Colombo, June 8: A cheerless domestic situation, both political and economic, has put the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena at the cross roads. Its members are wondering whether they should stick to Sirisena or respond to the call of former Sri Lankan President and former party chief, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to rally round him to face the next parliamentary elections due in 2020.
Indeed, there are three more years to go for the next parliamentary elections, which is a long time in politics. But given the inertia in the economy and political confusion at the top governmental level in which there is an uneasy alliance between the SLFP (Sirisena) and the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, younger SLFP leaders and party cadres are worried about their electoral prospects.
The top leadership of the SLFP (Sirisena) and UNP, are aware of this. That is why the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is not holding local body elections which are long overdue, and is wary about facing the Provincial Council elections due in the first half of 2018.
Maithripala Sirisena was elected to the Sri Lankan Presidency in January 2015. He had become the Joint Opposition Candidate after he quit the posts of General Secretary of the SLFP and Minister of Agriculture in the Rajapaksa government. The Joint Opposition campaign managers had expected Sirisena to get his colleagues in the SLFP to support him. But the expectation was belied. If Sirisena won, it was because of the consolidation of opposition votes and the near total support of the Muslim and Tamil minorities. According to Rajapaksa, Sirisena got only 5% of the traditional SLFP votes.
However, after the elections, the SLFP decided to invite Sirisena to become its President, and Rajapaksa also graciously invited him to take his place. Sirisena accepted the position and took charge of the party machine. But very soon, the SLFP became a battle ground for two factions, one led by Sirisena and the other by Rajapaksa.
Initially, Siriesena ate into the Rajapaksa faction by liberally giving ministerial portfolios and other government positions to key members of the Rajapaksa faction and many did cross over. But the August 2015 parliamentary elections showed that the rank and file and the voters were largely with the Rajapaksa faction and not with the Sirisena faction.
As a result, the Rajapaks faction got a majority in the SLFP group in parliament. But over time, the lure of ministerial positions offered by Sirisena made some cross over to the Sirisena side.
This was not a panacea for Sirisena’s problems. The SLFP members and ministers were reluctant to work harmoniously with their UNP colleagues in the government and parliament. While the UNP felt that, being the single largest party in parliament, it should have a greater say in governmental decisions, this was not conceded by the SLFP members.
UNP ministers, holding key portfolios, including that of Prime Minister, often took decisions without consulting SLFP ministers or even the President. This lead to non-cooperation and protests which made President Sirisena over rule decisions taken by UNP ministers including the Prime Minister. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has been passing orders only to cancel them.
The economy has been growing at a modest 4.8% due to drought and lack of public expenditure which were stopped because of the debt burden allegedly inflicted by the Rajapaksa regime which had borrowed heavily from abroad for its grandiose infrastructure projects.
The Sirisena-Wickremesnghe government said that it has had to borrow more only to repay the debts. Although world prices of oil had come down as did commodity prices, the cash-strapped government did not pass on these benefits to the common man. Despite efforts to improve tax collection, it remains poor. Signs of economic development which marked the Rajpaksa regime are not to be seen now. The “Yahapalanaya” or Good Governance regime ,which was established with much hope of having economic growth without dictatorship, has failed to live up to its promise.
Most recently, the Disaster Management Minister insisted on being at a climate change conference in Mexico when floods were causing mayhem in his country. The Prime Minister left for the US for a routine medical check up and a conference when post-flood rehabilitation work was still on.
Right in the midst of the great deluge which took 224 lives, the government announced that it was allocating hundreds of millions of rupees for buying luxury cars for politicos. The government, which came to power with Muslim support, is a passive onlooker when a set of Buddhist extremists attack mosques and their monk-leader evades arrest. The government is yet to implement the pledges made to the Tamils during the last elections.
All these have naturally caused unease among those identified with the government, including SLFP MPs, ministers and cadres. While the cadres and voters openly express resentment, those in parliament and in the Council of Ministers express it privately.
However, because elections are still three years away, and being in the party of the powerful Executive President, they will not upset the apple cart by coming out of the Sirisena faction or wrecking the SLFP-UNP coalition to force an election.
Meanwhile, Rajapaksa has signaled that he is ready to wait for his chance which he believes his round the corner given the failure of the government in tackling natural and manmade disasters such as landslides and floods.
The former President, who is the leader of the “Joint Opposition” in parliament, is also making up with India, which he earlier believed had helped to put together the opposition alliance which defeated him in January 2015. Rajapaksa met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the latter was in Colombo in May and described his relations with India as being good. Rajapaksa is also keeping his ties with China intact.
(The featured images at the top are those of SLFP faction leaders Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa)