Monday, February 16, 2015

Options for the SLFP

Mahinda Rajapaksa contested under the SLFP. He got 5.7 million votes. Maithripala Sirisena contested under the New Democratic Front, which brought together not only the UNP, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, and Sarath Fonseka's Democratic Party, but also a section of the SLFP itself. He got 6.2 million votes. That's a difference of nearly 500,000 votes. What's significant is that this is minimal for a candidate who had the backing of both the opposition and a section of the incumbent's own party.

He won't admit this, of course, and nor will any of his supporters. They are in a state of denial, which is natural given that Rajapaksa was their opponent. Still, considering that they have taken over the SLFP (and hence the UPFA) and have removed him, things will have to change. Soon. Delay isn't an option. The problem however is that no one seems to be taking note of it. Sadly. And it's not hard to see why.

I have written before that it's difficult to imagine a comeback for Rajapaksa. That's true. The likes of Dinesh Gunawardena and Vasudeva Nanayakkara will not be enough to counter the incumbent's edge, particularly because he enjoys the support of both major parties. Which is not to say that his rival is as "on his own" as Sarath Muttetuwegama was during the 1980s. Still.

Maithripala Sirisena understands how much of an edge his former superior has when it comes to the SLFP, however. He also knows that inasmuch as those who support Rajapaksa are not in the majority, their claim that they were cheated the minute his opponent took over his party stands to reason. Admirably. On the other hand, if Rajapaksa wishes to strengthen the party without dividing it any further, he must join hands with its present leader.

Things don't look easy, however. The SLFP today is antagonistic towards him and for all the wrong reasons. The likes of M. K. D. S. Gunawardena were probably talking about themselves when they hinted that they would keep political nobodies out, but it would be hilarious if we were to apply this to him. The truth is that he is basking in post-election glory unsurpassed by any of his predecessors. He is and always will remain people-friendly, even if those who prefer Westernised "intellectuals" in power take issue with that.

The opposition will not be saved by Rajitha Senaratne or S. B. Nawinna. It will not be saved by Chandrika Kumaratunga or even by those who pledged support to Rajapaksa during the election. As Malinda Seneviratne noted sometime back, not even the UPFA could come up with a candidate who had the sort of appeal Rajapaksa enjoyed. Sirisena is the exception, but there is a severe HR gap in the SLFP, which the UNP does not have. Which is where those leading it must worry. Big time.

In the first place, it's not (only) a question of whether Rajapaksa will stay. It's a question of whether his own party will accept him. If Sirisena wants to remain where he is and kowtow to the UNP (limiting the party he himself chairs to the opposition) that's his problem. For now, however, SLFP'ers are being taken for a ride. Not too difficult to figure out how.

Take that no confidence motion, for instance. Anybody could figure out that it was a feeble show of strength by an equally feeble opposition. In the end, all it signified was an opposition that kowtowed to the ruling party without as much as a by-your-leave, a dramatic volte-face from Rajapaksa's time. Again, if Sirisena wishes to continue duping SLFP'ers, that's his problem. But he must realise that he can't continue it forever.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is popular. He is probably more popular than the entire Executive Committee of his party put together. He is definitely more popular than some of his own supporters, including those who wish to see his comeback. Intra-party rivalries are common, true. But if Maithripala Sirisena excludes him from the political equation altogether, that will be the biggest mistake he can make at this stage.

A Mahinda-less SLFP is not necessarily clean, in any case. Duminda Silva and ("Dr") Mervyn Silva are with Sirisena all but completely. Those having cases pending against them have vocally lent support to him. Not that a Duminda-less, Mervyn-less MR is clean either, but the point is that if neither faction is willing to accommodate the other, it will be the end as far as the SLFP and the UPFA are concerned. In the meantime, the UNP will have the last laugh. Period.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.