27 June, 2022


The SLFP In 2018: Vicissitudes & Risks

By Jayadeva Uyangoda

Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has been at a crucial turning point in its political career for some time. Its unending crisis has consequences for Sri Lanka’s democracy as well. As a political party, and with all its shortcomings and failures, the SLFP has contributed to institutionalizing Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy and consolidating the country’s political party system. But, it is now facing a life-threatening crisis.

If the outcome of the recent No Confidence Motion (NCM) against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe enabled the United National Party (UNP) to temporarily ride over the party’s internal crisis, the SLFP has not been so lucky. President Sirisena and his SLFP team of Ministers in the government appeared to have acted a script written for them by the two Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda and Basil. The Rajapaksas are leading a rival faction of the SLFP and Basil is organizing a breakaway party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). They are the primary beneficiaries of the SLFP’s unresolved crisis.

Simmering Split

In the immediate aftermath of the NCM, the SLFP began to show signs of a new split. There are two groups within President Sirisena’s camp of the SLFP with competing political agendas. One group consists of MPs and ex-Ministers who seem to be more comfortable with the option of joining with the Rajapaksas. The other group consists of Ministers who want to continue with the coalition government with the UNP. The former voted against the Prime Minister, who is the UNP leader, at the no-confidence motion. The latter chose to be absent from the voting and ensured indirectly and tactically that the NCM was defeated.

Meanwhile, most of the pro-Rajapaksa SLFP MPs are very likely to join, when the appropriate time comes, the SLPP, the unofficial leader of which is Mahinda Rajapaksa. Judging by the way the things are developing now, the SLPP is most likely to marginalize the Sirisena-led SLFP as an electoral force at the next Provincial Council, Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The provincial elections are to be held before the end of this year.

The past few months also saw the failure of President Sirisena’s attempts to unify the SLFP’s two rival camps. After the SLPP’s strong showing at the local government election in January, there is no real basis for President Sirisena to bargain with the Rajapaksas to reunite the SLFP under his tutelage. Besides, the Rajapaksas now have two relatively easy options before them, either to merge the SLPP with SLFP and throw Nr. Sirisena out of the party leadership, or continue to build and consolidate the SLPP as the Rajapaksa party in Sri Lanka’s politics.

Thus, President Sirisena’s chances of uniting the SLFP, or sustaining the SLFP as a credible electoral force, are slim at the moment. In case the new SLPP under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership becomes the next ruling party, the SLFP will suffer an irreversible setback.

Party System

The emerging scenario, as sketched above, raises an interesting point about Sri Lanka’s political party system. Since the mid 1950s – the SLFP was officially formed in 1951 – the SLFP and the UNP have constituted a unique party system model in the world. It is a dominant two party system with a multiplicity of small parties. This model of political party system came into being under the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system and continued under the system of Proportional Representation (PR) as well. Will this model of dominant two – party system be changed as a result of the SLFP’s split and the SLPP emerging as an alternative ruling party? The answer to this question will largely tell us the future fate of the SLFP.

In the event of the SLPP winning the next presidential and parliamentary elections, the UNP will occupy the second place in terms of electoral strength, pushing the SLFP to a third or fourth place. If, on the other hand, the UNP emerges the winner, SLPP will come a strong runner-up, again with inevitable outcome of the SLFP being pushed into the third or fourth place. There is one option for the SLFP to avoid this fate. It should enter into a coalition with either the UNP or the SLPP.

For an UNP-SLFP electoral coalition to emerge, their current coalition government needs to be firmly re-built with the next presidential and parliamentary elections in sight. There are no signs as yet of President Sirisena being inclined towards continuation of the UNP-SLFP coalition beyond 2019 -2020. In contrast, the UNP is more likely to consider the renewal of the coalition with the SLFP for the next Presidential and Parliamentary elections, yet on its on terms. That will entail the proviso that the SLFP under President Sirisena agrees to be a junior partner to the UNP, in a substantive sense of the term ‘junior.’ That seems to be a key lesson that the UNPers seem to have so far learned from their coalition experience with President Sirisena.

