The defection of Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, the Minister of Health and the SLFP General Secretary, from the Rajapaksa government is historic and momentous on several counts. As a political party, the SLFP is not unaccustomed to defections. The founding of the party itself was the result of the defection of SWRD Bandaranaike, himself a Minister of Health and Local Government, from the first UNP government after independence. But his defection was a personal statement of political frustrations as well as aspirations that had no immediate impact on the (DS Senanayake) government of the day. In the election that followed in 1952, the newly formed SLFP did not fare well at all while the UNP romped to a landslide victory. Mr. Sirisena’s defection, on the other hand, is a political thunderbolt that has the potential to become the grave digger of the Executive Presidency. He has given Sri Lanka the chance to avoid being spirited away on a 99 year lease by the Rajapaksa brotherhood.
The SLFP’s fortunes and numbers swelled in 1953 when it became the beneficiary of defections from the LSSP led by TB Subasinghe, PH William Silva and Lakshman Rajapaksa, all of whom went on to become frontline Ministers in future Bandaranaike-led SLFP governments. These defections and crossovers were the result of open debates and democratic disagreements about political goals and paths, unlike the opportunistic UNP squatters in the UPFA cabinet who have been simultaneously enjoying their (UPFA) government ministership and their UNP membership thanks to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s executive inducements and ex-CJ Sarath Silva’s cooked court rulings. Maithripala Sirisena’s defection has created the opportunity to put an end to this nonsense once and for all. It is the SLFP that is now on the verge of a split, triggered by the prematurely called presidential election for an illegitimately constitutional third term in office.
The impending SLFP split is also different from the third major defection in the history of the SLFP. That was the defection of 14 SLFP Ministers and MPs led by CP de Silva in 1964 to cause the parliamentary defeat of the short-lived SLFP-LSSP coalition. The 1965 election that followed benefited the UNP with Dudley Senanayake as Prime Minister, although Mr. Senanayake did offer the premiership to CP de Silva who declined the offer. In the present instance, with the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe gallantly standing down, the chief SLFP defector Maithripala Sirisena has instantly become the common candidate thunderbolt. He has the blessings of Chandrika Kumaratunga (nee Bandaranaike), the first SLFPer to become President under the Jayewardene constitution and who is now the spiritual matriarch of the SLFP revolt against the pretenders to the ownership of the SLFP. The political stakes now are also more fundamental and much graver than they were in 1964. And the Old Left in the UPFA is now in a pickle having prematurely thrown its support behind the incumbent president and now caught unawares by the Sirisena bolt from the old SLFP blue. It was rather saddening to see someone like Dr. Tissa Vitarana being part of the triumvirate, in the distinguished company of Wimal Weerawansa, doing the media errand for the government.
While the pundits now say that they knew all along this was coming, nothing should be taken away from those who pulled this off.
The defection of Mr. Sirisena and his acclamation as the opposition common candidate is a stunning development considering the kerfuffle over common candidacy that has been going on for weeks with the government doing everything to stir up confusion among the opposition forces. Special kudos must go to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. They have individually and collectively contributed much of the political mess that the country is in, but their contributions to making Maithripala Sirisena the Common Candidate against President Rajapaksa will be huge credit entries on their political balance sheets. It would be easy to make fun of Ranil Wickremasinghe for getting cold feet for the second time to be a presidential candidate against Mahinda Rajapaksa. But in this instance, Mr. Wickremasinghe has shown exceptional equanimity in endorsing Maithripala Sirisena as the opposition’s Common Candidate. One would hope that he will remain a vigorous force throughout the campaign and mobilize the party machinery and its base in support of the common candidate he has endorsed.
Whatever opinions one might have about Chandrika Kumaratunga’s performance as a President, nobody can deny that she was the political fighter who upended the UNP government after it had been in office for seventeen years. Another twenty years later, history is giving Chandrika Kumaratunga another chance to play a vicarious role in terminating a regime that behaves as if it is interminable. Only a few weeks ago a Rajapaksa loyalist with Leftist pretensions shamelessly wrote that that the SLFP is as much a party of the Rajapaksas as it was of the Bandaranaikes. With Maithripala Sirisena leading the new SLFP breakaway and playing the role of the mythical saviour of the people, the SLFP finally has the chance to shed its tag as Sri Lanka’s family party. And there cannot be a better midwife to this new transition than Chandrika Kumaratunga.
It is still early days and the candidates are still to go through the nomination formalities. There is a long way to go before the election that has been fixed for January 8, and nothing can be taken for granted. The country will see the good, the bad and the ugly before it is through with the election. Even if the opposition campaign stays good all through, there will be plenty of the bad and the ugly from the government side. The decadent regime will spare nothing to prevail in the January election. There is too much at stake for those in power to lose power. Organized violence, intimidation of opposition groups, abuse of state power, the igniting of chauvinistic hatred and a great deal more will be unleashed from the war room of the state sponsored election campaign of the Rajapaksas.
As against the might of the state, the opposition forces have a just and moral purpose. They now have the enthusiasm following the dramatic defections last week. In Maithripala Sirisena, the opposition has a more seasoned political player than what it had in Sarath Fonseka in 2010. Mr. Sirisena also has the organizational advantage, having been a long time Secretary of the SLFP, as well as the territorial advantage of an established political base in the Rajarata. He could certainly benefit from being not only the Common Candidate of the opposition but also its Only candidate.
The other opposition parties and groups, especially the JVP and the TNA, must realize the seriousness of the stakes involved and avoid fielding their own candidates for the sake of contesting, or causing political digressions that the Rajapaksas will be all ready to exploit. Let it be a two way race and let the people decide.