By Jehan Perera –
President Maithripala Sirisena’s speech at the commemoration event for the late Ven Madulawave Sobitha Thero, was another indication that all was not well within the unity government. The venerable monk was the person who welded several disparate political parties and civic groups together to challenge the might of the Rajapaksa government. The previous government exemplified the Rule of Men and not the Rule of Law, which its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission warned against. Its leaders still show little or no remorse for the violations of law and human rights in the past. The commemoration held in the venerable monk’s honour was intended to be an occasion for remembering what he had stood for and the promises that those who had worked with him made regarding good governance and against corruption. Instead of which, President Sirisena made it into an occasion to severely criticize the outcome of that endeavor.
At the outset of his speech at the commemoration event, President Sirisena expressed his disappointment that he had not been invited to the commemoration event. The president stated that he had not been invited for the event or that such an invitation had reached him. The initial assessment of the president’s speech was that he had been piqued by being marginalized at the event. However, the president’s outburst on the occasion of the commemoration event may not have been driver solely by emotion. The fact that the executive committee of the SLFP along with the SLFP Central Committee, and the All Island Working Committee was set to meet four days later suggests that there was another calculation underlying the president’s public stance.
At this crucial meeting of the SLFP at which officer bearers of the party were elected, several of the key positions went to the breakaway group of 16 SLFP parliamentarians who recently left the government and now sit as an independent group in parliament. This group has pledged that their intention is to reunify the SLFP which is currently split, albeit unequally, into two factions, one of which is loyal to President Sirisena while the other accords primacy to former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The local government election results of February 2018 showed that the faction led by the former president is by far the dominant faction.
The intention of the group of 16 is to strengthen the SLFP which has fallen into third place behind the UNP and the newly formed SLPP that is led by the former president. They are all members of the SLFP who have accepted the leadership of President Sirisena. But they do not see a future for themselves or for the SLFP if it continues to remain divided with a section of the party loyal to the president and another to the former president. This concern has become more urgent as the next set of presidential and parliamentary elections approach barely 16 months away. Their stated goal is not to amalgamate the party under the banner of the SLPP headed by the former president, but to reunite the SLFP which is presently under the leadership of President Sirisena.
The president’s speech at the commemoration event made it clear that he was on the side of the SLFP more than with the government which he bitterly criticized. The implied message of his speech was that he is prepared to leave the coalition with the UNP if he could reunify the SLFP under his leadership. The president both criticized the policies and practices of the government head heads and also referred to efforts to undermine him politically from within the government. Given the results of the local government elections in February 2018 in which the newly formed SLPP headed by the former president fared better than both the UNP and SLFP, reuniting the SLFP is a priority aspiration of President Sirisena as well as the group of 16.
President Sirisena’s goal would be to lead a reunited SLFP and not be the leader who led it to irreversible decline and marginalization from its long history as one of the two main political parties which has given the country’s politics a two-party character for over six decades. However, the chief obstacle to this aspiration would be the former president, and other leaders of the former government who now lead the SLPP, who would not wish to yield the position that the SLPP has obtained through their charisma and campaigning over the course of the past three years. It is this contradiction that can prevent President Sirisena from achieving his ambition with regard to the SLFP. It is also the crucial factor that makes the continuation of the National Unity Government still possible.
The challenge for the UNP leadership is to negotiate an agreement with President Sirisena which includes those parliamentarians of the SLFP who continue to remain in the government. The best option for the country to ensure the late Ven Maduluwave Sobitha’s vision of good governance and non-corrupt government would be for President Sirisena and the UNP leadership to come to a negotiated settlement regarding power sharing between the two parties. Negotiations regarding power sharing are not new to the country as they have been engaged in to seek a resolution of the ethnic conflict in the past. A successful effort at reaching a power sharing agreement between the UNP and SLFP could be an inspiration for the power sharing that likewise needs to take place between the government and ethnic minority parties.
The news media has reported that the President is engaging the country’s two main political groupings, the UNP and the Joint Opposition at the same time. He continues to keep his options open. Despite his concern for his own political future, the value framework that the Ven Maduluwave Sobitha set in 2015 continues to motivate the president and needs to be protected. While the group of 16 are attempting to reunify the SLFP another group of SLFP parliamentarians who have remained in the government as ministers are reported to be engaging with UNP leaders to discuss the formulation of a common development programme and matters related to future elections, including the upcoming Provincial Council elections which the president has pledged will be held this year.
President Sirisena’s May 8 speech to parliament set out many accomplishments and plans of the National Unity Government that need to be explained to the general population. The problem is that most of the people in the country are either unaware of what the government has accomplished in the past three years or are overlooking them because they are not visible and material. Likewise the plans of the government for economic development and national reconciliation have been made but not yet explained to the people. The continuation of the National Unity Government is important so that the gains made in terms of restoring the rule of law and improving human rights are protected for the well-being and future development of the country.