23 February, 2024


Sri Lanka’s Unfolding Power Struggle

By Jayadeva Uyangoda

Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda

One fascinating dimension of the current political developments in Sri Lanka is the maturing power struggle between three groups of the Sinhalese political class. They are led by three prominent political personalities, President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The last local government election, held a few weeks ago, marked the first occasion presented to these three groups to compete with each other in the public arena for popular support. The post-election days saw the intensification of their contradictions. Developments around the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister, proposed by the Joint Opposition in parliament, will be crucial for us to know the emerging trajectories of this three-cornered power struggle. The forthcoming provincial, presidential, and parliamentary elections beginning the end of next year, might lead to some sort of resolution of it. We can’t still speculate its shape and consequences. Nevertheless, Sri Lankan politics is obviously heading for some interesting times.

This essay seeks to shed some light on the sociology and political economy of this intra-elite power struggle currently unfolding in Sri Lanka. Before that, some preliminaries are in order.


First of all, there is no unified ‘ruling class’ as such in Sri Lanka as many, even intellectuals, appear to believe. Instead, what we have is fractured, or fragmented, groupings of a ruling class that constantly compete with each other while making occasional alliances as well. Electoral democracy has also enabled these groupings to organize themselves politically and bid for state power on a competitive and adversarial basis.

Factions of the ruling classes can also be described as political or ruling class elite groups. In Sri Lanka, they are ethnically fragmented alone Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim group identities and interests. This is the second important characteristic of Sri Lanka’s ruling class groupings. This ethnic fragmentation of the political elites is a reflection of their economic competition and rivalries organized alone ethnic group interests since the mid 19th century. Thus, the relationship among ethnically identified ruling class groupings is primarily structured around their economic and political antagonisms. However, it is also a relationship that accommodates inter-group political alliances.

Thirdly, there are two dominant ruling groupings in Sinhalese society that are politically organized around the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). They originally came from two similar, not different as some claim, strata of the Sinhalese elite with competing claims to political power. Family rivalries among those who led these two parties and the intense competition for the loyalty of the rural, peasant electorate sustained their social and political antagonisms. However, their close relationship with the Sri Lankan businesses groups, irrespective their ethnic origins, has fostered their intra-class linkages. In fact the dependence of the leading families of the UNP and SLFP on the Sri Lankan capitalist class factions, across their ethnic group identities, is the main reason why one can make the argument that Sri Lanka’s dominant political and economic classes have had identical ‘class interests.’

Fourthly, in both Sinhalese and Tamil societies, challenges to the dominance of established social and political elites from non-elite social classes have failed. The stories of failed LTTE rebellion in the North and East and the JVP rebellion in the Sinhalese South are also stories of the re-affirmation of the dominant, and upper caste as well as upper class elites in controlling Sri Lanka’s state. This dimension has a greater salience in Sinhalese society, because its two dominant elite/ruling groups have successfully obliterated any room for a third elite group to join the competition for political power.

Social Dimensions

The last point we just mentioned is the one that enables us to unravel the hidden social dimensions of Sri Lanka’s evolving power struggle at the top. A closer look at President Sirisena’s new political project, as it has so far unfolded during the past few months, is useful for us to make the connection.

Briefly stated, after the presidential election of January 2015, the SLFP developed a debilitating internal crisis, with President Sirisena becoming its new leader and the Rajapaksa family opposing him. President Sirisena became the SLFP leader not out of choice, but because it was thrust upon him. The SLFP’s party constitution lays down that whoever becomes the country’s president will automatically become the party’s leader as well. It led to an informal split of the party. Some of its leading members left the Rajapaksa camp and joined President Maithripala Sirisena’s UNP-led government and his cabinet, as SLFPers, since President Sirisena was the SLFP’s official leader. Thus, the new government after 2015 turned itself to be an unusual coalition of Sri Lanka two leading rival parties, the UNP and the SLFP.

