The political crisis that gripped Sri Lanka for nearly two months towards the tail end of 2018 had different costs for different political actors, depending on who they were and what they did during that time.
But if there was a chief casualty of the developments in those turbulent seven weeks, it was, arguably, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), one of the two prominent political parties of the country. With former President and party leader Chandrika Kumaratunga having stepped aside from mainstream politics, and its current leader, President Maithripala Sirisena, left with a rump — part of the party has morphed into a new formation backing former President and current Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa — the SLFP’s political fortunes have come under serious question this election year.
This did not come as a surprise. The SLFP’s place was clear even a year ago, when the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) put up an impressive show in the February 2018 local elections. The ruling United National Party (UNP) came second, while Mr. Sirisena’s faction of the SLFP emerged a distant third. But when Mr. Sirisena decided to pull his faction of the SLFP out of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the ruling coalition, on October 26, the move, perhaps inadvertently, delivered a severe body blow to his party.
Still reeling under the impact of the crisis, and with few allies left by its side, many who are part of the once-formidable SLFP are today eager to align with the brand-new SLPP, which has Mr. Rajapaksa as its de facto leader, to remain electorally relevant. Especially so after the October crisis that saw the party pushed to an even weaker wicket.
With no portfolios or government positions — except for Mr. Sirisena who holds select Ministries — SLFP legislators are neither in a position to initiate populist schemes to please vote banks nor are they able to appropriate the voice of the “Opposition” after being in government for nearly four years.
Going by the political grapevine and the logic of power, it appears that the SLPP will have the last word on a possible alliance.
The two parties, according to local media reports last week, are in the process of setting up a joint committee to explore and negotiate such a coalition.
In the event of a likely presidential election first, ahead of provincial polls or a general election, this would have to boil down to who the presidential candidate might be. Will a new party being built by Mr. Rajapaksa’s brother Basil, known to be an astute poll strategist, throw its weight behind President Sirisena and support his candidature again? Or would it field its own candidate with or without the SLFP’s backing?
After more than half a century, the next national election will see a contest that goes beyond a fight between Sri Lanka’s two major parties and their allies — the once socialist democratic SLFP and the pro-market United National Party (UNP).
Understandably, SLFP MPs are a disillusioned lot. Not all of them are comfortable working with the Rajapaksas again; on the other hand, the UNP with its internal dilemmas over leadership and glaring incumbency is not enticing either.
“We need to revive the SLFP, perhaps rebrand it as a party that speaks to young voters,” a senior MP told The Hindu.
All the same, with limited strength and and baggage of incumbency it shares with the UNP, that is no small task. Moreover, the MPs know that in electoral terms, they need the SLPP more than the SLPP needs them or their party.
As for Mr. Rajapaksa, he may have won a war and held on to presidency for two consecutive terms, but the SLFP, in which he rose to the helm, was always associated with the Bandaranaike clan — with its founder S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and subsequent leaders Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Ms. Kumaratunga.
The SLPP, instead, is a party formed by a Rajapaksa, and evidently for the Rajapaksas.
Founded in 1951, the SLFP was styled as a “centre-left party” that would be a serious alternative to the UNP, radically altering the national political scape. Seventy years since, it is looking for a new lease of life, even if not hold on to power.
Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent.