17 July, 2018

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SLFP Reforms Within The Political Party System   

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Reforms in political parties are necessary in the process of democratisation of any country, however on the condition that those are progressive and democratic, and not regressive or authoritarian. In the history of political parties in Sri Lanka there have been many splits, famously in the Left parties, and formation of new parties, but very few attempts at reforming parties within and in the democratic direction.

The political party system is not something adequately studied in Sri Lanka especially in recent times. When Howard Wriggins wrote his nearly 500 page book, ‘Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation’ (1960), he had a chapter on political parties and noted the importance of the formation of the SLFP in 1951, breaking away from the UNP, for the evolution of a competitive and possibly two party system.

More comprehensive and a focused study came from Calvin A. Woodward in 1969 titled ‘The Growth of a Party System in Ceylon,’ with whom I associated very closely at the University of New Brunswick. James Jupp also focused on the political party system, in a critical manner, in his ‘Sri Lanka: Third World Democracy’ in 1978. K. M. De Silva, as a foremost modern historian, and A. J. Wilson, as a leading political scientist, also paid attention on the subject in many of their books.

Wiswa Warnapala wrote two books on the SLFP, one after the other, ‘Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Political Change in 1956’ in 2004, and ‘Sri Lanka Freedom Party: A Political Profile’ in 2005. He himself was a SLFP member/leader. There is no such a profile or a book to my knowledge on the UNP, by an outsider or an insider. The Federal Party (FP) was fairly covered in A. J. Wilson’s ‘Sri Lankan Nationalism’ (2000).

The Left movement or rather the LSSP was studied by G. J. Lerski in his ‘Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon’ (1968), followed by Ranjith Amarasinghe in his ‘Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka’ (1998). All above are just a memory outline and not a complete catalogue.

The SLFP in Context

In the whole vortex of political ideologies, party formations, splits and party rivalries or competitions, what is the general position of the SLFP? Has it played a significant role in the political and socio-economic development in the country?

All academics and analysts have agreed that the formation of the SLFP in 1951 was a significant landmark in the democratic development in the country as it supplied an alternative to the UNP. It contributed to the evolution of a two-main-party system. Unfortunately, the Left was not in a position to supply that alternative due to many ideological and bickering splits.

What was the main reason for its formation? The main reason given was that the UNP was not representing the majority of rural masses. The UNP was considered an urban and an elitist party, of course with a rural base. This was the genesis of the SLFP’s Pancha Maha Balavegaya (great five forces), whether that is valid in the same way today or not. The Marxists gave another interpretation to this difference, naming the UNP as representing the ‘comprador bourgeoise’ and the SLFP, the ‘national bourgeoise.’ The ‘national’ label to the SLFP had a validity in other respects as well. It wanted to breakaway from all vestiges of colonialism or neo-colonialism. Whether right or wrong, the policies followed by the SLFP governments had this angle until recently. On the other hand, there is much reason today to consider the world situation not merely as neo-colonialism but globalization. Even China is promoting a form of globalization.

There was no strict ideology for the SLFP, until of course the Mahinda Chinthana invention, as it appeared a pragmatic party with nationalist orientation. SWRD Bandaranaike was a declared ‘rationalist’ at the beginning. He embraced Buddhism and then he embraced nationalism while in his initial writings cautioning about extreme nationalism. He had a vision, as he said, to unite the Sinhalese first and then unite the Tamils and the Muslims for a long journey for national rejuvenation. But he blundered in his language policy and many others and the vision of uniting all communities got lost, during his time and thereafter.

Whether that vision can be implemented or resurrected under the new party reforms and changes is the question now. The present leaders might tread in that direction cautiously, given the sensitivities attached. The President’s recent visit to Jaffna and Governor Reginald Cooray’s initiatives give the impression that the government and the party are in that direction. 

November 2014 Split 

There had been several splits within the SLFP in the past. In 1964, C. P. de Silva left the party and brought down the SLFP government and then joined the UNP. In 1984, Chandrika Kumaratunga left the party and joined her husband’s Sri Lanka Mahajana Party, but returned back to the fold in 1991. Even Anura Bandaranaike left the party in 1993 and joined the UNP. Most of the splits those days were going in the UNP direction.

However, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time, many people broke away from the UNP and joined the SLFP. He was extremely smart in that sense. Some people argued that the new comers got more prominence and control than the traditional SLFP members. This is something that gave extremely an upper hand to MR and another accusation was that the SLFP became more of a family and a group party than a membership organization. CBK was side lined or she distanced herself from the party. Corruption apparently underlined these developments during particularly the second term of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Under his yoke, the traditional SLFP leaders were quite meek and ‘obedient.’ That is apparently what he expected and the present author had many occasions to observe this dynamic.   

