Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Lessons not heeded

Posted by harimpeiris on May 17, 2016

Lessons not heeded

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News)

 

The latest drama in a long running saga of the power struggle in the SLFP between President Sirisena and his predecessor has become the May day rally, with the former president and an as yet unknown number of his political allies in the SLFP, intending to attend the joint opposition’s May Day rally in Colombo rather than the SLFP rally in Galle. However, the SLFP’s discomfiture in the national government, brought about by a section of the party refusing to sit with the government, is a bit of a self-inflicted wound from which it is slowly healing, with President Sirisena slowly but surely beginning to prevail.

President Sirisena, chose the less risky and less politically costly method of dealing with his predecessor who refuses to retire, of letting him fade away and become stale news rather than precipitate a crisis by trying to sack him from the SLFP. Long term this will work, simply because the Rajapakse political project and its joint opposition does not have the political capacity to reinvent itself or be flexible, it remains stuck in the same old dogma that lost it two elections in 2015, a formula of essentially Rajapakse verses the rest and a purely Sinhala only constituency which does not provide the formulae for any political comeback. It is however a political refuge for the non SLFP small alliance partners of the UPFA, who profit by trying to use the former president as a de facto opposition leader.

The SLFP in the joint opposition make some arguments which just does not make sense or hold water in relation to a national government. They keep referring to the Government as a UNP government, but it is in every sense, a partnership between the two parties. There are almost as many SLFP members in government as UNP ministers and deputies and further the SLFP has in President Sirisena, the constitutional head of government and state. Further the SLFP members in opposition act like the SLFP has never had coalitions or alliances in recent times and this is patently not correct, since the SLFP back in 2000 and the original formation of the UPFA, by the then PA, was to accommodate the JVP. These were of course all instances in which the SLFP then had a majority in Parliament, while the post August 2015 experience has been that the SLFP is second best in Parliament in relation to the UNP. But the SLFP should be positive about the national government initiative which enables it to continue in office, even after losing the general election.

The real obstacle of course to a national government is Mahinda Rajapakse. Were he to bow to the will of the people who voted him out of office, (the only incumbent executive president to have sought re-election and lost) and really retires and leaves the joint opposition to be actually led by Dinesh Gunawardena, the SLFP would be free to continue to serve in government, effect state reform and then come before the people again at the next general elections. The two major parties in a country coming together to form a government and then contesting against each other again at subsequent elections is not an unusual occurrence politically, especially in countries such as Germany, where the so called grand national coalitions are formed.

President Maithripala Sirisena is slowly gaining ground within the SLFP or rather even amongst its constituency who may have voted against him in 2015, not so much from any one spectacular move but through a process of numerous measures. As SLFP organisers are changed to new persons loyal to President Sirisena, with a new UPFA general secretary unsympathetic to the former president, through slow but steady progress in various judicial proceedings against the former regime and mostly due to the lack of any new message or a course or policy correction, the Rajapakse magic which slid into minority status in January 2015 and confirmed that status in August 2015, cannot expect a different result from an even more enthusiastic rendering of the same old tune that lost twice in 2015. The Joint Opposition expects the electorate to turn back the clock to pre January 2015 and accept that public made a big mistake in 2015. That is unlikely to happen. Mahinda Rajapakse and his advisors and coterie thought they could win the presidential election and could not. This at the height of their power. Their similar enthusiasm for a local government election, the most difficult election for an opposition, due to a second string contesting an election which cannot change the government or state power, will similarly see his proposed new political formation lose yet again. As Mahinda Rajapakse gradually loses his grip on the SLFP machinery, those backing him have a harsh choice, buck the two party trend and try and make it in a third political formation or fall in line with the new leadership of the SLFP.

Sir Lankan political history has been unkind to third party efforts, most recently in August 2015 to both the JVP and more drastically to Field Marshal Fonseka’s Democratic Party. It was over twenty years ago that the Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake combination, the UNP breakaway DUNF garnered about 13% of the popular vote, the best third party showing in Sri Lanka to date. The big difference even between Lalith and Gamini’s breakaway was that it was political while Rajapakse’s decline in the SLFP is electoral, he and his brothers are out, because they lost. The formulae that made them loose, that they lost the support of every socio political sector except for a section of the majority ethno religious block, persists. Their dismal record of governance is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. The Joint Opposition as they plan their May day rally, would be entirely unrealistic if they believe in a comeback anytime soon.

 

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