By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“Shree Lanka Nidahas Pakshaye gamanaka avasaanaya”– the final journey of the SLFP— was the title of a public lecture delivered by Rohana Wijeweera in the early 1980s. He was wrong. Or maybe he was prophetic and merely premature by a few decades.
The SLFP is dying electorally. Why so? Because it has contracted electoral AIDS through its relationship with the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. It would have been affected by any coalition with the UNP, but it is terminally affected because the UNP is led by Ranil, who is also the PM. No personality in the UNP represents everything that the SLFP voter viscerally opposes, more than Ranil does. Ranil is ‘The Other’ in the eyes of the SLFP voter, because of his persona and his policies.
It is now clear that he is entrenched as the PM and UNP leader. It is also undeniable that the economy is growing at the slowest rate in 16 years. It is known that Ranil and the TNA have arrived at a 10-point accord in exchange for the TNA’s support at the no-confidence motion. The TNA is detested by the SLFP voter.
The combination of Ranil as PM, the low economic growth, the neoliberal policy package of privatization and de-nationalization, the appeasement of the TNA, the arrest of military personnel, taken together, mean that the SLFP’s continued stay on the Unity Government will accelerate its electoral death.
The timing and optics of the arrest of former Army Chief-of-Staff and head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence on the morning after Ranil won the no-confidence motion, smacks of Millennium City. All of this will make the SLFP voter detest those SLFPers who stay with/tilt to Ranil and the UNP.
Mangala Samaraweera’s counterargument, which Chandrika has smuggled into the SLFP, is that Ranil will get 80% of the combined vote of the minorities, and if he and Sirisena, or just Ranil on his own, can secure a mere 35% of the Sinhala vote, he can do a 2015. This is incredibly stupid. Those Sinhalese who voted against Mahinda in 2015 aren’t about to do so again. They voted against the Rajapaksa government while this time they’ll be voting against a Yahapalana government—a government which has just increased taxes on top of a declining economy and rupee! And the Sinhala Catholics aren’t voting for Yahapalana either.
So it’ll be 80% of the Tamil and Muslim minorities plus a small percentage of Sinhalese for Ranil and the UNP, because many UNP voters won’t be voting for Ranil either.
The SLFP will be buried beneath the avalanche. It will be an avalanche of triple elections: Provincial Council, Presidential and Parliamentary. It has only one chance for survival, let alone recovery, and one moment in which to make the right move. That moment is NOW, today, Monday April 9th 2018. Today is the day of the SLFP’s Central Committee meeting, the first after the no-confidence motion. The SLFP has to make the pivot that will make it possible to have a less than desultory May Day celebration in a few weeks.
Thanks to the no-confidence motion, the SLFP has one thing going for it; one card to play. Just one! The 16 SLFP dissidents who voted with the no-confidence motion revived the drooping blue flag and waved it proudly. They had a choice. They could have clung to Chandrika’s blue-green saree pota or they could have waved the dark blue flag. They chose to do the latter.
I think it is safe to predict that the SLFPers who abstained from the vote and thereby revealed their sympathies for Ranil Wickremesinghe, while arousing suspicions of material gain, have come to the end of the road politically, at least as far as re-election on the SLFP ticket goes.
They may obtain UNP nomination but the UNP is heading for electoral disaster so one fails to see how that will help them. They may not even get a preference vote from UNP voters. They also run the risk of being ditched by Mr. Wickremesinghe’s obvious successor.
It is possible that they may hope to sneak back into parliament on the SLFP National List, but the SLFP as it stands is not going to well enough to have more than few coming in on the national list.
If the SLFP remains the way it is, it will not make it into double digits and will have to fight with the JVP for last place.
The only way in which the SLFP can revive is to change course and enter an alliance with the JO led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Plainly put, the SLFP has to turn the clock back to August 2015 and ride on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s coat tails, or rather, his satakaya (shawl), or not survive at all.
It is difficult to imagine that any of the abstentionists will get nomination from Mahinda. Their only chance is to be on the SLFP ticket and for the SLFP to have an arrangement with the JO-SLPP. The later that task is placed on the agenda the less likely it is to be accepted by the JO, and even if it is accepted, the share that the SLFP will get will be quite small.