Then how could we explain the last minute break (after eating hoppers together!) of a small group of people with Maithripala Sirisena in November 2014 and contesting the presidential elections backed by the UNP and the TNA? Was it like C. P. de Silva’s break in 1964? It was possible that the split going that way, if not for MR’s handing over the SLFP leadership to Sirisena in 2005. Then why did he do that? There can be three or four explanations. (1) MR was so confident in winning the election, but got completely demoralized after the defeat. (2) He was just following the party constitution, although uncharacteristic of him. (3) He rationally realized that otherwise, the party might rebel against him. (4) Sirisena’s pressure was so overwhelming, he didn’t have any other option.

Whatever the reason, handing over the party was a significant landmark not only in the SLFP history, but also the party system in the country. Because it has opened up the opportunity to reorganize the SLFP as a modern and a membership based party. This was not the case before, and particularly under MR. He excessively believed in personal Charisma mixed with voodoo type practices and encouraged faithful followers, but not policy based members. The best explanation for the downfall of such personalities or regimes come from none other than the Chinese President, Xi Jinping.

In recent years, long-pent-up problems in some countries have led to resentment among the people, unrest in society and the downfall of governments, with corruption being a major culprit. Facts prove that if corruption is allowed to spread, it will eventually lead to the destruction of a party and the fall of government.”

This is of course said in November 2012 in respect of countries like Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea (‘The Governance of China,’ p. 17). However, it equally applies to Sri Lanka, not only to the last government, but also to the present one, if the dubious corruption trends continue.

Party Reforms

An agenda for party reforms were set in motion first in September 2015 at the 64th Anniversary of the SLFP. The main guiding personality was Maithripala Sirisena. He had almost fifty years of experience in the party, beginning at the grassroots level. Having been the general secretary of the party between 2001 and 2014, for 13 years, he was quite familiar with the party branches and activists all over the country. He was supported by several old and young leaders, Duminda Dissanayake among the latter as the General Secretary.   

In addressing the party members at the conference, he was justifying the national unity government with the UNP on the basis of national urgency, stability and national reforms. He was of the opinion that the SLFP has weakened through personality cults. Therefore, he said, “I offer the hands of brotherhood to all of you to join with me to build a strong Sri Lanka Freedom Party.” Of course, building a strong party is not necessarily of building a reformed party. But regarding reforms, the following was what he categorically said. 

Therefore, as the SLFP, all of you have the responsibility to reform the party completely within the coming period after the 64th anniversary. This party should be built as the main populist political party which is accepted by Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu and Islam. Everybody should work for that end with utmost commitment.”

Other points he outlined were ending violence, including post-election violence, elimination of hate politics and giving priority to policies before personalities.  He also said, “I am a person who is on a slow journey. But I am not ready to turn back in that slow journey.”

Whatever his efforts, unity within the party, within the parliamentary group or the UPFA was difficult to maintain. Perhaps it was not necessary. First, the Joint Opposition was formed, the former President as the inspirer, and some other parties in the UPFA also taking a leading role. That was in late 2015. The main reasons appeared to be the policy differences or antagonisms with the UNP. Then a new party, the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPF), was formed in November 2016 as a counter organization to the SLFP. Some of the reasons were related to the corruption charges levelled against those who were close to the former President, and side lining of them and some others within the SLFP. The corruption charges were considered political victimization.

When the SLFP annual conference (66th Anniversary) was held last month (2 September), a split within the party was very clear. Those who were loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa or the SLPF did not attend the anniversary. However, the conference can be considered a major success, a strong young contingent with women participating. It was one of the well-attended and well-organized party conferences in the whole party history. The party reforms appeared to have worked within the last two years.

New Trends and Lessons   

The 66th Anniversary Conference deserves separate attention some other time in discussing party politics and the SLFP in Sri Lanka. However, the emergence of the SLPF cannot also be underestimated, considering MR’s still remaining popularity, perhaps money and networking.

The policy line that the President has taken in his speech at the conference was against ‘Corruption, Fraud, Irregularities and Waste.’ He reverberated the Sinhala words for them ‘Dushanaya, Wanchawa, Akramikatha and Nasthiya.’ He might not be a shrewd social networker like MR, but he is one of the best political speakers perhaps after SWRD Bandaranaike. Those slogans can still be an election winning platform for the SLFP, among other things, although that was the same platform that MS won the presidency in January 2015. Yet, those may have a cutting edge against both the SLPF personalities and the UNP, while some of the tainted characters are still with the SLFP. 

