Is SLFP holding out an empty threat?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

In an open threat to the ruling SLPP coalition, chairman of the SLFP parent-partner, and former President Maithripala Sirisena, has said that the government leadership should not take alliance support, and hence the two-thirds majority in Parliament for granted. With the House debating Budget-2022, Sirisena’s warning that the SLPP’s current attitude towards its partners could even break up the coalition can be as much immediate as it is loaded.

But then, Sirisena too knows that his war-cry could not produce a viable third alternative, and can at best becoming the ‘deciding factor’ in further government-formation, more especially whenever parliamentary polls become due next in 2025. Having led defectors out of the SLFP when Mahinda was President, to contest and win the presidency against the incumbent in 2015, he also knows that ‘defection’ is a two-way game, and already the Rajapaksas have been encouraging those from the Opposition SJB and the latter’s SLMC alliance members to cross-vote without formally crossing over.

Suddenly, the defection-bug too could bite the SLFP parliamentary group if the likes of Sirisena and Amaraweera begin trying to give some shape and substance to their current threats. Of course, this again can flow backward. That would depend on the individual assessment of individual MPs about their own electoral future, and how their association with one group or the other could help them in the matter.

Whether there is truth or substance in such speculative ventures, the very fact that such a speculation is already on when the government has won a series of national elections and is numerically stable and successful, should be a cause for Rajapaksas to be concerned about. Such speculation and concerns flow from an increasing voter-realisation that the Rajapaksas may be good war-time political masters and not as much as peace-time administrators, as otherwise thought to be.

Touch-and-go…

The SLFP is only the latest alliance partner to hold out an open threat of the kind to the government leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda R. On multiple issues, lesser but long-standing partners like the National Freedom Front (NFF), Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) and others, have come out openly against specific government policies and programmes. In a Sinhala TV interview, Sirisena also pointed to President Mahinda R losing his second re-election bid in 2015 even when his leadership had enjoyed two-thirds majority in Parliament.

It may be too early to recount the figures, yes. But then in the 145-strong SLPP-led alliance group in the 225-seat Parliament, the SLPP alone has 117 members, or just four more than the touch-and-go half-way mark required for a simple majority. If the government were not to depend on the casting vote of the Speaker eternally, then there has tobe one more, bringing down the extra numbers at the SLPP’s command to just three.

Against this, the SLFP parent has 14 elected MPs and one National List parliamentarian. Ironically for Sirisena’s claims, warning and threats, 13 of the 14 elected party MPs contested on the SLPP symbol. Only one, Angajan Ramanathan, a Tamil MP from Jaffna district in the North, won the seat on the SLFP’s name and symbol.

Should SLFP members, or a majority of them wanted to check future leadership conduct and behaviour, by voting against the government in Parliament, who knows, anti-defection law or whatever equivalent is there, could target them, both inside Parliament and outside — in civil courts, that is. In context, Sirisena has referred to how he walked out of the Mahinda government with 29 MPs, only to imply / invite how non-SLPP alliance partners could be with him, to repeat the earlier feat.

Under UPFA banner…

Before Sirisena opened up more than already on governmental stability and majority, his SLFP had announced the possibility of contesting ‘all future national elections’ under the original UPFA banner, raising multiple questions. If the party executes the white threat whose frequency and stridency has increased, though not noticeably so, the government may lose the much-touted two-thirds majority in Parliament, technically though not necessarily factually.

“People are disgusted with the present Government…We constantly seek solutions to concerns from the government’s leadership, not from minor politicians,” SLFP general secretary and minister, Mahinda Amaraweera, told newsmen after meetings chaired by party chairman, and former President, Maithripala Sirisena. “We have prepared ourselves to work with the President and we do not believe he will ever betray us. The people’s mandate was handed to the President in the hope that he will never betray the people, as we also believe,” he added.

Amaraweera claimed that the SLFP-UPFA alliance now comprises 30 parties and groups. Barring the alliance leader, none can hope to bring in votes, or win seats. The SLFP does not have an vote-base to call its won to be able to project the new-brand UPFA as a third alternative after the SLFP combine and the Opposition SJB-led alliance, which also includes minorities’ parties of Tamils, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, with their substantial vote-shares.

The SLFP, since inception by slain Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike, has always contested at the head of a left-leaning alliance. His daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike holds the highest vote-share for a presidential election in the nineties – when the nation was hoping for change from the parental UNP and even more for an early end to the LTTE war and beginning of a new era of ethnic harmony. Tamils defied the LTTE to vote her that one time in 1994. Even President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-election of 2010 brought in only 57.88 per cent for the war-victor against CBK’s 1994 tally of 62.28 per cent.

At last count, the SLFP-UPFA polled around 12-per cent vote-share in the nation-wide local government elections of 2018. It was the first major electoral outing for the breakaway SLPP. The party-led alliance won most seats in the Sinhala South, and polled the highest 40.47 per cent. The traditional UNP ally, now split, polled a lowly 29.42 per cent, giving a lie to the party strategists’ continuous claim that it still remained above 35 per cent.

Swing voters

Loosely put, victor Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 52.25 per cent votes in the presidential poll of 2019 comprised the SLPP’s 41 per cent from the local government elections a year earlier and the 12 per cent of the SLFP parent that had pledged support by then. The 41.99 per cent of the losing rival Sajith Premadasa -– then in the UNP, now heading the breakaway SJB – comprised the UNP’s 29 per cent from the LG polls and those of the non-Sinhala minority parties stoutly standing against a Rajapaksa resurrection after incumbent Mahinda’s defeat in 2015.