This created a unique anomaly in Sri Lanka’s politics with, as it is becoming clearer only now, some drastic consequences for Sri Lanka’s political party system, dynamics of coalition politics as well as the composition of the political elites. A possible split of the SLFP, with two powerful rival camps, would have led to an alteration of Sri Lanka’s dominant two-party system. The formation of Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) and its surprisingly good showing at the recently held local government elections, show that Sri Lanka’s party system is in for some significant change. Its contours are yet to be crystalized. However, the question that is posed in this context is whether there is political room for a third camp of political elites in Sinhalese society.

Coalition Blues

President Sirisena’s acceptance of the SLFP leadership and his ability to persuade a good number of SLFPers to join him in the new government, initially appeared to be good news for the coalition government jointly led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe. But after less than a year, it appeared that this only weakened the coalition government. Although the coalition’s political base was expanded and the voting strength in parliament strengthened, it actually developed internal fissures that soon became unbridgeable. The two leaders called the new coalition a ‘unity government’, but failed to cement the unity in any ideological or programmatic sense.

To make the matters worse, those who joined President Sirisena and became even cabinet ministers began to oppose quite openly the UNP branch of the coalition government. They even advocated the old position that the UNP has always been the SLFP’s enemy. Their strategy, which President Sirisena seems to have initially tolerated and subsequently endorsed, was to renew the traditional rivalry between the two parties and in turn re-position the SLFP under President Sirisena as the legitimate heir to the traditional SLFP politics that was defined primarily in opposition to the UNP. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe reciprocated this rift and even deepened it by trying to exploit for the UNP’s electoral benefit the Sirisena-Rajapaksa rivalry within the SLFP. Thus, ironically, President Sirisena’s becoming the leader of SLFP contributed to the weakening of the coalition regime to which he gave joint leadership with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

Now this is the appropriate moment for us to return to our main theme. The UNP-SLFP adversity within the coalition government on the one hand, and the spilt of the SLFP into two rival camps, one led by President Sirisena and the other by former President Rajapaksa, have redrawn the battle lines of Sri Lanka’s elite competition. The two-cornered battle quite unexpectedly became a three-cornered one, each led by a very ambitious political leader. Now, the question of the question, as we mentioned earlier, is: Is there room for a third political elite group in Sinhalese society? A related, no less important, question is: will the two dominant political elite groups in Sinhalese society allow a third player to succeed?


The tactics which President Sirisena seem to have been employing for the past few weeks indicate that he is not unaware of this challenge. If the stories about his attempts to bring Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to his fold very clearly suggests that President Sirisena is trying out a tactic of politically splitting the Rajapaksa family. At the same time, there is hardly any possibility of the other two Rajapaksas –Mahinda and Basil – joining hands with Sirisena to fight the latter’s battle with Wickremesinghe and the UNP. They will only tactically respond to President Sirisena’s tactics.

It is very difficult to expect the two Rajapaksa brothers to forgive President Sirisena despite the saying that there are no permanent enemies in politics. The Rajapaksas view themselves as a ruling family – there are only a handful of them in the whole country — and they are unlikely to forgive anybody who has humiliated members of the ruling family of theirs. That is probably a lesson they have learned from Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Mr. J.R Jayewardene. It is no secret that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has been protecting the Rakapaksa family members from personal humiliation. President Sirisena has now extended this kindness to Goatabhaya Rajapaksa and we have to wait a little to see its political dividends.

New Kid

In the emerging intra-elite competition, President Sirisena is the new kid in the bloc, so to speak.

Compared with the other two – Messrs. Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa – President Sirisena has only limited resources. He does not have close family, social or class links with the Colombo social or economic elites. He is still a rural outsider, a shy villager not used to the trappings of class power. Mahinda Rajapkasa too initially had this disadvantage. He, within a few years in power, overcame all of his class, social, and family disadvantages by establishing very close links with Colombo’s business, industrial, and financial elites through an elaborate network of patron-client benefits. In this, he easily outclassed his Colombo rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

It is no small irony that the new economic and social elites, emerged after the economic liberalization which the UNP initiated in 1977, love Mahinda and his SLFP and — one must be careful to use a neutral word here — hate Ranil and his UNP. That also tells us a lot about the kind of capitalism that has evolved in Sri Lanka after 1977. A discussion of that theme requires another essay.

