Alas! Is it to be a sad day for the Blues and for democracy | Sunday Observer

Alas! Is it to be a sad day for the Blues and for democracy

11 August, 2019

Believe it or not, the political party which has governed Sri Lanka the most since it gained independence seventy-one years ago, will probably record its saddest day today.

The death-knell will sound for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), founded by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, zealously guarded by his widow Sirima Bandaranaike and eventually led by his daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga when its up-start rival, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) holds its convention and announces a presidential candidate today.

The SLPP event will have all the razzmatazz of a modern showbiz extravaganza and signal the arrival of the ‘pohottuwa’ party, the brainchild of Basil Rajapaksa and the vehicle of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as he begins what he believes will be his journey to President’s House.

Ironically, the person who history will hold responsible for the withering away of the SLFP will be its longest serving general secretary and its current leader, President Maithripala Sirisena. He defected from the party at the eleventh hour in the lead up to the 2015 Presidential election to run as the so-called ‘common candidate’ for the opposition and won, defying all odds.

President Sirisena won that election because the nation rallied round the opposition to defeat the authoritarian tendencies of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. He won also because the votes of the United National Party (UNP) accrued to him, at the behest of that party’s unstinted campaign on his behalf. Unfortunately for the President, he abandoned both these platforms which propelled him to power. In October last year he tried and failed to re-instal Mahinda Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister and today, he is still in talks with him. He is also actively undermining the legislative arm of the Government that is under the control of the UNP. Little wonder then that he is not riding a tidal wave of popularity.

The Sri Lankan voter, despite the popular belief that he can be taken for a ride easily, is rather fickle. In 2015, they ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man they re-elected with a record mandate just five years earlier after he spearheaded victory in the Eelam war. In 2019, the Rajapaksas are very much back in contention and we daresay that President Sirisena should beware, should he decide to run for office again.

However, as we ponder what could well be the demise of the SLFP, we must acknowledge that it played a pivotal and indispensable role in the country’s post-independent politics. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike may have founded the party because he felt that he would be forever marginalised in the then Senanayake dominated UNP, but he did so shaping it in such a way that it would appeal to the average Sri Lankan, as opposed to the UNP, which had acquired a reputation for being a party of the elite. That is in fact a comparison which is made to this day, more than sixty years later!

From its inception, the SLFP performed the role of government and government-in-waiting with some distinction. It gave the world the first female Prime Minister, it converted the country into a Republic and its government gave leadership to the Non-Aligned Movement, to mention a few notable achievements.

Yet, in all those years where it held sway, there was a common denominator: the party leadership stayed with the Bandaranaikes. Those who would have- and should have- led the party were thwarted by some way or the other, if they were not a Bandaranaike. C.P. De Silva and Maithripala Senanayake would have been Prime Ministers if not for this unwritten rule. Even Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was not able to take over the reins as long as she was married to Vijaya Kumaratunga. It was only Vijaya’s untimely assassination that paved the way for the return of the prodigal daughter.

Sirima Bandaranaike, who ruled for the longest time as SLFP leader and Prime Minister served the country well but she was also guilty of nepotism. In the lead up to the 1977 General Election, the UNP published a booklet called the ‘hath vasaka saapaya’ or the ‘seven-year curse’ alluding to the SLFP reign from 1970 to 1977. On its cover was a cartoon depicting the ‘family tree’ of the Bandaranaikes indicating the various relatives of the family holding important government positions.

That mould of Bandaranaike family rule was broken only when the Bandaranaikes’ line of succession ended with the premature death of Anura Bandaranaike and Chandrika Kumaratunga’s offspring vowed never to indulge in Sri Lankan politics. That was when the Rajapaksas took over- and what a take over it was!

If the Bandaranaikes’ family bandyism was bad, the Rajapaksa’s stranglehold on government was worse. Mahinda was President, Chamal, Speaker, Gotabaya, Defence Secretary, Basil, Minister of Economic Affairs, Namal, a parliamentarian and Shashindra, a Chief Minister. The country was fast becoming an oligarchy, thinly disguised as a democracy. That is why voters decided otherwise in 2015.

In a perverse kind of way, history is being repeated today. Just as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike left the UNP and formed the SLFP because he felt that he would never lead the UNP, Mahinda Rajapaksa is forming the SLPP because he feels that as long as Maithripala Sirisena is at the helm, his return to the SLFP as its leader would be difficult.

That is where the Rajapaksas may be miscalculating. President Sirisena’s tenure as President will shortly come to an end. At that time, if President Sirisena leaves the political arena, the SLFP will most certainly welcome Mahinda Rajapaksa with open arms. But the Rajapaksas do not want ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in their political calculation and they have upcoming presidential and general elections to contend with, so they decided to form the SLPP.

Two scenarios are possible from here onwards: President Sirisena could retire and the Rajapaksas could return to the SLFP and carry on as if nothing ever changed. Or else, the SLFP will slowly haemorrhage to its demise and the SLPP will fill that niche. Either way, it would be a sad day not only for the SLFP but also for democracy in Sri Lanka.