By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, March4: After the April 2020 Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, the island nation is likely to see the virtual extinction of two of its main (and oldest) parties, namely, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) founded in 1951 by SWRD. Bandaranaike, and the United National Party (UNP) founded by Don Stephen Senanayake in 1946.
Of the two, the SLFP has already been reduced to a nullity. After the sweeping victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the November 16, 2019 Presidential election, most members of the SLFP latched on to the new SLPP government formed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Subsequently, the SLFP’s chairman and former Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena made his party a junior partner in the SLPP-led alliance to fight the April 2020 parliamentary elections. Today, the SLFP is so weak that it cannot even ensure a parliamentary seat to Sirisena. If the SLPP gets a majority in parliament, the SLFP will be obliterated because its present affiliates will have no reason to continue in it.
The United National Party (UNP) was already disunited at the time of the November 2019 Presidential election. It is now on the verge of a split with party Leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe leading one outfit and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa leading the rebel outfit. The rebel outfit calls itself “Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB)” and not UNP.
The SJB is actually a coalition comprising a section of the UNP, small parties and parties of the minorities like those led by Rauff Hakeem, Rishad Bathiudeen and Mano Ganeshan.
On the surface, the quarrel between Ranil and Sajith is over the election symbol. After Ranil-loyalist Ravi Karunanayake refused to give SJB the “Swan” symbol he owns, Sajith has been wanting to use the UNP’s “Elephant” symbol. But Ranil will not allow him to do that. The SJB’s claim that the Elephant symbol had been granted to the SJB by the Working Committee of the UNP is ignored by Ranil as granting the Elephant to the SJB would make the SJB look like UNP. And Ranil would not surrender the UNP to Sajith. For Sajith, getting the “Elephant” is crucial because it has been the UNP’s symbol for decades and therefore, very familiar to the voters.
UNP watchers say that if the UNP splits between the Ranil faction (the official faction) and the Sajith faction (the rebel faction), the party will cease to be a political force because the SJB is aiming to be a distinct party or a permanent alliance, not a mere temporary electoral alliance. Sajith said so in his speech at the launch of the SJB.
The split will be on ideological lines too, as the official UNP will be right wing and pro-West, and the SJB will be left wing, nationalist and explicitly Sinhala-Buddhist as Sajith openly said.
Both the UNP and SLFP have suffered splits in the past, but perhaps never in a way that causes obliteration of the original outfits.
The first split in the UNP occurred in 1951, when one of its top-line leaders, SWRD Bandaranaike, left it to form the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist and center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Reflecting the communal yearnings of the majority rural Sinhala-Buddhist community, the SLFP won the 1956 parliamentary elections.
After the 1951 split, the remaining UNP survived as one unit till 1990, when top leaders like Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake left, unable to get along with President R.Premadasa. But the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) the rebels formed, collapsed after the assassination of Lalith and Gamini by the LTTE.
The next big split came in 2007, when 18 senior MPs of the UNP joined President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition to strengthen his hands in the war against the LTTE. Disunity afflicted the UNP again, when many younger leaders of the party felt that the Westernized and aloof Ranil was unsuited to be a leader of a mass party. He had little or no touch with the Sinhala-Buddhist rural masses ,they alleged. The malcontents pitched for Sajith as he was not from an elite background and was thought to be more popular among the hoi polloi.
While the Sajith faction wanted him to be the UNP candidate in the November 2019 Presidential election, Ranil resisted it and agreed only at the eleventh hour. He also did not campaign for Sajith. The move to replace Ranil by Sajith gathered momentum after Sajith’s defeat in the Presidential election. It intensified as the parliamentary elections approached.
Splits in Sri Lanka Freedom Party
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party faced a major crisis in 1980 when its chief, Sirima Bandaranaike, was deprived of her civic rights for seven years and was expelled from parliament by the then UNP leader and Lankan President J.R.Jayewardene. With Mrs. Bandaranaike politically crippled, internal conflicts arose in the SLFP. Sirima’s daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga broke away in 1984 and formed the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP). But she came back to the SLFP in 1993, and made it win the 1994 parliamentary and Presidential elections.
The next rift in the SLFP came in 2005 over the choice of its Presidential candidate. Party chief, Chandrika Kumaratunga backed her brother Anura Bandaranaike but most other leaders propped up Mahinda Rajapaksa, a dynamic and popular left-oriented leader. Mahinda won, and sidelined Chandrika totally.
Mahinda got two terms, the second and the last in 2010 after he vanquished the LTTE. But his second term was marked by corruption, scandals and high-handedness. The UNP-led opposition exploited these fully, and got SLFP’s General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena to defect and stand as the united opposition’s candidate in the January 2015 Presidential election.
Sirisena won and took over the leadership of the SLFP which was surrendered to him by Mahinda. But the SLFP was defeated by the UNP in the 2015 parliamentary elections because it was divided by the Sirisena-Mahinda conflict.Soon, the Mahinda faction broke away and formed the SLPP.
Because of the lousy performance of the Sirisena-Ranil coalition government, the SLPP swept the 2018 local bodies’ elections with Sirisena’s SLFP coming a poor and distant third. The rout triggered a flight from the SLFP to the SLPP sounding the death knell of the SLFP.
(The featured image at the top shows Sajith Premadasa with Ranil Wickremesinghe)