Meanwhile, President Sirisena’s links with Colombo’s economic elites are both weak and tenuous. There is no doubt that the business groups look at his renewed campaign against corruption with a great deal of consternation, because it goes against the grain of both politics and economics of private-public partnership in the age of economic liberalization. The private sector’s attitude to corruption and governance is not guided by moral principles either. Both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe know it well. This is where President Sirisena would be perceived as an outsider by Colombo’s powerful business elites.

In brief, in the current power struggle among the three political elite groups, odds do not seem to be in favour of President Sirisena. But who knows, Sri Lanka’s politics has always had a strong element of surprise and unpredictability.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    all crooks!

  • 4

    //In the emerging intra-elite competition, President Sirisena is the new kid in the bloc, so to speak.// Following the above sentence, using just over about 100 words he distills the problem. One of the salient problems of Sirisena is his inner class struggle. The man is a poet, Jayadeva Uyangoda. What a beautiful analysis to wake up to on a Sunday morning. The country , unfortunately is not in a beautiful sate.
    However , very well done, Jayadeva Uyangoda.
    P:S: Can’t help but share these few lines from the New Kids On The Block (80s band) titled “Didn’t I blow your mind this time”
    “I know it’s been a long time
    Since someone blew your mind, like I did
    (Ooh, baby)
    But there’ll be other times
    (Didn’t I blow your mind it happens all the time)
    For me and you “
    Yes, Yahapalanaya totally blew our minds.
    Total Boy Band- this government.

  • 7

    The power struggle is to rob more, keep the robbers safe, keep the past frauds under cover.

    • 1

      I think we are emphasizing too much the corruption. I don’t think our country is all that corrupt. We seem to have no real issues for political party rivalry. Cant our politicians define new issues such as how to promote national unity or design a national economic policy or similar issues? It is sad that our educated fraternity does not come forward to formulate national policies. Our foremost priority is how to promote national unity despite the diversity of ethnicity and religions. What does a Sri Lankan mean? Can we give content to such a concept? We are tolerant and not driven by racism. Can we re-define national consciousness including our valued Sinhala Buddhist past but also accommodating the diversity of ethnicity and religion. We need to re-define Buddhism in our national consciousness by separating it from ethnicity. Being Sinhala or rather Sri Lankan must be re-defined to mean a liberal Buddhism based on the original teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha was a liberal thinker who was a positivist. He promoted the spirit of inquiry not dogmatism. So a Buddhist must be re-defined to be a critical thinker who pursues the truth – a truth to be grasped by deep insight into the nature of reality and not a mere worship.

      • 1

        Raja Senanayake,

        “I don’t think our country is all that corrupt.”

        Our country is corrupt. It has got progressively corrupt since independence ……… and now every level of governance and the society is infused with corruption from top to the bottom.

        But, as you rightly say, corruption is not the only problem in the nation …………

        As for the rest of your post, I cannot agree more.

        “The Buddha was a liberal thinker who was a positivist. He promoted the spirit of inquiry not dogmatism. So a Buddhist must be re-defined to be a critical thinker who pursues the truth – a truth to be grasped by deep insight into the nature of reality and not a mere worship.”

        Spot on!

        There are many no-Buddhists who appreciate Buddha’s intellect and spirit ……… than many “Buddhists!”

    • 0

      We need honest politicians or a brand new political party with honest and educated candidates.

  • 0

    The short sight policies of that moribund the right-wing of political classes that think-tanks by “rainbow Revolution” are challenging means that undermined policies of democrats and democracy of Sri Lankan parliamentary system of governances.