What interested and intrigued the psephologist even more in the succeeding parliamentary polls, held in the midst of the Covid pandemic, was the way the ruling SLPP polled a much higher 59.09 per cent against the Opposition’s (SJB) lowest ever 23.90 per cent. The figures were indicative of the real committed vote-share of the SJB, yes, but the figures for the ruling SLPP did not automatically translate into committed vote-share.

Granting that Gota’s 2019 presidential poll victory was an arithmetic possibility, by adding the local government vote-shares of the SLPP and the SJB, the figures for the parliamentary elections threw up a different picture. It supported the argument that about six per cent of the UNP/SJB voters from the LG polls comprised non-committed anti-Rajapaksa voters, who moved in the opposite direction, to give the ruling combine a 60-per cent tally in the parliamentary polls.

Alternatively, the six per cent represented the traditional ‘swing voters’. If one accepted the fallacy of the figures for real, then the conclusions are obvious. One, the ‘Easter blasts’ did not influence the nation’s voters as much as mentioned. Gota Rajapaksa got only the votes that were otherwise due to the SLPP combine, through sheer addition of known figures from an immediate past election.

In comparison, the Gota government’s handling of the first phase of the pandemic impressed more people than acknowledged. With the result, traditional anti-Rajapaksa voters who were otherwise not committed to the UNP-SJB Opposition pitched in effortlessly. That is, apart from the purported SLFP-UPFA vote-share that was supposed to remain intact at 12 per cent in the local government polls of 2018, that the ruling SLPP combine purportedly retained in Elections-2020. Or, did they?

More bark than bite

Sirisena’s theoretical implications portend governmental instability long before the next presidential/parliamentary elections, which is what he too has cautioned the Rajapaksas against. But there is more to his bark than bite. Granting that all his MPs are standing with him if he decides to break with the government, people may get tired of his behaviour of wanting to break with every government ahead of three successive election series, beginning with 2015.

There is also a constant implied reference to Sirisena being cross with the Rajapaksas only owing to the continual mention of his name as among the ‘culpable offenders’ for the Easter blasts along with his ever-estranged UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Such a self-centric approach could upset many SLFP parliamentarians, real or otherwise, for them to part company.

After all, the denials, if any, from the Sirisena camp on the Easter blasts, are as technical as the accusations, particularly of the Catholic Church, are. There is yet no denial as to the government leadership’s moral culpability on not acting on the repeated intelligence alerts from the Indian neighbour, only months after Sirisena’s accusation that an Indian intelligence agency was trying to have him assassinated.

The government leadership has not publicly absolved him of any offence after the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) named him and then PM Wickremesinghe, nor has it initiated action against him as the Church has indicated without naming either. What would Sirisena’s posture on the government’s stability and two-thirds majority if he gets cleared of culpability in the Easter blast case is anybody’s guess.

From real politik, the question is if the SLFP still retains the 12 per cent vote-share from the local government polls of 2018, for Sirisena to hope to bargain with the Rajapaksas, or with rival SJB and Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa, with either of their future electoral strategies in mind. Alternatively, has that 12 per cent merged in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mystic vote-bank as his one-time ally JVP found after his maiden presidential poll victory in November 2005.

As may be recalled, months after that presidential polls, the JVP ally, which had inherited 40 MPs from Mahinda’s united SLFP predecessor Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, in the parliamentary polls of 2004, found that the new President had devoured more than half of its calculated 11-per cent vote-share. Contesting the nation-wide local government polls on its own even while continuing in the Mahinda government, the JVP could not win a single local government body to call its own.

The JVP split two years later, with 10 MPs under party’s firebrand poll campaigner Wimal Weerawansa, to form the National Freedom Front (NFF).

Today, the NFF continues to travel with Mahinda R and is thus now in the SLPP combine, where Weerawansa, PHU’s Udaya Gammanpila and left leader Vasudeva Nanayakara, form a pressure-group on government’s policies and programmes that they too feel are controversial. The parent JVP continues to plough a lone furrow, unwilling to forget and forgive Mahinda R’s ‘stab-in-the-back’, but then the politics and policies of the latter fits the former’s anti-Rajapaksa, anti-Establishment moderate agenda pretty well.

But then, the party’s electoral reach went back to the days of Rohana Wijeweera, the revolutionary founder of the militant JVP, whose muted version the party is now. Wijeweera polled 4.19 per cent votes close to four decades back. In 2019, the moderate JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake polled fewer votes  in percentage terms (3.16 per cent) despite the huge crowds that gathered for his campaign launch at Colombo’s Galle Face Green, weeks prior to the polling day!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow & Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

1 COMMENT

  1. SLFP was born solely on the language issue, and the voters fell for it. As a result the children of politicians went overseas to learn a foreign language, making their lives more comfortable, while the voters were mired in ignorance and poverty. The language fad has lost its shine, and it is the religion now. As for SLFP it has only one MP – Mr. Angajan. period. If the rest of former SLFP MPs who came to parliament disguised as SLPP, ever try to open their mouths to demand anything, they will end up as pall bearers of the party’s funeral. This is the grim truth and they know it.

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