by C.A Chandraprema
The political futures of President Sirisena and the 40+ SLFP parliamentarians hangs in the balance as the LG elections process kicks off. The question that the Sirisena faction of the SLFP has to ask itself is which is worse, being labelled pro-UNP if they decide to cast in their lot with the UNF or risking what could be ignominious defeat. As we write this, the General Secretary of the SLFP Duminda Dissanayake and Mahinda Amaraweera the general secretary of the UPFA have announced that they will not be contesting the upcoming local government election in coalition with the UNP. However, Minister Rajitha Senaratne who is not in the SLFP but who is very much a part of the Sirisena camp has mooted the possibility of the UNP and the SLFP joining hands for the local govt. election.
Every indication that we have got up to now indicates that only the UNP and the Joint Opposition will be left standing after the LG elections and that the Sirisena group will finish a poor third at best if they do contest separately. In this sense the idea mooted by Minister Rajitha Senaratne makes perfect sense – for the UNP and the SLFP groups in each LG institution area to contest together so that they pool all the votes the pro-government groups can command in order to win. It is on this same basis that moves are afoot to get the SLMC and the Mano Ganesan group to contest on the UNP ticket so that no vote is wasted.
The question that the SLFP’s Sirisena faction should ask itself is whether there is any political value in pretending to be not with the UNP when they are actually running a government together. One has to admit that the Sirisena faction has been trying to maintain a separate identity while being in the same government with the UNP. This has taken the form of opposing proposals brought by the UNP and publicly criticizing what the UNP has been doing. Indeed at times the blows directed by the SLFP Sirisena faction at the UNP have been more forceful than the blows directed at them by the Joint Opposition or the JVP. One immediately relevant example would be the Bond Commission and the attacks directed by the SLFP ministers at their UNP colleagues on that account. Will stunts like that convince the public that the UNP and SLFP are two different entities even though they serve in the same government? The highpoint in the bond drama will be the PM’s testimony before the bond commission.
Even though the UNP and the SLFP have a tendency to talk at cross purposes on many matters, they do cooperate on important issues. They cooperate when it comes to passing the budget, in passing tax laws, in increasing the VAT, in leasing the Hambantota port, in bringing in a new constitution etc. The big question is how do the people of this country regard the SLFP Sirisena faction – as a part of the government or the opposition? This is the first time that a political party in power is trying to masquerade as a part of the opposition. The SLFP Sirisena faction is in fact the dominant partner in this government. They have the presidency and the best ministries. Yet they don’t appear to be in the driving seat because policy is being driven by the UNP which is the weaker partner in the government. The yahapalana government is a case study in how not to form coalition governments. The government has been formed by two political parties that have a long history of rivalry.
Donning a sheepskin for
Both of them claim publicly that their intention is to create a single party government in 2020. The weaker partner in the coalition drives policy and the stronger partner tries to score points among the public by either delaying or opposing what the UNP is doing. So what we have here is an opposition within the government of sorts. This spectacle of partners in government working at cross purposes would seem to many as a symptom of dysfunction and a main reason why things are in headlong decline in the country. But the SLFP hopes that these shows will give them the credibility to survive as a separate political entity. How successful they are going to be in this is yet to be seen. If the SLFP actually decides to go it alone without the UNP, that will be a very brave decision indeed. There is nothing called an ardent SLFP loyalist in this country any more. If you ask the Sirisena faction of the SLFP why they hold their May Day rallies in locations very far away from the Joint Opposition rally, they will quite candidly tell you that is a precaution to prevent the people they bring for the rally from going to the Joint Opposition rally instead!
I was personally present at the 2015 May Day rally of the Sirisena faction at Hyde Park where people arriving for the rally just walked off without even looking at the stage. In 2016, the SLFP Sirisena faction moved their rally to Galle to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2015. It is a well known fact that people were brought to this rally from the north and east as well. This year, they held their May Day rally in Kandy and true to form the people who had been brought from various parts of the country for the rally in Kandy were seen loitering in blue shirts and caps all over the Kandy town, the lake round, the Peradeniya gardens and virtually everywhere but at the grounds where the SLFP rally was being held. It was the same in 2015 when there were far more blue shirted individuals at the Viharamahadevi Park than at Hyde Park where the rally was being held. If the Sirisena faction of the SLFP is unable to motivate their party rank and file to attend their May Day rally with some enthusiasm even while holding the presidency and the best ministries in the government, contesting on their own at an election will be a major risk.
