The United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) became the two main competitive parties in post-Independence Sri Lanka. The UNP-led governments have ruled the country only 30 years but the SLFP has extended its control over 34 years since the formation of the first independent government of local people in 1947. The country was under the control of both the parties during 2001-2004 and after January 2015. The SLFP lost two consecutive elections in 2015, following a long stay in power, and the party faced an internal crisis after the defeat. This article examines the background and nature of this crisis.
The SLFP was formed in 1951 and came to power in 1956 by a landslide. Political scientifically, it was correct branding the SLFP as a political party of the middle path, when its economic and foreign policies were taken into account, but Marxists of the time more correctly branded it as the party of the national bourgeoisie, while the UNP was labelled as the party of the comprador capitalist class.
From the perspective of a socialist, the SLFP-led governments took many progressive steps to change the ownership of the means of production and challenged the monopoly of foreign capitalists, who had invested in various sectors on the island. Nationalization-program and protectionist policies of this party paved the way for a national capitalist class, while the governments led by the SLFP simultaneously established the norm that the SLFP was the party of the ordinary man and the UNP was the party of the rich man belonging to the privileged class.
In the wake of the neoliberal globalization, the economic policies and strategies of the SLFP came to be invalid and outdated by the end of the 1970s. After the devastating defeat in 1977, party was in search for an alternative economic policy and a strategy to counter very popular neoliberal economic policies and strategies of the UNP regime, but they failed to find none of them until Chandrika introduced the policy called “open economy with a human face” in 1994. Within a brief period, Chandrika learned the lesson that not only socialism but also liberalism is not possible in a single country particularly at a time of spreading neoliberalism as the dominant economic ideology throughout the world.
Nobody could be blamed for the disappearance of the ideological differences between the UNP and the SLFP in terms of economic policies; ideological consensus in mainstream politics was an inevitable and unavoidable outcome of neoliberal globalization. When Mahinda came to power as the successor to Chandrika, the SLFP eagerly embraced rudimentary Eastern version of neoliberalism, in the midst of disturbances came from the West. Middle path of the SLFP had totally disappeared, when Maithripala came to power; he can do nothing in this regard other than embracing both the versions of neoliberalism.
In terms of foreign policy, the SLFP always followed a very prudent and far-sighted strategy; its non-aligned policy brought not only security but also dignity for the country. Leaders of this party had special relations with some countries of the socialist bloc, but they never attempted to attach Sri Lanka to any camp. But, this independent foreign policy became submerged when Mahinda came to power, because he undermined the non-aligned policy and became a puppet of the Chinese camp, as he was in dire need of the protection of a giant in the international political arena. As a result of breaching the non-aligned foreign policy, the country had to suffer a lot. Maithripala has however managed to rectify this error to a reasonable extent by balancing good diplomatic relations with countries belonging to both camps.
As mentioned above, the SLFP emerged as the party of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists in 1951. Nationalist ideas had begun to haunt Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) politics since the very late decades of the nineteenth century, but nationalism came to the island in its fullest form in the 1920s. Two separate nationalist forces emerged among the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and they were mature enough to form as modern political parties by the end of the 1940s; hence the SLFP and the Federal Party. Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam respectively became the political leaders of the two forces; Chelva as a real nationalist but liberal minded Banda as a politician with ambitions and without alternative paths to power.
There were many leaders like DS, Kotelawala and Dudley (Dudley was a liberal leader, but he led the conservative front in the absence of a liberalist movement) to lead the conservative front, while Phillip, NM and Colvin led the Left. Because there was no liberalist movement in the country, the only alternative path for Banda was the middle path between conservatives and leftists, but he had to embrace Sinhala nationalism to become the leader of this third front, as Sinhala nationalists formed its mass-base.
The ideological stand of the SLFP on the national question changed from time to time, but it did not exceed the limits of a moderate nationalist party until 2005. All the three leaders who came from the Bandaranaike family were able to maintain a good image amongst the people belonging to non-Sinhala communities as well, even though its mass-base among ethnic minorities was generally far below that of the UNP.
However, the SLFP presidential candidate Kobbekaduwa was able to win Jaffna district, defeating not only the UNP candidate but also Kumar Ponnambalam of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1982, and Chandrika attracted a vast majority of minority votes throughout the country in 1994, even though, as many critics say, the SLFP was responsible for boosting Tamil separatism by introducing the Sinhala only Act in 1956, republican constitution in 1972 and education standardization program in 1973.
But, circumstances changed when Mahinda came to power in 2005; he made the SLFP an extreme Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist party, going far beyond the limits of a moderate nationalist party. On the one hand, this move expanded the mass-base of the party among the Sinhalese, but on the other hand, it significantly contracted the party’s ethnic minority vote-base, changing the proportion in favour of the opposition. As a result of this change of proportion and due to some other critical reasons, the party lost two consecutive elections in 2015.