    It is sources of political crisis 8t January 2015 current UNP + SLFP leadership of MS, RW and CBK .
    Result of that decaling forces of UNP-SLFP coalition crisis sources of the shakiness and vacillation “good governance” current ruling class has turn into unprecedented crisis and insatiability of our nation. Undeniadelly that ongoing crisis in Lanka is impending catastrophe badly effects to each every life of citizens all Sri Lankan nationalities

    In my view that ongoing irreconcilability of class antagonism in Island that by UNP -SLFP led ruling classes has created chaos and uncertainties of future of nation lay of counter -revolutionary set of policies since 1977 of Neo Liberalism 40 odd years.

    Since 2015 January UNP by regain of Neo-Liberalist policies of led Ranil Wicks is only means of saving the our nation for approaching disasters to whole country.
    By 2015 January that most authoritative managing of government of that Parliament, rule of President and controversy of rule of Judiciary by MS, RW and CBK political classes of joint hand with TNA and JVP backing last 39 months 2015 January by all these evil forces has been breached of Parliamentary Democracy.

    New emerging elements-forces and old counter-revolutionary forces are in struggle exist side by side in SLFP and SLPP. …….last 40 months. The right thinking persons has to know that current regime are lackeys of foreign power . By anyone have to understand, while bound to admit that there can be no advance real good governance by except corrupted eliminated ongoing “ugly democracy” replace as soon as possible?……in current majority members of Chamber.

  • 0

    I think the writer has got his facts wromg. He talks about the social disadvantage of the Rajapakses!! Doe he not know that MRs father was a State a Councillor and MP.
    They are the leading family in the area with extensive paddy and coconut lands. Sirisenas background is quite different.. His father worked in the Royal Army Services. Corps known as RASC They were landless labourers recruited by the British to do the menial work such as clearing land, digging trenches etc. At the end of the war DS Senanayake settled most of them in the early colonisation schemes in Polnnaruwa, Minipe etc.Each family received 2 acres of uncultivated land.

  • 1

    Sirisena has never headed a power bloc and never will be. Sirisena’s role is just an abberation. He was brought in as a stop gap to grab power by RW+CBK bloc against MR bloc. The two power blocs, one headed by RW+CBK and the other by MR remains in tact as evidenced by the recent LG polls. So the Southern main power centers remain as a dual. Sirisena even with his executive powers remains in the periphery which will be seen in the next round of elections.

  • 0

    The Three Musketeers are out there.
    SLPP recently re-re-re-established that language/religion-divide is a good propellant. Never mind the pollution – the people have developed immunity to a certain extent.
    Someone was able to bug RW’s inner circle. The buggers have let it be known that no one is safe. Blackmail on?
    Hmm….mm. Even in hell interesting things happen!

  • 1

    My take on this subject is tangential.
    There were no power centres to begin with. There was only power struggle within the political elite.
    The power struggle within UNP created two power centres: Colombo & Attanagalla, even though SWRD was from Colombo.
    This was necessitated by SWRD Bandaranaike marrying into the Ratwatte family.
    On this scale the Mahinda Rajapaksa was a distant third before he became President.
    In comparison, there is nothing in Maithripala Sirisena’s family history and heredity to boast of.
    Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to become a President solely due to Chandrika Bandaranaike appointing him as Prime Minister under her. Chandrika regrets her move even today.
    In life we speak of survival of the fittest. In politics survival is directly related to shrewdness.
    Again, on the scale of shrewdness Ranil Wickremesinghe compares well with Mahinda Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena is a very distant third.
    Now, you may continue with your dissection.

  • 0

    Jayadeva Uyangoda talks about the ruling class and elite power centres plus the competition among them. It is a good article,well composed. But he doesn’t cover other power centres outside the ruling class which has some degree of socio political power? Does this mean he only focused on the ruling class in this article or does he think the other centres of power do not matter in Sri Lankan politics? By other centres,I mean civil society organisations, trade unions, minority parties such as the JVP,student unions,religious leaders and organisations,media.

  • 0

    Fascinating?? Sorry Prof but this may be fascinating to a pol science academic commenting from the sidelines. But to us, the present chaos is devastating, not ‘fascinating’!

    Cry, our beloved motherland

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