It appears that Sri Lanka is moving towards a three-party competitive system in most of the electoral constituencies in the near future. While the SLFP is still in the national unity government with the UNP, and has very closely worked in addressing some of the key national and international issues, there are areas where there are failures particularly in economic policy and performance. On some of these socio-economic maters, the traditional differences between the UNP and the SLFP have surfaced again and again.

Therefore, if the SLFP is not to leave the government and disprove what MR has predicted in breaking the national unity government this year, the UNP may have to listen more and more to the SLFP in addressing economic development issues and socio-economic grievances of the people. In analysing the history, policies, leaders and organizations of the two parties, one may observe that the SLFP is more closer to the people and their aspirations than the UNP.     

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    Dr. Laksiri: You say: “SLFP Reforms Within Political Party System”. I say it must be re-titled as “SLFP Reforms Within Political System”. The reason: Did you not notice the most recent appointment of a “Politician” who has been sentenced to SEVEN YEARS IN PRISON as the Chief Organizer of the SLFP in Anamaduwa? In another case, you would remember that famous “Toy Pistol Mayer” from Tissamaharama has been appointed as an “ORGANIZER” of the SLFP. There are many more. All these appointments have been made by the “Chairman” of SLFP – Mr. Maithripala Sirisena with approval of the “Central Committee” of Party Management. I do not blame that; because that is the prevailing SYSTEM and continued SYSTEM of most of the major Political Parties. So however much you and I speak of REFORMS, nothing will CHANGE, unless and until such time the VOTERS make an eventful decision to chase away all these (from the Leaders downwards) corrupted vagabonds out of real and meaningful POLITICS.

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    Prof. Laksiri: you seem to miss the bus.

    The New JVP or a new left led by JVP is the third force and ONLY alternative to the Corruption and Money politics that is rotting the UNP and SLFP and the whole of Lanka.

    JVP is really going after the corrupt and pushing the Naitonal Audit Bill and went after Bond Scam with Handunetti as COPE chair.

    Also new JVP seems to have dropped its racist anti-minority card under AKD. Of course, instead of playing ball with corrupt doctors and SAITEM, JVP should lead a massive people’s march against Corruption and for the Impeachment of Ranil WIckramasinghe and his footnote clan.

    • 0
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      JVP should start voluntary campiagns to help people in different regions. By that wy, they should build the grass roots. Those organizers should be very much self-less or at least should not come to politics if their wish is to get rich by the shortest possible way.

      • 0
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        SLFP?????

        Sinhalese should totally and absolutely reject Mahinda and JO.

        Mahinda doesn’t represent Sinhalese anymore but separatists.Two of JO traitors who don’t have backbones to stand by the country taking part in the Constitutional Assembly.

        Mahinda’s betrayal of Sinhalese is record breaking. He/JO (except Wimal) acting totally against people’s mandate.

        Ranil was/is a traitor. There is no surprise of him doing anything/everything to divide the country. But Mahinda’s betrayal is not something people have ever expected.

        Mahinda/JO want to abolish Presidency or support Ranil’s amendments to the Constitution including electing President from the Parliament so that Ranil can win the next general election and run the country, for another 5-10 years. Mahinda doesn’t want anybody else to win other than Ranil. His aim is passing the country to Namal after Ranil, with his help. Two birds/one stone. (I revealed Mahinda’s plan as early as March 2016.)

        Even for the next Parliamentary Election (2020), I don’t think Mahinda will contest. He doesn’t want to pose any challenge to Ranil. Not only that, he blocks anybody and everybody posing a challenge to Ranil. Mahinda chose to betray the country for a petty political gain for his family. Ranil is hell bent on not to hold the next Presidential Election as he cannot win. And Mahinda is hell bent on not to hold the next Presidential Election for fear that somebody else will win and Namal will never get a future. For this purpose, Mahinda supports Federal and/or proposing amendments to the existing Constitution by taking part in the Constitutional Assembly.
        Many are worried about the future of Sinhalese. Our nation was never lack of leaders. Noone is indispensable. What country needs is new leaders. Right now our responsibility is defeating the Federal Constitution, rest assured.

        • 0
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          No no, Mahinda should come back.

          Then only we can let the country ending up with an ANOTHER somalia.

          Let Mahinda to abuse the MASSES that stay on UNCHANGED mode.

          This country is made to doggy paradise as of now.