The SLFP Sirisena faction has over 40 Ministers and Deputy Ministers and when they tell their supporters to come for the rally, the supporters may oblige because they are unable to refuse a person they have considered to be their leader; but their hearts are not in it. An earlier warning that the SLFP Sirisena faction should remember is that at the 2015 Parliamentary election, virtually all SLFP politicians deemed to be Sirisena loyalists were wiped out by the SLFP voters. Only Mahinda Amaraweera, Duminda Dissanayake and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya remained standing. SLFP heavy guns like S.B.Dissanayake fell in that massive anti-Sirisena surge. If that was the way the SLFP voter reacted at that time back in 2015 when the government was new and untested, how would they react now?
The question now is whether the Sirisena faction would have managed to win back some of the SLFP rank and file in the more than two years since the last Parliamentary election. One way of gauging this would be the elections to Cooperative Societies which have been held from time to time during this period. The cooperative movement countrywide has over eight million members which is the better part of the voting population. These have been resoundingly won by the Joint Opposition. One reason why these elections may not be representative enough of today’s voting population is that the voter lists of the cooperative societies have not been updated for years. Hence many of those eligible to vote today are those who would have obtained membership when the SLFP was in power in years past. Hence the cooperative elections may not be representative of the SLFP-UNP divide in the country at large. Usually the cooperative societies are won by the party in power and they are an important source of patronage for local politicians.
While the cooperative elections may not be accurately indicative of the relative strength of the UNP and the SLFP in the villages, what it does indicate very clearly is the proportion of the SLFP base that has remained with the Joint Opposition. If some interpret the easy victories scored by the Joint Opposition as being due to the electoral list not being updated and the present members being SLFP/UPFA types, then the fact that this constituency votes overwhelmingly for the Joint Opposition may be an indication that the vast majority of the SLFP voter is still with Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Joint Opposition. With all these danger signs, it will be a foolhardy exercise indeed for the SLFP Sirisena faction to go it alone.
In addition to all the risks above, there is the very definite possibility that the people will regard this election as an opportunity to cast a protest vote against the government. In the past 32 months since this government came into power, they have managed to antagonize and alienate a remarkable number of people. Not a day has gone by without some protest or the other and most of them are multiple protests and demonstrations on a daily basis on issues which are not resolved by the government. There is a pool of resentment building up in the country which could easily translate into a protest vote which will affect both the UNP and the SLFP Sirisena faction. As this is being written, a shortage of petrol has caused long queues outside petrol stations and all the angry people waiting to obtain fuel were blaming the government with the most often expressed sentiment being ‘the country is finished’. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the commonly prevalent sentiment in the country about the present government.
The possibility of a protest vote
This is the sentiment that sustains the Joint Opposition. One must not under-estimate this factor. The Joint Opposition is in fact a political miracle. The only thing that sustains it is the pool of resentment against the government in the country. In one sense, the Joint Opposition is a continuation and an extension of the polarisation that took place at the 2015 January presidential elections. It continues to exist without a party structure to keep it together. It’s leader Mahinda Rajapaksa is not the leader of the opposition nor does he head a political party. He is simply a member of parliament of a party which is headed by someone else. For nearly three years, he has been consistently supported by a determined group of MPs who never wavered despite the second defeat of August 2015. The one belief that sustains them being that firstly, the people have a visceral dislike for this government and secondly that this government will last only for the duration of President Sirisena’s fortuitous presidency and not beyond.
The sentiment that sustains the Joint Opposition against all odds could become the key factor at this election. In fact the Joint Opposition is counting on being able to turn this local government election into a referendum of sorts on the government’s near three years in power. However the SLFP by contesting separately is trying to cash in on party loyalty. This goes against the trend that Maithripala Sirisena himself established in January 2015 where party identities and distinctions are thrown overboard in pursuance of a different cause. Is it not the case now that there is at least as much grounds as in January 2015 for the people to polarize on the basis of being pro or anti government? The May Day rallies and the cooperative elections give some indication as to the manner in which the political divide has developed since the new government came into power. So the SLFP’s attempt to appear in sheep’s clothing for the election may not produce the desired result.
