SLFP: Whither a name board only by 2010? | Sunday Observer

SLFP: Whither a name board only by 2010?

This Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary of the election of President Maithripala Sirisena to office as President of Sri Lanka and the beginning of the ‘Yahapaalanaya’ government. Sadly, the ‘Yahapaalanaya’ government is no more with the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) having pulled out of it in October.

Tuesday also marks the birthday of Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRD to most), the founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the party which President Sirisena leads and the party which is at a critical crossroads right now.

Although the SLFP has never, in contrast to the United National Party (UNP), governed the country on its own and has always formed governments as coalitions, the alliances it has led have ruled the country for longer than the UNP. From 1994 to 2015, it ruled the country almost uninterruptedly, save for a short stint by a UNP led coalition in 2001, but even then, that was under an SLFP President, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

It is no secret that SWRD formed the SLFP because he realised that the Father of the Nation, D. S. Senanayake was keen to pass over the baton of power to his son Dudley and no one else. SWRD knew that his prospects in the UNP were bleak.

That led to the birth of the SLFP but to Bandaranaike’s credit, he also formulated a different vision and philosophy for the country. That led to the perception that the UNP was more aligned with the ‘suddas’ while the SLFP provided inspiration to the local population with a more nationalistic bent. That dichotomy persists to this day although the accuracy of that assumption is debatable.

From its inception, the SLFP was the fiefdom of the Bandaranaikes for over fifty years, in as much as the Congress Party of India became the heirloom of the Nehrus and Gandhis. When Sirima Bandaranaike was deprived of her civic rights, the rightful successor was her long serving deputy Maithripala Senanayake but his ascension to leadership was actively resisted leading to a virtual break up of the party into two factions known as the SLFP (Sirima) group and the SLFP (Maithri) group.

The SLFP survived that break up and closed ranks to unite once again. It is also ironical that both Bandaranaike siblings in politics broke away from the party. Chandrika Kumaratunga parted ways and formed the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) with Vijaya Kumaratunga. Anura Bandaranaike, frustrated at being deprived of the party leadership after being Leader of the Opposition during the difficult days of J.R. Jayewardene’s rule, did the unthinkable and joined the UNP. Both later returned to the SLFP.

The Bandaranaikes’ stranglehold on the SLFP ended when Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended the Presidency. If the Bandaranaikes- Sirima and Chandrika - ruled the party with a velvet glove, Rajapaksa did so with an iron fist. The Rajapaksas there were many - Chamal, Basil, Gotabhaya and Namal, apart from Mahinda - and the party became an oligarchy, a closed enclave where the password for entry was ‘Rajapaksa’.

It was this aspect that led to frustration within the senior ranks of the SLFP and caused Maithripala Sirisena, then the SLFP’s longest serving General Secretary, to quit the party and run against Rajapaksa for President. The rest, as they say, is history. After his victory on January 8, 2015, Sirisena also took over the leadership of the SLFP under a clause introduced by Rajapaksa himself to circumvent Kumaratunga- that, if a party member is President of the country, he or she would automatically become party leader.

So, the SLFP has seen many dark days, survived, and come back to lead the country. To do so, it has been blessed with leaders with charisma who have been able to identify the needs of the people at a given time and formulate policies that struck a chord with them.

The big question is, can it do so again? There is no question that the party is in dire straits. At the most recent national elections, the Local Government polls last February, they came a distant third behind the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the UNP. Their share of the vote was a meagre 12 per cent and that too after being bolstered by the votes of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress.

The SLFP’s nemesis, for the first time in its history, is not the UNP. It is the SLPP. Led by the charismatic Mahinda Rajapaksa and its strategy formulated by the street-smart Basil Rajapaksa, the SLPP has proved to be a formidable opponent.

Historically, third parties have not been successful in Sri Lanka. The SLMP under Vijaya Kumaratunga flattered but faltered after his demise and the Democratic United National Front prospered under Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake but died a natural death after Athulathmudali was assassinated. The SLPP, however, has what it takes to be different.

That is why UPFA parliamentarians have opted to remain with the SLPP despite many invitations from President Sirisena, often with offers of Cabinet portfolios attached. They feel their political futures are more secure with the pohottuwa party than with the SLFP. That should worry the SLFP because it is an indication that the party has lost its grassroots level support base to the SLPP.

Worse still, those parliamentarians remaining loyal to President Sirisena are now seeking his permission to join the United National Front Government. They obviously feel that is the best way they could ensure their re-election.

President Sirisena’s response has been to strip SLFP electoral organisers of their posts and announce a tie-up with the SLPP for the next national elections. That may secure his future but it is a strategy that puts him at loggerheads with the rank and file of the SLFP who still remain faithful to the party. They foresee an alliance with the SLPP where they will be subservient to the pohottuwa.

It is fair to say that these might be the most challenging times ever faced by the SLFP. The SLFP has been, and should continue to be, a vital cog in our democratic wheel. We can only hope that the party will survive and not be a mere name board by January 8, 2020.