          Meritocrites have been replayed by mediocre … politics of the country is more or less like that of PAKISTAN

  • 0
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    [Edited out] Comments should not exceed 300 words. Please read our Comments Policy for further details.

  • 0
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    Both the UNP and SLFP are responsible for most of the problems in Sri lanka. the only qualification advance in the party is seniority, power and nothing. No one wants to promote an educated leader to the top. there is no expressing of idead by each who likes to be leader. See, that is why we need parties with better management. SLFP has corrupt sloths at the top. MY3 do not wants to take out those becayse, they can create a three wheeler party and come back or UNP will recruit them. So, it is unbelievably corrupt politics. another thing they should introduce is the how to fund the party, some transparent and accountable system. rught now, any one can get foreign money. that is happening right now to keep the UNP alive. There are many other programs to destabilize the country in everyway. Major leaders silent and keep quite because, they want only the money so that can surve politically. What we need is not discussing the past but discussing the present and how to restructure and to get rid of thieves and the sloths who are just hanging on to it because they are not dead yet.

  • 1
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    Sad to say from inception SLFP was and is a racist party apart from chandrika

  • 0
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    Among our contributions to “Democracy” is the first female Prime Minister (Sirimavo), first female elected PM (Sirimavo), first woman Executive President (Chandrika B)
    We now have the (dubious?) distinction of having a major political party (SLFP) – part of which is governing while the rest are in the vociferous opposition. Again we have proved that this is possible provided the government and opposition are NOT there to govern but to ……….? (Lotus-eaters can get help to fill the gap)
    Dr. Laksiri Fernando puts it mildly ~ “Reforms in political parties are necessary in the process of democratisation of any country, …………”.
    A realist will say “It is no longer funny SLFP”.

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    In Sri Lanka, there are no political parties today. (There was ‘a’ political party in Ceylon. That was the LSSP. You cannot call the Communist Party of Pieter Keuneman era or any other era, a party.)
    *
    What we have in Sri Lanka today is men in leadership positions of political groups. These political groups are not political parties, but cliques of political opportunists. That helps their jumping from one group to another easy.
    *
    The primary criteria for a group of men to call themselves a political party is a clearly defined Social and Economic agenda. When these objectives are absent the groups cease to be parties.
    *
    There is no chance of a political party showing up any time soon. Our men are after the national wealth, in the pretext of protecting ‘harmless’ Sinhalese from ‘scheming’ Tamils!

  • 0
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    We have to remember, if not for Banda’s Language policy, there would not have been any true Catholic and Buddhist Sinhalese from poor back grounds in high positions in Universities, Hospitals, Government Departments and Public Enterprises………….

    • 1
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      KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

      “We have to remember, if not for Banda’s Language policy, there would not have been any true Catholic and Buddhist Sinhalese from poor back grounds in high positions in Universities, Hospitals, Government Departments and Public Enterprises………….”

      You have no idea how right you are.
      Banda’s language policy helped unfit, unsuitable, unqualified, ….. Sinhala/Buddhist ghetto candidates are being automatically rewarded with jobs, promotion and corrupt power. They never had it so good.

      Now you know why this island is in such a mess. You will never solve any of the problems.

  • 0
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    JVP Tilin Silva is going around now , telling the poor that a Coconut costs LKR 100…….
    But same Tilin and his JVP took LKR 25 Lakhs from the Yahapalana UNP to make Dr Ranil the PM…….
    What Srilanka needs is a fast tracked Economic Development based on Social Capitalism……………
    Where the gap between High and Low Income can be narrowed…….
    Then people couldn’t careless who they work for, where they work or who they are under Politically…….. Take the the Diasporeans. as the example……..
    It is not happening under Yahapalanaya…
    UNP is hell bent on putting their Capitalist Agenda into place , like Privatization of all Human needs such as Health , Education, Jobs, Transport and Business….. ….
    Break up the Country into Borroughs so that the Sinhala Buddhist majority can be fragmented to avoid them becoming the main political and social influence. in the Nation……

    • 1
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      KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

      “But same Tilin and his JVP took LKR 25 Lakhs from the Yahapalana UNP to make Dr Ranil the PM…….”

      You are disappointed because Yahapalana UNP didn’t let you have the sum instead it was paid to red shirt comrades. You are angry Dr Rajapaksa was rejected by the majority people, and dumped him in the Joint Opposition Ghetto. You are hoping and praying Basil/G L Peris’s party to win however you don’t know the reason why.