Systemic Explanation

Why is this scenario in which the SLFP’s is slated to lose its position as a major political party in Sri Lanka? We can think of what may be called a ‘systematic’ explanation, in the sense that the explanatory variables are embedded in the structure of the party system in Sri Lanka. This is where the relevance of the concept of dominant two – party system becomes salient. The explanation has two components and they can be formulated as follows: In a rigid dominant two-party system, as is in Sri Lanka, (a) political space for a third party to emerge is either limited, or (b) the space for a third party has to be created by displacing one of the existing dominant parties. When we bring the experiences of the JVP and SLPP vis a vis the SLFP, the working of these two explanatory components of becomes clearer.

Third Force

Since the late 1970s, and during its second phase of evolution, the JVP was projecting itself as a ‘third force’ of Sri Lanka’s politics. By the third force, the JVP did not mean ‘third place’ in party politics after the UNP and SLFP. Rather, the JVP wanted to rapidly evolve itself into the status of being a credible new force in Sri Lanka’s politics that could also become (a) first, a new alternative ruling party, and then, (b) the dominant single party. In the first stage, the JVP was to achieve parity of electoral strength with the two main parties, the UNP and the SLFP. In the next phase, the JVP thought it could graduate itself to be the ruling party by winning presidency as well as a majority of seats in parliament, eventually paving the way for its emerging as a dominant single party. Thus, as articulated in the late 1970s, the JVP’s projection was to first enter into a ‘semi-final’ fight with the SLFP and then the final fight with the UNP, and finally establish itself as the sole ruling party.

The JVP’s third-force project did not succeed during the 1980s and the 1990s, or even afterwards. Having failed to achieve even the first stage of its third force strategy, the party has generally remained one among several small parties in Sri Lanka’s system of a multiplicity of small parties. Its electoral strength has been dismally limited, hovering around 6% of total votes at most of the elections.

Meanwhile, the JVP’s coalition tactic with the SLFP in 2004 – an event that paid the JVP some significant political dividends and also incurred political costs,– did not ensure its goal of becoming a third force. The JVP’s electoral stagnation is due largely to the fact that it failed to win over the SLFP’s peasant and middle class electoral constituencies.

As a political party, the SLFP has traditionally had a strong electoral base among the Sinhalese peasantry and urban middle classes. Despite its mild communalism, it has had a significant voter base among the Muslims too, because the poor Muslim masses benefitted from the SLFP’s statist educational and economic policies. These are solid support bases for any political party. Thus, the SLFP electoral constituencies have not been vulnerable to the JVP’s intrusions. Only the UNP could successfully erode the SLFP’s electoral bases during the late 1970s and 1980s. The JVP’s attempt to challenge the SLFP only perpetuated the dominant two-party system at the expense of the JVP.

In the JVP’s strategy of becoming a third force on Sri Lanka’s electoral politics, the strategic path mapped out during the late 1970s and continued thereafter was to replace and then displace the centrist SLFP as an alternative to the right-wing UNP. But the SLFP easily survived the JVP’s electoral challenge.

Crisis Within

What is happening now is a wholly fascinating development in which the SLFP is challenged not from outside, as the JVP did in the past, but from within. It is the rapid disintegration of the SLFP as a political party due to its internal crisis that is creating conditions for the reconstitution of Sri Lanka’s dominant two-party system. That is also the secret of SLPP’s success over President Sirisena’s camp of the SLFP.

The SLPP is a dissident – not yet a break away — group of the SLFP which identifies itself with a leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa – who was not only a former party leader, but also an ideological heir to the Sinhalese-Buddhist communalist legacy of the old SLFP. During the past few months, the SLPP has been carefully and cleverly playing its communalist card with the electorate at a time when President Sirisena – the official leader of the SLFP – has been struggling, with no particular success, to chart out an ideological identity for himself and the SLFP.

It is also a huge irony that President Sirisena’s personal political success in 2015 as a dissident of the SLFP marked the beginning of the SLFP’s disintegration as a political party.

The fact that the SLFP has always been an ideological party – mixing a thin version of social democracy with Sinhalese nationalism and Left-liberalism – has not found much resonance in the reckoning of the party’s new leader, Maithripala Sirisena. If President Sirisena wants to experiment the ideology of Sinhalese nationalism for the party, he has a formidable competitor in the person of SLPP’s unofficial leader, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, If he wants the SLFP to embrace a mixture of social democracy and Left liberalism, he needs to take a few ideological classes from Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga, the former SLFP leader. That is most unlikely to happen given the ideological proclivities of individuals and forces that surround President Sirisena at present.

