by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
What the upcoming round of sub-national elections (PCs and PSs) will decide is the respective strengths of the official SLFP and the JO/SLPP. I for one am pretty certain that the JO/Podujana Peramuna will beat the official SLFP into third place in the PS/PC elections—the reason being the official SLFP’s role as the UNP’s ‘tail’.
After the electoral outcome and on that basis, the two entities can either try vainly to eliminate the other politically and monopolize (not merely dominate) the space the rival occupies, or they can sensibly decide to reunite, perhaps not as a single party, but as a front or bloc, just as the LSSP and CP did when they came to their senses in 1968.
What would work in the short term is a post-electoral agreement to form non-UNP administrations at the PS and PC levels, in other words, flip over and thereby counterbalance the 2015 agreement the official SLFP leadership entered into with the UNP, to form a ‘unity’ government at the national level.
There are those in the SLPP and the Rajapaksa family who may prefer to strive to monopolize the SLFP space even if it means that the UNP wins the 2019-2020 elections by the same slim margin that the Sirisena “spoiler” SLFP manages to retain. After all, Mrs. Bandaranaike could have backed either Maithripala Senanayake or Hector Kobbekaduwa fully and saved Sri Lanka and the SLFP much misery but she preferred to adopt a tactic of denial of the SLFP leadership to anyone else until one of her own children could succeed her (and even then she didn’t exactly give in gracefully).
As part of their bid to eliminate Maithripala Sirisena and the official SLFP as a competitor, Basil Rajapaksa and the SLPP may be ambivalent about the continuation or abolition of the executive Presidency, but the influential hierarchy of the Buddhist clergy isn’t—as is evidenced the 21 point letter of the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters to the President, which calls, inter alia, for the retention and protection of the Executive Presidency in any Constitutional change involving the devolution of power. The SLPP may wish to segment the issue of federalization from that of the retention of the Presidency and oppose the former while supporting the latter, but that simply won’t fly, not least because the SLFP voters won’t take kindly to any political stand that abolishes the presidency only to transfer executive power from a familiar SLFP personality to the UNP Prime Minister and the Northern and Eastern Chief Ministers, thereby entrench the UNP-TNA bloc.
The Sirisena SLFP doesn’t understand that its projected moderation and non-family nature is irrelevant except within the envelope of anti-UNPism, just as SWRD’s project was of a moderate (compared to the Marxist Left) alternative to the UNP. Remaining tied to the UNP evaporates the legitimacy of the project. Similarly its rival, the new party, the SLPP, doesn’t understand that it can inherit the SLFP vote, not by targeting the official SLFP and doing a Macbeth on Sirisena (who did a Brutus on Mahinda) but precisely by being seen, heard and felt to attack the UNP and its more easily targeted rightwing leader.
The Joint Opposition is impaled on the horns of a dilemma. The pair of horns is constituted by two competing political strategies. One strategy is that of polarization into two camps, the other strategic perspective that of the broadest possible national united front, “uniting the many, defeating the few”.
Basil Rajapaksa and the Podujana Peramuna are adopting the polarization strategy, aiming their polemical guns at the formation that stands in between—i.e. the official SLFP—while dividing up the battle ground between the UNP and itself. In this round it seeks to eliminate the SLFP even if that entrenches the UNP, so as to monopolize the oppositional space and eventually take on and unseat the UNP. It considers a possible anti-Ranil realignment by Sirisena (a la CBK 2003-4) as the worst case scenario because it will re-legitimize him as a viable center of gravity and potential contender for re-election, and prevent the Rajapaksas from wresting/ inheriting the SLFP as a whole.
Basil Rajapaksa and the SLPP strategists either do not understand that there are real contradictions within the Yahapalana government which can and must be utilized just as the UNP strategists decisively created or widened rifts in the Coalition governments in late 1964 and 1973-77, or they do recognize that there are contradictions but are of the view that the Opposition should tilt to Ranil’s UNP rather than the Sirisena SLFP! This is at the heart of the recent Vasu-Basil clash of political perspectives.
One problem with the Basil/SLPP line is that it goes against the grain of the SLFP’s political culture as well as that of the center-left Opposition voter base, which always considered the UNP and especially its pro-West, anti-national rightwing, as the main enemy.
The other line in the Opposition, that of the JO’s leaders and most experienced political personalities, veterans of decades of anti-UNP/anti-Ranil/anti-imperialist politics, is that of identifying and isolating the Ranil-led UNP as the main enemy and uniting with or neutralizing all other forces in a broad national front that includes the SLFP at least on an issue-by-issue basis.
The JO knows that Sirisena’s SLFP cannot be wiped off the political map. The JO leading cadre, which encompasses generations of experience as anti-UNP militants ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s, know that the traditional axis of the UNP base vote and the minorities can be offset only by a center-left alliance and that this has always been the case. It is an axiom. Pushing away the official SLFP which could take away even a few percentage of the vote making the difference between victory and defeat, is far too great a risk.
A center-Left or centrist bloc or united front cannot be recreated without a rapprochement with the SLFP, though (as the upcoming PC and PS elections will demonstrate) it will have to be under the pre-eminence of the established anti-UNP formation, JO.
Given the unprecedentedly disastrous trajectory that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP has placed this country on, if President Sirisena can be pushed into hitting the brakes and derailing the Ranil-CBK deviation, it is infinitely preferable to attacking him as the main enemy, keeping Ranil in play, and losing our country. The SLPP-Basil Rajapaksa line is of frontal assault, and that too on the vacillating centrists, the intermediate element— the President and the SLFP— rather than on the driving force and hegemonic element of the Yahapalana ensemble, i.e. the Rightwing junta. However, just as the Maestro of Opposition politics, JR Jayewardene did in 1973-1977, the JO’s leadership nucleus senses that the best way to deal with this Coalition government is to strangle it with the chain of its own contradictions, before launching a conclusive frontal assault and politically decapitating the Beast.