against one another owing to the fact that those elected from the Pohottuwa to the LG bodies will have to depend on, and fight with, those elected from the UNP and the anti-Rajapaksa UPFA in the Central Government for the mobilisation of funds. Those who voted for the SLPP, even those who may not have been aware of this, hence voted not because they wanted Rajapaksa to seize power, but because they wanted to create a mess.
Whether or not the mess created was enough for them to claim bragging rights (after all, even with that momentum, they still were not able to clinch a majority in the local government bodies) is grist for another debate. What’s important to note here is that the SLPP did not come to power at the grassroots level with the intention of claiming power from the centre. Logically this means that any attempt at claiming power from that centre has to be seen as being antithetical to the larger motives of the Pohottuwa Brigade, since the fact that they don’t have the necessary numbers in parliament implies that for such an attempt to work out, they have to cohabit with a mainstream party; a pro-Rajapaksa SLFP. That will be seen, by the SLPP voter, as a betrayal of his vote. And why? Because cohabitation at this juncture means a betrayal of the principles on which the Pohottuwa Brigade was founded and mobilised.
The SLPP won a mandate at the grassroots level, but that mandate does not and will not transcend the larger mandate given by the people on January 8, 2015
At the time of writing this article I could conceive three contingencies in the political sphere; the continuation of the Unity Government; an absolute UNP government, with the SLFP and UPFA relegated to the Opposition and a broader alliance between the SLFP-UPFA and the SLPP. It’s interesting to note that none of these contingencies and possibilities bodes well for the President; the continuation of the Unity Government will be seen by his supporters, from the party he leads, as a further excuse to try and oust him from the Chairmanship of that party. A UNP government will only bolster that excuse further and any marriage between the SLFP-UPFA and SLPP would mean, as one website memorably puts it, the “path to self-destruction”, since it enables a Rajapaksa Restoration. Ostensibly the UNP has opted for the first of these, but marriages of expedience don’t last long; we may hence see the second contingency materialising eventually. This is what the Pohottuwa wants.
So why is the SLPP engaged in power politics to the extent that they are sending us the message that they are ready to cohabit with the UPFA if that’s what it will take to topple the UNP? Has there been enough evidence that the sole cause for this country’s problems and ills, in the past three years, is the UNP? By itself, it is still a party to reckon with, not because it’s a party of angels but because it has shown itself to be a party of rationality (never mind the occasional unfortunate outbursts from its MPs). The Bond Scam was the cause of its shrinkage at the local polls, yes, but even accounting for this one can coherently make the case that the shrinkage of the government (SLFP + UPFA + UNP) had more to do with the SLFP’s wildly erratic behaviour than anything else. Those who were baying for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s blood would have been shocked, not surprisingly, when on Friday he gave probably the coolest, most self-assured news conference one could have expected from him under the circumstances. Nothing has been seriously ruptured, in other words: the President can’t remove the UNP and the UNP can’t remove Ranil. The SLPP mandate was not, repeat NOT, to topple the present government. Regardless of what veterans of the calibre of Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Dinesh Gunawardena can and will say, the mandate given by the people on January 8, 2015 has not expired by any stretch of the imagination. Two more years exist, two years which the government can continue to play ball with or which the government can efficiently use to deliver on the promises that got them that mandate in the first place. The SLPP’s first move was to establish itself as a veritable alternative, a watchdog if you will, over the abuse and misuse of power at the centre, if at all because no such watchdog existed; not the official opposition under the TNA, or the forever-ranting-against-you-and-me opposition under the JVP. Neither of these parties had what it took to go beyond communalism (TNA) and class-conscious thrust (JVP) that they stand for. A more multifarious, across the board movement was needed at this juncture. This was the Pohottuwa.
Does that mean that the Rajapaksa Cabal has no real power? Perhaps. Local governments have to depend, as I pointed out, on the central government. But in terms of grassroots mobilisation, in terms of the number of seats won and the mayors and chairmen to be appointed, I think we can safely say that the SLPP is here to stay, for quite some time. The first step towards sustaining the momentum that drove it, is to stick to the manifesto it rode on. That momentum does not enable its members to topple the government, nor does it enable them to cohabit with a section thereof in the hopes of toppling it in the future. What it does enable them to do, though, is to stand apart on its own and watch the mess that the present regime has created, because of its own internal failings and contradictions, continue and if at the 11th hour a saviour is needed, present a Rajapaksa sibling or progeny to come and save the day. Personally speaking, I don’t entertain such illusions with respect to this whole Rajapaksa Restoration campaign, but it’s the most feasible option that the SLPP has as of now.
To enable that option, to ride into the sunset triumphantly with that option, however, the Podujana Peramuna must abide by the licence that the people gave them. Of the aforementioned three political contingencies, then, the most beneficial to them will have to be Contingency Number One: The continuation of the Unity Government. If their aversion to the UNP (their traditional enemy) transcends their desire to stick to their mandate this way, it can only mean one thing: Mahinda Rajapaksa is so power-hungry, so grasping, that his cabal is ready to commit everything and anything under the sun for the sake of temporary power, be it in the form of a coalition or a caretaker government.
Reliable sources tell us that Mahinda has refused to be a part of the government. If this is true, it can bode well not just for the SLPP, but also for their enemy. So the UNP has the centre, the Pohottuwa has the periphery, while the SLFP-UPFA has become what Gunadasa Amarasekara said it would eventually become, back in 2015: a “kavandaya”, or a headless corpse.