Meanwhile, President Sirisena is yet to demonstrate that he provides a resolute and effective leadership to a party under threat, with an unambiguous strategic foresight.

Thus, the SLFP under President Sirisena might soon find itself caught up in a multiple crisis. Its key dimensions would be at the levels of leadership, its class identity, ideological orientation, organizational networks, and material and strategic resources.

The management of the SLFP’s multiple crisis would be made hard by a several other negative factors. Chief among them are (a) the lack of a clearly identifiable class foundation for the party as well linkages with a clearly defined elite, (b) inexperience of the party’s top leadership and the immaturity of the second level leadership, (c) desertion of the party’s traditional electoral constituencies, (d) the absence of a political ideology distinct from both the SLPP and the UNP, and (e) the lack of access to the party’s erstwhile organizational and patronage networks as well as funding sources.

Meanwhile, the SLFPers can breathe a sigh of relief by noting the fact that their party is not alone, when it comes to the syndrome of party crisis. The UNP is having its own crisis. The SLPP is too new to develop a crisis as such. The JVP, the TNA, and SLMC also have their own mini crises. However, the SLFPers also have a risk which the others don’t encounter: the SLFP is truly facing the threat of reducing itself to the status of a small party.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Aiyo Sirisena!
    ( ͡° ل͟ ͡° )╭∩╮

  • 3

    Sri Lanka successful two party system started because the politics was based on ethnic identity politics. Even now what ever party that feeds this ethnic politics will become an important party. With the so called (dis)Unity Government the UNP was pushing(weak push) for a change of constitution which weakened the SLFP as it was with UNP in collision government, this was capitalised by the SLPP to launch their party. Besides MR will favor SLPP than SLFP as the former is a Rajapakse’s paksa, for which he has taken a calculated risk by supporting against the wishes of GR, NR and probably Shiranthy R. This ethnic issue has been realised rather lately by MS who is trying to distance himself from the UNP and align with GR.

    Mahinda has also realised rather lately that his brothers wont allow him to run for the third time and sort the help of Sanga to transform the Presidential form to a parliamentary form of government. There may be another factor that has become clear in the last few elections is that a Presidential candidate to win the minority support is essential (from the first time MR won it was due to either minority vote or abstinence that determined the victory, MR’s second term of course manipulations had a major role) This is especially important as religion is also coming into the political picture in a big way. People like GR may even divide the Sinhalese population’s voting pattern to Sinhalese Buddhist and Christian, this will further deprive the Sinhala Buddhist population from having a say in the election of the President.

    So two party politics is not a major positive feature of Sri Lankan politics, it is simply a system that evoloved in the majoritarian democratic political system introduced by the Whites for their convenience.

  • 0

    There will only be two major political parties in Sri Lanka – SLFP and UNP. The SLPP will have a natural death like the DUNF. Forget the local government election results which was a flash in the pan. The unity government needs to get their act together.

  • 3

    A such an in-depth article of Prof. Uyanogoda and i always used to read his articles four or five again and again. This article , from the perspective of a Political Science doctoral candidate, maps out a full diagram of Sri Lankan Political party history and legacy. He develops a thin line in this article which has a potential to help us to understand what is role of ideology in the Lankan Body Politics. Thank You a lot sir. Even though, the general public does not show enough enthusiasm to read opinion pieces like this, the students, like me, always prefer to read these writings. I mean , your articles are more than just a opinion piece for us.

  • 2

    Good article. Politics in SL are sick. The politicians should be there first for the people and secondly for their respective parties. The parties should work together for the benefit of the whole country. But our politicians are selfish, powergreedy and only interested in keeping their perks.

  • 0

    Good article but sorry for Sri Lanka..
    It failed to establish a national identity..
    We have been better off as a British colony .
    We could not add one more miles to national railway …
    Move out health and education..
    We fight each other for religion; language and ethnicity .

    So we would be better off with British.
    Sinhalese will never bring peace to this island .
    So, may Tamil Nadu invade it as they did in the last ..

