The SLFP in 2018: Vicissitudes and risks | Sunday Observer

The SLFP in 2018: Vicissitudes and risks

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 Lankan 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 an existential crisis.

If the outcome of the recent No Confidence Motion (NCM) against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 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 out 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 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 the SLFP and throw Sirisena out of the party leadership, or continue to build and consolidate the SLPP as the ‘Rajapaksa party’ in Sri Lankan 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 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 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 a UNP-SLFP electoral coalition to emerge, their current coalition Government needs to be firmly rebuilt with the next presidential and parliamentary elections in sight. There are no signs as yet of President Sirisena being inclined towards the 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, but on its own 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 a scenario in which the SLFP 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 the 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 becomes clearer.

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 the 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.

Third force

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 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 statist 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 statisteducational 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 the 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 with the ideology of Sinhalese nationalism for the party, he has a formidable competitor in the person of SLPP’s unofficial leader, 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 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, despite the fact that his heart is in the correct place.

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 several other negative factors. Chief among them are (a) the lack of a clearly identifiable class foundation for the party as well as 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 embroiled in 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 do not encounter: the SLFP is truly facing the threat of reducing itself to the status of a small party.

[This essay is Part II of Parties in Transition, by Dr Jayadeva Uyangoda. Part I was published on April 8, 2018 under the headline: UNP and SLFP: Transition Blues]

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