Two weeks ago, we said one of the options left with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena, after former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was announced as the presidential candidate of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), was to support the SLPP candidate, accepting all conditions dictated by that party.
The SLFP had to finally accept that reality despite its seeming adamancy in demanding the SLPP to change its symbol as a precondition for its support to the latter at the November 16 presidential election. In fact, leaders of the SLFP laid down that condition as a face-saving exercise after it was left with the only option of rooting for the former Defence Secretary unconditionally.
"Many parties follow capitalist policies and use racism to gain political mileage whenever possible "
SLFP leader and President Maithripala Sirisena initially attempted to contest as the SLPP presidential candidate on the premise that its leader Mahinda Rajapaksa was not prepared to accept his younger brother Gotabaya as his party’s candidate. However, Gotabaya through his ‘Eliya’ and ‘Viyath Maga’ campaigns had created an idea among supporters of the SLPP and the media that he would be SLPP’s presidential hopeful. This had trapped the SLPP leaders, even if they had other plans, to announce him as its candidate.
Having his plans shattered, President Sirisena realised he had to submit to the situation and support the SLPP candidate. It would have been difficult for him to persuade his supporters to vote for the United National Party (UNP) due to the long-drawn ridiculous notion among the rank and file of the SLFP that the UNP was a capitalist party whereas the SLFP was socialist. Besides, he has personally become an arch-enemy of his Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Despite the notions about so-called capitalism and socialism, there is no difference between policies of many political parties including the UNP, SLFP and the SLPP; they all follow capitalist policies and use racism to gain political mileage whenever possible. Almost all leaders of these parties are corrupt to the core. Those who had governed the country have submitted to international pressure and sold national assets to foreigners.
The SLFP leaders knew they would gain nothing by supporting parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which would not win the election either. Apart from these reasons, another critical factor that pushed the SLFP leaders to support the SLPP was their concern about their personal safety in the event the SLPP came to power. They would not have forgotten the fate that befell former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. One might recall the statement President Sirisena made in the wake of the last presidential election that he would have been six feet underground had he lost the poll.
Thus, SLFP National Organiser Duminda Dissanayake who had been vehemently opposing any patch up between the SLFP and the SLPP lately was seen as a main speaker at Gotabaya’s very first campaign meeting held in Dissanayake’s hometown Anuradhapura on Wednesday. Kumara Welgama, the SLFP stalwart from Kalutara, refrained from tendering nomination for the presidential election even after placing deposits.
President Sirisena and most of the SLFP leaders were aware that they would finally have to fall in with whatever the terms and conditions of the SLPP. At the same time, they knew Rajapaksas were yearning for their support as the winner in this election would have to obtain more than 50 percent of valid votes which would most probably be more than 6.5 million votes. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s vote bank had shrunk from 5.8 million at the last presidential election to 4.7 million at the parliamentary elections in 2015 and improved only up to 4.9 million at last year’s local government elections.
"A critical factor that pushed SLFP leaders to root for SLPP was concern over its safety if the latter came to power "
Nevertheless, the SLFP wished to get an assurance from the SLPP leadership on the fate of individual members of its party after a patch up. Since this was a presidential election, there was no point in demanding electoral organiser posts, slots in district candidate lists or those in the national list. Hence they, as a pressure tool, chose to put forward a somewhat ridiculous demand to change the electoral symbol of the SLPP candidate at the presidential election. Moreover, they knew that the argument of supporting a candidate contesting under a symbol of another party eroding their identity, was feeble as the same applied to the SLPP.
The argument is irrelevant in the light of many parties including the SLFP having contested under various symbols other than the one allocated to them without their identity being worn away. The SLFP had contested under its ‘Hand’ symbol at last year’s local government elections after more than 25 years. It contested various elections during those 25 years under the People’s Alliance (PA) ‘Chair’ symbol from 1993 to 2003 and thereafter till 2018 under the ‘Betel Leaf’ symbol of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The people in the plantation sector, who have the least education facilities in the country, have been voting for various symbols such as Cockerel, Elephant, Hand, Chair and Betel Leaf without harming the identity of their political parties.
The danger the SLFP is going to face is not in the identity, but in the very alliance it is going to form with the SLPP.
Many leaders of the SLFP are reluctant to join the SLPP not because of any policy issue but due to the concern that they would not get any place or post in the SLPP that would ensure their future. A living example is the fate of most of the 16 Parliamentarians who are left high and dry after they quit the government to join the SLPP last year. The SLFP due to these concerns has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the SLPP yesterday which is said to ensure slots for the SLFP local leaders in the district candidate lists and the national list of the SLPP at the next parliamentary elections. According to senior SLFP leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, the party is to ink another MoU with SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
"The danger SLFP is going to face is not in the identity but in the very alliance it is going to form with SLPP "
Once the MoU with Gotabaya comes into force, the SLPP will start to eat into the SLFP’s remaining vote bank and the process will be completed once the MoU with the SLPP is implemented at the next general elections. The SLFP second rung leaders will also be assimilated by the SLPP as these voters and leaders are not alien to the SLPP leadership. They were members, supporters and leaders of the UPFA under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa until late 2014. Unless there was a split in 2015, they would have still been loyalists of Rajapaksas. Therefore, there is a strong possibility of the prediction by Kumara Welgama on Wednesday on the future of the SLFP coming true. He said the MoUs between the SLFP and the SLPP would ultimately liquidate the former.