  • 0

    After dinner topics include transitional courts. These are supposed to spee up judicial processes but what if they (through inept prosecution) bugger it?
    Now we have a transitional party SLPP. The party does not have a leader but have a de facto leader. Usurped? To the best of my knowledge SLPP does not have MPs!
    The final game is between MR team and MS?RW team.
    SLPP is a weapon used in a hostile bid to take over SLFP. If and when mission accomplished SLPP will be forgotten.
    The recent showing by SLPP in LC election was the use of the good old language/religion-divide. Another SLPP brief is to make corruption respectable.

  • 0

    Paying LKR 25 Lakhs to Prince Anura to buy the JVP to form Yahaplnaya, is the best service Dr Ranil did to the great Inhabitant population of the Nation, which was the rich Fishing ground of Comrade Wijeweera.
    The best service Mr Rajapaksa did for the same majority is gifting the SLFP presidency to Mr Sirisena ,to go along with the UNP Presidency which Sirisena got from Dr Ranil to run Yahapalanaya.
    Now the great majority of the inhabitant population who are the poor rural and urban Sinhala Buddhists and Catholics have a clear choice to find the Political Party which will at least give some hope to protect and nurture their and their kids future in Education, Health, Housing, Jobs and their long standing Culture.

    • 1

      KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

      “Paying LKR 25 Lakhs to Prince Anura to buy the JVP to form Yahaplnaya, is the best service Dr Ranil did to the great Inhabitant population of the Nation, which was the rich Fishing ground of Comrade Wijeweera.”

      What exactly did you mean by “rich Fishing ground of Comrade Wijeweera”? Was he fishing for anything other than attempting to rapidly convert the entire state into a fascist country?

      When, how, where ……….why did Dr Ranil pay LKR 25 Lakhs to AKD?
      Where did Dr Ranil get the money from?
      Why don’t you charge Dr Ranil for money laundering?

      “The best service Mr Rajapaksa did for the same majority is gifting the SLFP presidency to Mr Sirisena “

      According to Wimal Sangili Karuppan Weerawansa “Mahinda is not a name, Mahinda is a country!” . Hence Dr Mahinda gifted himself billions of dollars worth of state funds, cash and gold looted from Vanni, ……… If you go by Wimal’s logic/stupidity Mahinda is the country and he gifted himself with ………………………

  • 0

    It looks like SLFP’s future is in dilemma. The essay attempts to look at the future of SLFP. The Essay is staying focused from start to end on SLFP and its current encounters. But it is not recognizing the uniqueness of the Lankawe political systems. In Lankawe, past is always past, future, everything new (i.e. no point in talking things like SWRD or Dudley tearing the pacts- They are of the past.).We will not be able to put thing here on any methodological order; certainly no chronology. Our review going not in any order; we do something like a supermarket shopping …………… picking things here & there from in random order.

    1). Lankawe’s strong two party political systems are not definable. The oldest political party LSSP still has not come up or neither died. Why the two party systems never worked for LSSP? UNP came after LSSP, but, took over LSSP. SLFP came after UNP. Took over it UNP. Now Slap Party came after SLFP and took over it. Yes, we all know that the Slap Party has a chance (as high as 90%) of being killed. But that is not ruling out if Vasantha or Navin form a Party it will not take over UNP. DUNF death is immaterial here.

    2). Why JVP and LSSP didn’t come up ever? Is their ideology or basing ideology is not a viable strategy in Lankawe? If there is some ideology needed to win votes in Lankawe, why JR had to stop party hopping in 1977? Isn’t the party hoppers be punished by ideology concerned voters instead of governments? Then, once it was relaxed 75 MPs from opposition crossed to Ruling Old Royal government? It is not one or Two, but 75. Can one argue that these MPs were fearful of their accountability to the ideology conscious voters?

