Amidst so many stories about the ever – exciting twists and turns in the crisis faced by our Government, we seem to ignore so many other significant political questions. One such question is: what is happening in Sri Lanka’s political parties? As visible from the unfolding power struggles, Sri Lanka’s two main parties – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – are in crisis, awaiting a re-invention for their survival. Meanwhile, a new party — Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – has emerged, posing a serious existential threat to the SLFP and even showing signs of becoming the next ruling party, pushing the SLFP into a new phase of survival challenge.
Political parties are the main players in the game of democracy. Since parliamentary democracy is the only political game in town, changes within and in the relations among political parties have a tendency to redefine the nature of democratic politics as well. While Sri Lanka is in a phase of transition, so are the political parties. The parties are thus facing a new set of challenges, for both survival and transition. As the turbulent events during the past few weeks amply demonstrated, it is now testing time for the country’s political parties.
Let us begin with the uncertainties the UNP is facing in a time of transition.
“Our Party is like ‘amoeba’, we have had many opinions on this and we have accommodated them all.”
– SLFP Minister Vijith Vijithamuni Soysa, media interview after the NCM vote.
The much ballyhooed No Confidence Motion against the Prime Minister has come and gone. In the end, it was not even close. The 46 vote victory for the Prime Minister is a massive blow to the small minds behind this silly sideshow.104 of the 106 UNP/UNFMPs, including the former Minister of Justice, stood solid in voting against the No Confidence Motion (NCM). With the TNA venturing to take a stand and not sit on the fence, and joined by the SLMC and the EPDP (now TNA’s local government ally in the Peninsula, against third generation Ponnambalam side show in Jaffna), the no-vote swelled to the impressive 122 votes. On the yes side, 54 JO MPs were joined by the JVP (6) and 16 two-timing SLFP ministers and deputy ministers. The real story of the day was the 29 MPs who abstained or kept away from the vote. 23 of them are SLFP ministers, deputy/state ministers and MPs. One of them, Minister Sarath Amunugama, had already dismissed the NCM effort as a “silly side show.” Three other Ministers, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya and Vijithamuni Soysa, gave a revealing media interview after the vote. It was there that Minister Soysa delivered the SLFP-deprecating quip that I have quoted above.
While embarrassed by the 16 SLFPers who voted for the NCM, the three ministers were quite critical of the Joint Opposition for launching the NCM diversion without formally consulting the SLFP or its Central Committee, and without any plan as to who will replace Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The latter was also the concern of the former Minister of Justice Wijeydasa Rajapakshe.The SLFP ministers contended that the NCM was not at all about the bond scam, or even about the Prime Minister, but all about splitting the SLFP. In their view, it is illogical to be part of a government and to vote for a no-confidence motion against the government. As for their 16 colleagues who voted ‘illogically’ for the NCM. However, Minister Soysa conceded that no disciplinary action was possible against the ‘dissenters’ because President Sirisena had made it a free vote for the SLFP group.
It was the President who decided to sit on the fence and allow a free vote for his MPs. Until then he had been jumping from one side to the other and found neither side overly receptive. He tried in vain to find an alternative to Ranil Wickremesinghe from within the UNP. On the other side, the President didn’t realize he and his SLFP mediators were being taken for a ride by the SLPP. In the end, he chose to sit on the fence and allow a free vote. A free vote is no less illogical and now the President has to deal with ‘his ministers’ who voted against ‘his government’. There is nothing new in all this, except that the post-vote statements by the three SLFP ministers confirm what many have been surmising about the rise and fall of the no confidence motion.