Never the twain shall meet
Posted on December 7th, 2017

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Talks between the Joint Opposition (JO) and the SLFP have failed and the former has decided to go it alone under the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) banner at the next local government polls, we are told. Only the naïve expected the two groups to bury the hatchet. President Maithripala Sirisena cannot satisfy the JO’s conditions, the main being the termination of the SLFP-UNP alliance. If he did as the JO says, he would fall between two stools.

The JO leaders are not prepared to play second fiddle to President Sirisena. Their political survival hinges on their ability to grab the SLFP leadership so as to be able to take on the UNP effectively at a national level election. The President led them down the garden path in style at the 2015 general election; he used the JO to secure 96 seats with the help of other constituents of the UPFA and, then, formed a joint government with the UNP. In the most unliely event of the JO contesting the LG polls on the SLFP ticket unconditionally, it would be placing its leaders at the mercy of President Sirisena again.

Sirisena will be a lame-duck President unless he manages to consolidate his power in the SLFP by getting rid of the rebel faction which is undermining his authority. If he smokes the peace pipe with the dissident leaders they will emerge stronger in the party and he will find himself in the same predicament as the proverbial Arab who shared his tent with a camel. He is likely to take on the SLFP dissidents in a far more aggressive manner if what Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has recently told the media is any indication; he has said the SLFPers who contest the next local government polls on the SLPP’s ticket will be expelled from the party. A political version of the Night of the Long Knives may not be far off in the SLFP.

President Sirisena can’t expect the UNP to go on shoring up the SLFP indefinitely so as to hold their common enemy, the Rajapaksas, at bay. The SLFP-UNP marriage has been an uneasy one since the very inception. The UNP, on the other hand, has its political ambitions. It created the executive presidency, but a UNPer hasn’t held that post for nearly a quarter century. Its former leaders must be backflipping in their graves. Unless it contests the next presidential polls, its frustrated rank and file won’t care to vote at future elections; they will also rebel against the present party leadership. Having lost three presidential elections in a row in 1994, 1999 and 2005 and skipped another two in 2010 and 2015, the UNP may not want to commit political hara-kiri by fielding an outsider as a common presidential candidate again. It will have to start its presidential and parliamentary election campaigns before long. The fragile unity of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government will be the first casualty in such an eventuality.

President Sirisena may have really meant what he said immediately after his induction; he declared that he would not seek a second term. But, he has become a power centre in national politics and cannot act independently because he is now the SLFP leader. On the other hand, it is not easy for a politician to let go of power after savouring it for a few years. There are many SLFPers as well as others dependent on him for their political survival. If he calls it quits after serving the first term those who threw in their lot with him will be left high and dry. They want him to continue to be in power even beyond 2019 for their own sake. They have already declared that he is the most suitable SLFP candidate for the next presidential election.

The current SLFP leaders are in a dilemma. If the SLFP fails to beat its offshoot, the SLPP, let alone the UNP, at the next mini polls, there will be many more defections from their camp to the JO; President Sirisena’s position will be further weakened in the party and the government, and the SLFP dissidents will take their battle to oust him to the next level. How the SLFP will overcome this remains to be seen.

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