  • 0

    3). Is really some political space as Center Left or Center Right exist in Lankawe? Is there are really voter bases or is there voter groups exist under those two names? Then how come in 1970 Sirimavo and 1977 JR achieved sweeping victory over the other and they couldn’t even form proper opposition parties? Practically, that is the situation with SLFP and Slap Party this time. Slap Party did a complete sweep over SLFP. If SLFP was the ruling party, then the 2018 LG was 1977 Parliament election. My assessment is there is good number of Opposition Party Voting Sinhala Buddhist is there. They are easy to handle by opposition Party rather than ruling party. They are manipulated with Biryani- Arrack and racism. Instead of party loyalty, people putting wrong hope on wrong people and they are voting with frustration and amnesia, which is obvious beyond any hiding attempts.
    4). If there are real center left or center right exist, then how one can manipulate to win the unique features in Lankawe like, Apathy votes, Family Loyalty votes, Biriyani-Arrack Votes, War Heroism votes? Look at the Women side. Women are 52% voters and 4% MPs. But Geetha, Malini, Rosy, Hirunika, Chandrika even Sirimavo are the successful women? Are the Sinhala women voting for only their Makeup & fantasies or the Sinhala Mahajan has really a defective euphoria, wrongly categorizing them what they are not? Why an Indira Gandhi, Margret Thatcher, Angela Markel, Golda Maier or even a Jayalalitha did not show up in this list?

  • 0

    A Patriarch of Two Parties.
    We can look at specifically on SLFP’s future too, but it has notorious probability for any prediction to stick on. When Tamils’ dream leader SJV died voters did not leave his platform. The third Generational TNA still riding on his Platform but not on his name. Tamils liked SJV, but more on his methodologies rather than his personality. If that feature is missing analytical prediction won’t stick on.

    That is/was not the case of SLFP. The voter bank depends on star candidates. New King is not a star Candidate. The party did not achieve any victory under him. There is no question that there is a crowd of Sinhalese ready to support Old King. Last three elections have constantly and consistently indicated that it can be as high as 44% of the total voters. This is extremely high number for one man. When a 44% of the votes are in are inswing between those two parties, how can one say the future of anyone of them. So we have to switch the prediction to see what that one man would do in the near future, rather than where SLFP or Slap Party will be. Old King didn’t accept SLFP leadership, Opposition Party Leadership, Prime Minister Post, Slap Party Leadership. He did not whole heartedly support NCM on PM; he already distanced him away from NCM on opposition leader. He doesn’t like his brother take over from him. He only wants him son take over from him; but so far he has not shown any confidence on his son’s ability. Here Ratha and Rukmini are waiting for Krishna, but he has not accepted any one of them.
    So far, Slap Party is only a mirage and it competing with Real SLFP is minimal. But who is there to build the SLFP back? If nobody comes forward, it will remain in the second seat for a while, but may not die.

  • 0

    MS was a pawn used by the ideologues of UNP and their SLFP cousins led by CBK. MS was presented as a peasant representative to break up MR’s ideological hold on majority peasant constituency. RW+CBK succeeded in that project ably supported by Indian manipulated TNA/Tamils. However, given MS was just a frontal face of an elitist cabal, it was inevitable, that an ideological vacuum would emerge due to official SLFP deserting it’s political base and aligning itself with that of UNP. SLPP succeeded in successfully filling that sociological/ideological political space. JVP was unable to capitalize on that gap mainly because they were tactical bedfellows of the UNP led yahapalana cabal. Had JVP broke away from it’s ties with yahapalana regime in 2015 itself, at least when the bond scam was perpetrated within the first 100 days, it may had a fighting chance of making significant inroads in achieving it’s first strategic goal as described by Uyangoda.

    • 1


      “MS was presented as a peasant representative to break up MR’s ideological hold on majority peasant constituency. “

      Could you explain what you consider as Dr Mahinda’s Ideology and its hold on majority peasant constituency.

      “JVP was unable to capitalize on that gap mainly because they were tactical bedfellows of the UNP led yahapalana cabal. “

      Members of JVP was also a racist bedfellows of Dr Mahinda and its MP’s were not only part of his team of ministers but closely associated mouth piece of racist activism. They had very good close relations with the clan.
      JVP being hypocrites since its inception it does not matter.

      • 0

        Hora Indian Vedda,

        Check the map of electoral results for past elections, you will find answers to your question.

        • 1


          “Check the map of electoral results for past elections, you will find answers to your question”

          The map is a mere pictorial depiction of how stupid people are being spread over the island and their concentration in some parts of the country represents how racism helps them to chose between liberalism and growing fascism.

          Could you explain what you consider as Dr Mahinda’s Ideology and its hold on majority peasant constituency.

  • 0

    You cannot call it Sri Lanka Freedom Party because right through out their agenda was divide and rule policy more over a bloody racist party best thing to call is Sri Lanka Failed party.

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