  • 1
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    KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

    “But same Tilin and his JVP took LKR 25 Lakhs from the Yahapalana UNP to make Dr Ranil the PM…….”

    You are disappointed because Yahapalana UNP didn’t let you have the sum instead it was paid to red shirt comrades. You are angry Dr Rajapaksa was rejected by the majority people, and dumped him in the Joint Opposition Ghetto. You are hoping and praying Basil/G L Peris’s party to win however you don’t know the reason why.

  • 0
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    The political elites and majority people of Sri Lankan want come to the approached that time is suitable for shifted politics of Anarchism and Terrorism was born with JVP in 1965, that change into democratic path of Revolution.
    In fact an evolution of post Independent-political history says that 52 years has proven in deeds that politics of JVP has done tremendous damage and undermined Ours Nation order Democratic political structure.
    The crux of matter political class relationship and level of Capitalist development by newly born petty bourgeoisies has change that land scape of political battle ground in our society?
    The two major parties and their political of the classes has subjects to change during New Height of Globalization –Capitalism of Monopoly and revolution of technology by radically different path and ways.
    Many of majority elites has no taken into account by these changes in ground level of class conflicts and class struggle visible in new Form that every nook and corner of Island.> .
    That is why JVP model role of politics are out- dated to contemporary mission are concern that are very totally different of politics of class roots from the past 50 years.
    The major two political parties are Not suited to current Global Order come into being and Local urgently need address to Development of Sustainability Capitalism has not well read by leadership SLFP( CBK fraction) and UNP of Ranil Wick and MS …… I assume that (is New UNP Leader)!?

    Is not that JVP politics of rebellion against State has certain facts to be review of that historical complex an issues by Right thinking leadership by New Political Party of People?

    • 0
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  • 0
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    Douglas:- You are dead right, You have really hit the nail on the head. Any unbiased person with a modicum of understanding should accept the fact that one cannot getaway from the truth or side track one’s conscience in dealing with truth and justice . Our two leaders, for that matter the entire country is aware of the heinous crimes committed against the innocent people and the misappropriation of country’s wealth perhaps in unfathomable proportions and worst of all the extra judicial killings are gaping before our eyes. My feeling is that nothing will succeed until and unless justice is done to all, friend or foe. We can clearly see the dubious ways that are being done by the powers that be to sweep these crimes under carpet. If you are not prepared to do justice I am afraid you have miserably failed and betrayed the people and it is plain dishonesty and unworthy of your sacrosanct positions.

    the wealth of the country amounting to perhaps unfathomable proportions. How many innocent lives have been slaned

  • 0
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    “Reforms” whatever it means, Let the Political Party reforms within democracy

    Democracy means “internal democracy” democracy within the party itself.In the US, they have the Primary elections to select the candidate, why not we have a compulsory primary election to select candidates for election..

    Reform of electoral system with FPP within compensatory proportional systems may bring in strange characters

    Now ‘preferences” have vanished from the electoral system leaving proportional system with a political Party list leading to dictatorship of the party secretary.

    The party rank and file have no say in the selection and the FPP becomes farce?

  • 0
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    The leadership of SLFP of Old guards and its family nepotism since beginning was co-exist side by side. By the SLFP leaders that governances of ideas and an educational system that educated leaders from very inception that was failure to delivered grass roots all over the Island from 1956.. The expected such political model was that not there to provide Public and Party members to follow by family nepotism ?
    Indeed SLFP had that different set of polices against an opposites to of UNP; it was mandate given by voters that landslide victory 1956 to MEP leader of SWRD Banadarake.
    In 1956 policy matters are fundamentally aim of people aspiration were to be address the Ruin of colonial-Economy want to radically shifted by fair play that strengthen by the public life.

    Therefor People’s seek a new Era by an eradiation of backward Capitalism and its nature of neo-colonial roots of that restoration by Fair political system of Democracy in Ceylon at that time..
    Needless to say SLFP has played a progressive Role of political-economic and Social reforms an Island; it has deep impacts in Sri Lankan society was remarkable steps forward.
    The changes has SLFP model is losing certain of its luster. It was just colonial model of backward-capitalism nexus to Simple Commodity Production, it did not provide sustain development & growth of National Economy.
    Since 1994 more and more people of majority are beginning to realized that majority of rural and urban POOR have NOT benefited, far from that development and growth that SLFP model having not politically attractive.
    During the 1994 to 2005 vast majority people sensing political system was corrupted and it follow foot path of UNP leadership by SLFP of CBK.!
    We have to look at SLFP credibility has gone and its political system has created vast gap between People and Rulers!

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