Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for September 17th, 2019

The SLFP crafting a third way

Posted by harimpeiris on September 17, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 15th September 2019)

It was the political scientist and theorist Anthony Giddens who coined the term, a third way, to describe a political alternative between the conservative right and the socialist left, a middle ground that avoided either the extremes of neo-liberalism or the dogmas of Marxist class struggle. Listening to President Maithripala Sirisena, most recently at the SLFP’s annual party convention at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium and in other public comments subsequently, the President as the leader of the SLFP has been making some effort to articulate a political position which is seemingly distinct from either the governing UNP or the main opposition SLPP. With presidential elections around the corner and parliamentary and provincial polls also due subsequently, the potential political space for the SLFP deserves examination. The SLFP though seeking an alliance with either the SLPP and reportedly even the UNP, under a possible Premadasa candidacy, is also exploring the option articulated by President Sirisena of sitting out the presidential poll and launching themselves into the subsequent parliamentary elections.

Could an independent SLFP break the two-party system?

Sri Lanka has long had a two-party system and our presidential system of government, has only served to solidify that trend. However, both the two major parties the UNP and the SLFP had seen it necessary to incorporate and form alliances and coalitions to win elections and establish administrations, both parliamentary and presidential, the existence of the UPFA and the UNF being the most recent examples. President Sirisena himself won the presidency at the helm of a multi-party coalition which styled itself the National Democratic Front (NDF). The UNP is currently in talks with its governing allies to form an alliance for the upcoming presidential elections. The choice of their presidential candidate being perhaps the sticking point in the formation of that alliance.

Sri Lanka’s most recent election was the local government elections of February 2018 and it demonstrated a significantly diversified electoral landscape, where essentially the SLPP emerged as the largest party with 40% of the vote, the UNP a poor second with 30%, the SLFP a creditable third with 13%, the JVP next with 6% and the TNA fifth with 3% of the vote, the other minor parties and independents, accounting for the balance. The February 2018 election results could be read in different ways. A charitable explanation was that the 52% polled by President Sirisena as the NDF candidate, demonstrated its constituent parts once broken down, when the votes of the UNP, SLFP, JVP & TNA was combined, making it 52% of the vote. Interestingly, should this coalition have held together, which of course it didn’t and hasn’t, it would like in 2015, be a winning alliance for the presidential poll.

The JVP has, as have many left parties in the world, and like the CPI (M) in neighbouring India, sought to be an ideologically driven third political force in national politics, an alternative to a two-party system. It is accordingly a credit to the SLFP that it beat the JVP and emerged as the third force in 2018. Now while many might plausibly have thought the SLFP would be 2nd largest party and the SLPP the 3rd, the reality was that the SLPP, formed by the anti-government elements of the SLFP, had by 2018, captured the major opposition political space in Sri Lanka. Not least through its own self-styled name and brand of the “joint opposition” (JO), it moved into the political vacuum of the dissenting voices against the “Yahapalana” administration. The SLFP in the presidency and also holding cabinet posts could not successfully run with the hare and hunt with the hound, be simultaneously in the government and occupy the opposition space at the same time. The vacuum it created was filled by the SLPP.

No room for a non-Rajapakse leadership of SLPP

Today, the SLFP which ended its alliance with the UNP government, just before last October’s constitutional coup, has quite correctly despite numerous efforts failed to enter into a successful alliance with the SLPP. This is unsurprising and the SLFP should be cautious in seeking an alliance for the presidential election, a poll in which it may not field a candidate.

SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera has been the most vocal of all the current crop of SLFP leaders, in arguing for a radical independence from both the UNP and the SLPP and also is quite critical of the SLPP. Both President Sirisena and General Secretary Jayasekera believe and have articulated that the SLFP, though coming in a distant third, would well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament after the next general elections and accordingly will be king makers and an influential political player.

A major obstacle for an alliance between the SLPP and the SLFP lies in the Rajapakse family domination of the SLPP. The SLPP is the political vehicle of the Rajapakse clan. Its leader is Mahinda Rajapakse, the presidential candidate is brother Gotabaya, the party convener is brother number one Basil, the heir apparent is son Namal and the patron is elder brother Chamal leaving not much room for any other politician to blossom or spread their wings. During the previous two terms of the Rajapakse Administration, senior SLFP leaders at the national level like Maithripala Sirisena himself or Nimal Siripala and provincial leaders like late Berty Premalal Dissanayake or MKDS Gunawardena, found themselves not just shut out from the system, but actively politically undermined in their home turfs, by challengers supported by the party leadership. Senior politicians realise that there is a certain glass ceiling which exists within the SLPP if you’re not a member of the clan. It would be unwise for President Sirisena, running down the period of his single term presidency, to blindly support the political forces against whom he led the charge and ousted nearly five years ago. President Kumaratunga did not actively campaign for Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 but let him campaign on his own for the narrowest of all wins, aided by the LTTE enforced poll boycott in Jaffna. Perhaps, President Sirisena should and could lead the SLFP, to remain neutral at the presidential poll, save its resources and energy for the subsequent general elections and be a dynamic third force in Sri Lankan politics and arguably king makers in the post 2020 Government.

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