A stronger Mahinda faction: the UNP prayer
President Maithripala Sirisena, who handled his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with a somewhat passive attitude since he was appointed the leader of the party soon after the last Presidential election in January 2015, seems to have taken up the cudgels now against his opponents within the party in order to consolidate his position in it.
It is like a plot of a Tamil film or a Gamini Fonseka’s film in which the hero would be thrashed by the villain until he was almost dead, but would finally enthrall the audience by rising up at the end smashing everything in his way and mercilessly beating his enemies.
The President had taken steps to weed out the loyalists of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from the party while the long arm of the law has also begun to tighten the noose around the necks of the members of the Rajapaksa family.
While the former President’s second son Yoshitha Rajapaksa, who was arrested in connection with some unclear transactions related to the CSN TV Channel was spending more than a month in the Welikada Prison, the SLFP General Secretary Minister Duminda Dissanayake warned a few days ago that any member of the party, who were involved in activities of other political parties or in creating other parties, would be severely dealt with.
The warning came following reports- first about Mahinda loyalists planning to form a new political party and then about their plan to contest the forthcoming Local Government Elections under a symbol of one of the six small parties that supported Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Later, the President, as the leader of the SLFP, has removed several strong Mahinda loyalists from the posts of party organisers and appointed his loyalists in place of them.
Accordingly, Prasanna Ranatunga has been replaced with his younger brother Ruwan Ranatunga as the Minuwangoda organiser, while Thilina Bandara Tennakoon had been appointed in place of Dilum Amunugama in the Senkadagala electorate.
Western Province Chief Minister Isura Devapriya has replaced Kanthi Kodikara in Maharagama, while Provincial Minister Sumith Lal Mendis succeeds a strong critic of the Government Rohitha Abeygunawardene.
In fact had the President taken these steps a year ago, the entire SLFP would have been behind him, but cracks would have been appearing in the Government, as the SLFP might have been a strong challenge then to the United National Party (UNP).
Also had he acted aggressively during the initial months of his tenure, he wouldn’t have been credited internationally as a democratic leader.
Soon after the Presidential Election, the leaders of the SLFP and the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) expected a reshuffle of the party ranks as well as strong action against Mahinda loyalists in the guise of an anti-corruption drive, since it was the practice of the past, especially during the Rajapaksa regime.
Hence, in a pacifying move, they hurriedly appointed President Sirisena as the Chairman of both the SLFP and the UPFA in spite of them having the majority power in both parties even to remove him from those parties.
He had been suspended from the SLFP, when he won the Presidential Election.
However, the actions even against the much publicised mega corruption were incredibly slow, while even the two General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha, who were strong supporters of the former President, were left to function in their posts.
This led to a situation where Mahinda loyalists in the two parties and the bureaucracy in the Government were emboldened to challenge the Executive President, while attempting to sabotage the anti-corruption drive of the government.
Premajayantha and Yapa were successful in giving nomination to former President for the August General Elections, without the wholehearted consent of President Sirisena.
Many who supported the former President at the last Presidential election and questioned by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) were given Ministerial portfolios surprisingly, while they were singing hosannas for their former boss.
They were further encouraged by the actions of the miniature political parties that had clung onto the UPFA as constituent parties and parties that contested under the coalition.
These parties have become politically destitute and cannot win at least a Pradeshiya Sabha seat without teaming up with one of the two main parties, the SLFP or the UNP.
After testing waters for a few weeks and ensuring that there was no danger from the Government actions these parties started a bizarre campaign to promote a person in another party; they wanted Mahinda Rajapaksa to be named as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the SLFP.
By that time Rajapaksa too felt the need of a political force behind him as the corruption charges had started to haunt him and the members of his family.
His first major attempt for a political comeback as a challenge to the President was the contesting of the Parliamentary Elections in Kurunegala District with the Prime Ministerial hope in mind.
However, President Sirisena thwarted it and dashed Rajapaksa’s hopes with his calculated “guerilla ambushes” at the last moment.
He removed the two General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA, Yapa and Premajayantha, and discouraged Rajapaksa’s vote bank with two statements claiming that Rajapaksa would not be appointed as Prime Minister.
He knew that this would dearly cost his own party, but in a survival game all these were justified.
The end result has been the formation of a permanent group of Mahinda loyalists within the SLFP as well as the UPFA ensuring the breakup of both parties.
The situation might be looked at by the UNP as a godsend and it might further look to see the strengthening of the Mahinda group within the two parties.
The recent recognition of some of the members of the so-called Joint Opposition as party leaders in the Parliament might be a result of it, though the Mahinda group sees it as a victory.
Hence, one should not be surprised even if the “Joint Opposition” is recognised as a separate group in Parliament.
However, the President seems to have taken stock of the situation in a different way. He feels that the time has come to strike back since further strengthening of Rajapaksa’s hands might help dig his own grave.