Ruptures are being precipitated by fears in the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp, small parties within the (UPFA) and those who contested under the UPFA during the Rajapaksa regime
With the on-going preparations of political parties for the forthcoming local government election the disunity among various groups in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) seems to be intensifying. The imminence of the party splitting is being furthered by two factors- the Mahinda Rajapaksa factor and the small parties within the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) as well as those who contested under the UPFA during the Rajapaksa regime.
The fear among hardcore Rajapkasa loyalists within the SLFP they would be sidelined when the lists of candidates are prepared for future elections by the party leadership is justifiable for championing the idea of contesting as a separate group. Some Parliament members such as Prasanna Ranatunga are strongly espousing the idea and creating the groundwork for the implementation of it by openly challenging the party leadership.
The small parties in the UPFA such as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) and Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the parties which contested in the past under the UPFA like the National Freedom Front (NFF) do not share any hope of contesting under the UPFA as it has become out of the question, as they have been treated like outcasts by the leadership of the SLFP, the main party in the UPFA coalition. In fact it was these small parties attached to the UPFA that were responsible for creating a rift in the SLFP, by initiating a “bring back Mahinda” campaign soon after former President Mainda Rajapaksa was ousted from power at the presidential election in January 2015. It was this campaign that prevented a recurrence of the rank and file of the SLFP rallying behind the new leader as it happened in 2006.
In 2005, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was chosen as the UPFA presidential candidate there was a cold -war between him and incumbent President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The majority members of the coalition in Parliament as well as provincial councils sided the President, but only up to the time Rajapaksa ran for the Presidency. After Rajapaksa was voted into power even hardcore Chandrika loyalists wholeheartedly backed the new leader and supported the move by Rajapaksa to oust her from the party chairpersonship. Had Kumaratunga expressed her willingness to continue in active politics then,there could have been a group to continue to support her, leading the party to split or at least as a small breakaway group being formed.
Since it was presumed she retired from politics, many who were politically brought up and groomed by her ungratefully turned against her overnight purely for their survival. On the other hand it prevented a split in the party. This time too had Rajapaksa retired from politics almost all of his loyalists would have rallied around President Maithripala Sirisena, closing all avenues for rifts in the party.That was indicative by the move by the party leaders to appoint Maithripala Sirisena as the chairman of the SLFP as well as the UPFA soon after the latter won the presidential election.
Had they wished then to amend the SLFP constitution to prevent Sirisena from taking the mantle in both parties, they could have easily done so and were also in a position to sabotage President Sirisena’s plan to form a new government, by making Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership invalid, using their majority power in Parliament.
However, after such initial withdrawals, the small parties attached to the UPFA then turned the tide with their “Bring back Mahinda campaign,” infusing hopes among Rajapaksa loyalists who had been severely hurt by the presidential election defeat.These miniature parties which had apparently no vote base in any district to win even one seat in Parliament wanted a main party or a fraction of it to coalesce, in their own interests. At the same time, Rajapaksa who had been haunted by the investigations against his family members under the new regime also wanted a force backing him and thus the tryst of desires of two groups occurred.
The end results were that small parties secured parliamentary seats at the August 17 election at the expense of Rajapaksa loyalists, while a permanent group led by the former President has been formed within the SLFP against the leadership of the very party. Now that another round of elections is approaching the said small parties again are facing a dilemma as the opportunities for them to contest under the UPFA are becoming increasingly bleak. It is against this backdrop that the NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa and Pivithuru, HelaUrumaya (PHU) leader Udaya Gammanpila have announced that their parties would not contest the forthcoming local government elections under the UPFA; sour grapes.
Fortunately for them another disgruntled group within the SLFP as well as the UPFA is awaiting the same fate at the approaching elections.They seem to be waiting for a signal from Mahinda Rajapaksa to team up with the small parties.
However Rajapaksa has been saying that he was a real SLFPer, meaning he would not quit the party. From the very beginning of the Sirisena regime, Rajapaksa has been dodging difficult decisions. He did not participate in any of the “bring back Mahinda campaign” meetings, skipped the important debates in Parliament, and distanced himself from the demonstration against the questioning of his brother and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The embarrassment caused by Rajapaksa’s lackadaisical stance to the small parties was clearly seen when MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardene told journalists last week that the former President would take the appropriate decision. It was in response to a question whether Rajapaksa would join the political front that was to be formed by the small parties.
In fact the battle lines have already been drawn within the UPFA and an open split seems to be imminent at the local government election. In the political numbers game this is a favourable situation to the United National Party (UNP). Also, while the people still seem to have faith in the government irrespective of its failures or the slow pace in its much touted anti-corruption drive, reconciliation and economic development, both the UPFA groups do not have sound and appealing slogans.
The Sirisena group in the SLFP would not be able to criticise the government which it is a party to and the Rajapaksa group seems to have been left only with arousing communal feelings. The latter would be given more ammunition if the local government elections are held after the UNHRC sessions in March and the Constitutional reforms.
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