However, there is the fact that even though a tie up between the UNP and the SLFP for the election will be the wisest course of action, the practical difficulties in implementing such a plan will be so great that the SLFP has no option but to don grandma’s nightgown and hope that the voting little Red Riding Hoods will not notice the difference. Simply trying to share the local government wards among the partners will be an exercise that that will never get off the ground. At the ground level, the UNP activist base is so disappointed with this coalition arrangement that had delivered nothing to them that there is zero tolerance for any further suggestions of a tie up which will entail UNP candidates having to step aside to accommodate SLFP candidates. Besides, there is the fact that some potential UNP candidates may have to step aside to accommodate the candidates of regular allies of the UNP like the SLMC and the DPF. In the past, outfits like the SLMC and the DPF were allies of the UNP only at the parliamentary level. At the local government and provincial council level they were in the habit of contesting separately which means that at the LG level there will be considerable angst among UNP activists who will have to make way to accommodate their allies. If the SLFP candidates are added to this, there will be a whole lot of UNP activists denied nomination.
UNP fly in spider’s parlour
Making way for the candidates of minority political parties will be such a wrenching experience for the UNP that it is not feasible to even think of accommodating the SLFP. There is another factor in all this which the UNP has not taken into account. It is a well-known fact that minority political parties like the SLMC and DPF are not really interested in the welfare of the UNP but their own interests. Both those parties have carved out a niche for themselves by poaching on the UNP’s minority vote bank. If they agree to break with their long established practice of contesting separately at local government and provincial council elections in order to contest on the UNP list, that will not be due to purely altruistic motives of bailing the UNP out. This election will have to be fought on the basis of wards which are assigned to candidates. The SLMC and the DPF will naturally ask for their candidates to be nominated for the wards they dominate.
Once such wards are assigned to the SLMC and the DPF, the UNP can kiss those wards goodbye – they will never again be UNP. The poaching that the SLMC and DPF did earlier will be taken to a new level at this election. Earlier only voters were poached from the UNP now whole territories and constituencies (wards in this case) will be poached from the UNP. Furthermore at this LG election, each party will have to nominate women for 10% of the total number of wards in each local government area. If the SLMC, DPF, JHU and the Sirisena loyalists in the UNP (and more besides) contest on the UNP list at the forthcoming LG polls, guess who will have to nominate the 10% of women candidates from the wards? In everything that the UNP did since the end of 2014, they were left holding the short end of the stick and that is what is going to happen this time as well. The UNP does not have 10% female candidates for the wards at present. They will have to appoint new women candidates to the wards to meet the legal requirement and push out activists already working in the area as a result.
Thereafter they will have to apportion the remaining wards to members of the smaller parties contesting in an alliance with them and in such cases, the minority parties will specify which wards they want. Because it would be necessary to maximize the impact of having allies, the UNP will be constrained to give the minority parties the wards they want. Once the UNP allocates wards for female candidates and their allies, what is the UNP proper going to be left with? Come nomination time there will be a lot of angry UNP activists in the country.
It seems like Christmas is going to come early this year for Maithri Gunaratne and Shiral Laktilleke who formed the United National Freedom Front this year with the unexpressed but obvious idea of providing a political platform for UNP dissidents. In the coming few days, two events that could have far reaching and unforeseen consequences could be the summoning of the Prime Minister to the Bond Commission and the rumours of a possible political coup by President Sirisena in order to form an SLFP government before the local government elections with inside help from the UNP. The summoning of the PM before the bond commission with an election in the offing will generate its own political vibes. A CBK style (2004) sacking of the PM on the eve of the elections for President Sirisena to be able to unify the SLFP would seem to make political sense to him, but it’s doubtful whether such a course of action will enable Sirisena to win that election. Suspicion about him is deep seated within the pro-Mahinda group. If he betrays RW in the same manner that he betrayed MR in 2014, that will only confirm him in the eyes of the public as a serial betrayer who has no loyalty to anyone but himself. The manner in which he has already betrayed the UNP voter who provided over two thirds of the votes to get him elected is not lost even on opposition types.