By Malinda Seneviratne –
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is suffering from an identity crisis. The signs are all over the place. The SLFP has more Members of Parliament than any other party and yet finds itself in the Opposition. The man who secured the support of a majority of voters is the leader of the SLFP and yet neither he nor the party seems to be calling any shots as of now. We have an unprecedented situation where a mandate has been effectively transferred to someone who didn’t trust himself to go before the people.
Maithripala Sirisena, as of now, does not seem to care about the SLFP. Right now, it makes sense for Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the United National Party (UNP) and Prime Minister, to wish that the SLFP would implode. In this, as of now, President Sirisena appears to be playing the role of ‘accessory after the fact of implosion’.
First of all, the SLFP MPs themselves appear lost. They’ve pledged support to the man they campaigned against. Their political futures are tied to that of the President. They have enough political experience to understand that the SLFP will not get the 5.8 million that former president Mahinda Rajapaksa got on January 8, 2015. A considerable number of those who voted for Rajapaksa are themselves ‘lost’. They party they supported and the man they voted for both seem to be outside the political equation as of now. The party had backed ‘the other candidate’. The party is shunning ‘their’ candidate. ‘Their candidate’ is a member of the SLFP but is not treated as though he is. Indeed, he is operating as though he does not belong to the SLFP and vice versa.
The President has been quiet and moreover seems to have absented himself in the affairs of the state and more disturbingly from the process of political reforms including changes in the Election Law that he promised to institute. He is in fact acting as though he is not concerned about the outcome of the General Election that Ranil insists will be held as promised (never mind those other policy-related promises being shoved into some dull corner of this mansion called Yahapaalanaya).
Now if Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet take concrete steps to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the issue would be sorted one way or another. If, for example, Mahinda is jailed, it might either take the thorny ‘MR Factor’ out of SLFP election-related deliberations or might generate a surge of sympathy for him and corresponding anger at the President which would force his (Sirisena’s) hand with respect to decisively breaking his strange marriage with Ranil and the UNP. As long as nothing is done, Ranil probably knows, it will only help exacerbate divisions within the SLFP.
Mahinda himself appears to be in two minds about his political future, or rather what he should do right now. He has almost fully recovered his ‘face’ of 2009. In a situation where Sirisena and the SLFP are confused or in thumb-twiddling mode, Mahinda all of a sudden enjoys ‘demand’. Neither ‘face’ nor ‘demand’ together or separately add up to ‘viability’, politically speaking. As of now the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila are betting on riding this ‘demand’ to a ‘negotiated settlement’ with the SLFP/UPFA assuring them of nominations. That would be consolation for Wimal, Udaya and their diminishing numbers of backers. It does not help Mahinda.
If Mahinda makes any moves to re-take the SLFP it would most likely upset President Sirisena to the point that it will be resisted. The fact that such an eventuality is being thought of as a ‘possible’ itself indicates how seriously confused the SLFP is at this point. Mahinda or the Mahinda Factor has enough traction, however, to split the party. It won’t be 50-50 of course, but the SLFP can ill afford disunity at this point. Even an un-split but still confused SLFP will be no match for Ranil that much is clear.
All this indicates that the SLFP seriously needs to re-invent itself. Right now even the undelivered promises will work in Ranil’s favor even though it is he who is acting the Executive and ‘doing’ the non-delivery. That’s how much the SLFP sucks politically.
Given all this, Mahinda Rajapaksa, if he wants to make a comeback, must exercise patience. He can assert his political retirement and let Maithripala Sirisena effectively cripple the SLFP so that the rank and file, lacking options, will have to crawl to Medamulana and beg him to come out of retirement. Since Ranil and the UNP appear to be intent on re-enacting the 2001-2004 drama, Mahinda could very well count on a re-surge of the 2004 kind.
It all comes down to Maithripala Sirisena. If he doesn’t want the party, the party must decide if it wants him. If the President’s wallflower preference delivers electoral victory to the UNP, the decision will be made for both Sirisena and the SLFP MPs.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com