The earlier the SLFP pivots, the more likely is an alliance with the JO and the better the terms and conditions will be.
The SLFP’s political viability depends precisely on its 16 dissidents. Far from disciplining or silencing them, these 16 constitute the lifeblood of the party. They saved the party’s credibility by standing up.
The SLFP declined to 13% of the vote because it had abdicated its traditional role and function of a moderate nationalist alternative to the center-right United National Party. It played the role of an adjunct, a prop of the UNP.
Party leader, President Sirisena has accurately calculated that on the basis of the Feb 10th local government results the JO would obtain 102 seas, the UNP 65 and the SLFP 30. He made the point a viable majority in Parliament would require the SLFP’s 30 seats. The problem with that argument is that it does not make a projection for the future. Now that we know that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will remain the UNP leader, we can safely assume, on present form, that if the SLFP were to stay with the UNP, then its vote would drop below 13% and therefore its number of seats would fall below 30.
The SLFP’s bargaining power is on the decline. The phenomenon of the Rebel 16 has hit the pause button on that decline, but if the moment is unused, misused or deleted, then the decline will resume.
What happened to the SLFP at the last election and will inevitably happen to it at all future ones unless it pivots, is most clearly explicable when one recalls the similar fate of the Liberal party of Britain which, under the leadership of Nick Clegg, entered a coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives. It was decimated at the subsequent general election. By stark contrast the British Labour Party has revived under Jeremy Corbyn precisely by returning to the classic stand of the Labour left against the Conservatives.
Luckily for the SLFP, the whole country and most pertinently the SLFP voters saw 16 SLFPers, mostly senior, voting with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s JO against Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP. They saw Susil Premjayanth and Dayasiri Jayasekara speaking out defiantly in the face of UNP aggression. It is these two, leading the Group of 16, who have restored the SLFP’s credibility.
The split in the SLFP has been a boon not only for the JO but perhaps more so for the SLFP. Had the anti-UNP struggle been virtually monopolized by the JO with some wildly anarchic support from the JVP, while the entire SLFP abstained, then the anti-UNP voter would have switched almost completely to the JO, with a small percentage accruing to the JVP. However, thanks solely to the SLFP’s 16 courageous dissenters, the SLFP voters can retain some measure of faith in their traditional party.
The SLFP dissenters showed that they had more courage than the UNP dissidents who backtracked and caved in. While it is true that the UNP leadership is far more dictatorial than the SLFP’s, it is also true that from the viewpoint of the national TV audience, i.e. the voters, the UNP dissenters were seen to simply fold up, while the SLFP’s dissenters stood firm.
The SLFP’s fate even in the short term lies in the fortunes of the Group of 16. If they are promoted to the top of the party and asked to chart a course for it, the SLFP has a chance of electoral survival and recovery. If the SLFP is so revamped and redirected it could be a rallying point for disaffected UNP voters as well, now that the UNP’s leadership will not change. Those UNP voters are more likely to shift to a rejuvenated SLFP, rather than to the more robustly nationalist SLPP. An SLFP led by the Group of 16 could be a new centrist opposition formation, close to the SLFP at its founding moment of 1951: a social democratic, anti-UNP party.
Such a party would have the options of attracting dissident UNPers, or allying with the JO on respectable terms, or building the broadest possible bloc, ranging from the JO to the dissident UNP.
If one the other hand the SLFP fails to defend the Sixteen from the UNP, and to make the best use of their defiance by deploying them as the new brand ambassadors of the SLFP, then the official SLFP can kiss goodbye to its electoral future.
If the LSSP had exited the United Front coalition government in time (midterm) and moved the dissenting Vasudeva Nanayakkara to the top ranks, and the Communist party had done likewise and placed Sarath Muttetuwegama at the helm, neither party would have got decimated at the 1977 general election. These moves weren’t made and those parties were wiped out. The same fate awaits the SLFP if it doesn’t turn against Ranil’s UNP and re-profile by placing the Group of Sixteen at the helm of the party. Perhaps it is time for the SLFP to convene a party Congress or Convention to debate and determine the political line.