Holding a tiger’s tail

It looks as if the SLFP had already launched its presidential election campaign while postponing the local government polls it is scared of facing. Some SLFP members of the yahapalana government are floating the idea of nominating President Maithripala Sirisena to seek a second term.

A group of UPFA Provincial Chief Ministers had a meeting with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday at the latter’s official residence in Colombo on what they described as the SLFP’s future electoral strategy among other things. It ended inconclusively but on a positive note according to some of the participants. That powwow has proved that the present SLFP leadership is wary of facing an election without the backing of the dissident group.

President Sirisena is in an unenviable position. He cannot give up power now. He may have thought he would be able to neutralise the Rajapaksa factor in politics soon after winning the presidency and consolidate his power in the SLFP once and for all. But, that was a serious political miscalculation on his part. Former President Rajapaksa has bounced back. Sirisena has got hold of a tiger’s tail, so to speak. Retirement after completing the first term is a worrisome proposition for him.

But, would President Sirisena be able to win a presidential election should he decide to throw his hat into the ring again with the UNP fielding its own candidate? It is doubtful whether the political forces which propelled him to victory last time will rally behind him again in such an eventuality.

The next presidential election is likely to be a three-cornered contest. The Joint Opposition (JO) will have to nominate its candidate who is likely to be a member of the former ruling family. The government thinks the JO’s choice will be Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and, therefore, it has already trained its propaganda cannon on him. He is very likely to be summoned before the CID and the FCID and even remanded. The UNP claims it wants the executive presidency abolished and, therefore, the question of who its presidential candidate will be does not arise. But, it will have to field its candidate as the presidency cannot be done away without the backing of the SLFP, which now says it wants to retain that institution.

The uphill task before President Sirisena at a future presidential election will be to secure the support of the two main minority parties, the TNA and the SLMC, which are likely to back the UNP candidate in the race. He cannot rest assured that even the SLFP will throw its full weight behind him owing to the intraparty disputes. The anti-incumbency factor and the unfulfilled election promises, especially the much-advertised one to abolish the executive presidency and usher in good governance and the economic woes of the public, the Geneva commitments are bound to weigh him down in the race.

Before setting his eyes on the next presidential election, President Sirisena will have to steer the SLFP to victory at the next local government elections if he is to consolidate his power in the party. It is not possible to keep postponing the mini polls until 2020. Unless he proves himself as a capable leader in the LG race by helping the SLFP win a majority of local councils, forces hostile to him within the party, will emerge stronger and challenge his position as the party leader. He has his work cut out because of the newly formed Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPF), which is expected to contest the mini polls.

The benefit of a possible division in the SLFP vote will naturally accrue to the UNP candidate, backed by the TNA and the SLMC. Thus, all odds are apparently stacked against President Sirisena.

It is being speculated in political circles that efforts being made in some quarters to reconcile the two SLFP factions may reach fruition. A coming together of the SLFP and the SLPF looks a near impossibility at present. But, the fact remains that adversity as well as expediency makes strange bedfellows. Whoever would have thought the JHU would join an alliance consisting of the UNP, the TNA and the SLMC? The JVP is playing footsie with the UNP, which unleashed mindless violence against it in the late 1980s and brutally murdered its leaders! The SLMC has no qualms about bunking up with the JHU. Many UPFA ministers accused of bribery and corruption are ministers in the yahapalana government claiming to champion good governance! So, the possibility of a rapprochement between the warring SLFP factions cannot be ruled out.

Meanwhile, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has stressed, at a recent media briefing that President Sirisena vowed never to seek a second term at his inauguration ceremony in 2015. But, she has stopped short of revealing who the next SLFP presidential candidate will be or whether the SLFP will contest that election at all. Her statement is widely seen as an indication of another power centre emerging within the SLFP. It is a case of antho jata, bahi jata—’conflict within, conflicts without’—for President Sirisena.


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