Now, the party has faced the challenge of a split. This is not the first time that the SLFP is faced with such a challenge. History shows five major splits within the SLFP; many party stalwarts led by CP de Silva made the first split in 1959. Maithripala Senanayake and Anura Bandaranaike devastatingly broke the party first into two and then into three pieces in 1980. Four years later, an ideological conflict between the progressive and regressive fractions within the party made a huge split, compelling many social democrats led by Illangaratne, Vijaya and Chandrika to leave the party and form the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party. SB, GL and some other giants of the party made another split in 2001, and some party stalwarts followed Maithripala Sirisena, when he became the common presidential candidate in 2015, leaving the marks of another temporary split.
It is true that the party lost all elections held after each split, but recovery followed every defeat. However, the current crisis within the party seems to be extremely serious, because both the factions are very powerful; one in terms of popularity and the other due to authority accumulated in the hands of the party leader. Many similarities and differences can be detected, when the current crisis is compared with the previous ones, but the consideration of the major difference is sufficient to get an insight into the background of the pending split.
It was not difficult in detecting Ideological differences, authoritarian leaderships, personality-clashes, different agendas and external pressures as the common features of each split in history; all of them, except a conflict stemming from disagreements over ideology are observable behind the current crisis as well. Power-struggle has taken over the place of ideology today.
Naturally, politics without ideology takes a pragmatic form and causes chaos; neither faction has a firm ideology over any main issue. As a result, pre-split political battle has significantly lacked quality. Under these circumstances, ordinary party-supporters seem to be very confused, because they have faced the dilemma of choosing between their loyal party and beloved leader. If they love their party, they have to back Maithripala, but their desire to follow their war-hero, urges them to gather around Mahinda.
Both the factions have put their weight to attract the majority towards their camp, gradually playing the trump cards they have in their possession, but it is still uncertain, whether a new party would be formed. What is the reason for delay? Are they trying to catch the power in the SLFP or timing to form the new party? Or, do they have another obstacle to form a party? An implication came recently, when Maithripala addressed a gathering in Matara; he threatened Mahinda and other rebellious party-men with revelation of more “secrets,” if they form a new party.
This power struggle has compelled both the factions to get involved not in politics but in a dirty political game, openly breaching not only ethical codes but also the principles of democracy and good governance. For instance, Maithripala began his term, offering ministerial portfolios and various privileges to his corrupt party-men, who were in the enemy-camp before January 08, 2015.
After the General Election in August 2015, he breached all the norms and principles of democracy by appointing many politicians as Members of Parliament through the national list, even though ordinary voter had rejected them. He has begun a party purge by replacing corrupt electorate-organizers with more corrupt party-men, taking only the loyalty as the only qualification. Some of these newly appointed organizers have left awful remarks in Sri Lankan politics.
On the other hand, the faction led by Mahinda has been worsening the situation since his defeat on January 08, 2015; he has so far failed to rationally justify the purpose of his campaign. What he has been campaigning for? It is difficult to believe that Mahinda and his colleagues are still dreaming to come back to power in the immediate future, even though there was a very little possibility for that before the last General Election.
Apparently, the genuine motive behind his campaign is using of the people gathered around him as a shield to cover members and confidants of his family from the ongoing series of judiciary investigations by establishing the norm that public outrage can devastate the new government, if harsh actions are taken against defendants.
For this purpose, Mahinda and his colleagues have been attempting to mobilise people against Maithripala by spreading very false ideas and irrational interpretations about the progress of the post-war reconciliation process, because they do not have any other trump cards with higher values to play against the incumbent party leader.
Apart from the protest against the attempt of re-appointing Arjuna Mahendran as the Governor of the Central Bank, Mahinda faction did not organize any meaningful political campaign on reasonable grounds, after January 08, 2015; the lament echoed behind all protests demanded the cease of ongoing judiciary investigations against them. It is difficult to justify this demand, because civilized citizens usually expect proper investigation of all allegations supported by credible evidence.
Therefore, the demand has to be re-worded to say that “expedite investigation of allegations against not only Mahinda and his followers but also men of Maithripala and Ranil.” Unfortunately, Mahinda has established the lumpen idea that investigation of allegations against war-heroes is wrong an unethical. Fortunately, believers in this idea are becoming a minority within the SLFP. If Mahinda faction becomes a political party, its success or failure will mostly depend on expansion or contraction of this lumpen social layer within the SLFP.
But, it is also important assessing the availability of space for another exclusivist and extreme nationalist party in the ideological spectrum of Sri Lankan politics. Certainly, there is a space for such a party and an alliance, but the bigger gap is not for chauvinist politics other than for a civic liberal movement. Only civic liberalism can bring security, dignity and prosperity for the country, but the problem is, as mentioned above, liberalism cannot survive within a single country. Therefore, the only option available at the moment is forming a vigilant liberal movement to minimise the adverse impact of greedy neoliberal agendas on Sri Lankan society. Among the two leaders, Maithripala is more capable for that job, because such a task is far beyond the scope of Mahinda’s politics.