An election the opposition has been clamouring for, the local government elections are finally expected to be conducted on or around the 20thof January 2018. Preceding those elections was what some sections of the media described as a purge of SLFP dissidents from the all-important post of organizer of an electorate. JO stalwarts, Kumara Welgama and Mahindananda Aluthgamage, being among others sacked from their positions by President Maithripala Sirisena as SLFP Party Leader. Consequently, President Sirisena appointed a range of new SLFP electoral organizers, mostly fresh, younger politicians from the provincial level. What was clear though, through the sackings, was that the attempted rapprochement between the two factions of the SLFP, those within the government and those with the Opposition, was now effectively over and the battle lines for the local elections have been drawn. We are headed for an essentially a three-way contest, between the two partners in government, the UNP and the SLFP, and the new SLPP – the most likely political vehicle of the Joint Opposition and its smaller allies.
Most interestingly though was the reinduction of retired President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as SLFP organizer for the Attanagalla electorate, a Bandaranaike stronghold which the family has nursed for generations and which has stood with the SLFP during good times and bad, including the nadir of the 1977 defeat. The appointment as electoral organizer, signals a return from retirement back to electoral politics for the matriarch of the SLFP. The Gampaha District, Sri Lanka’s second most populous district on which a national election can turn. With her profile and stature, President Kumaratunga is now effectively the SLFP District Leader for Gampaha.
CBK’s return to electoral politics did not occur in a vacuum, and is largely the logical conclusion of her active architecture of the rainbow coalition which ousted the former Rajapaksa Administration in 2015; a feat thought near impossible then, both due to President Rajapaksa’s popularity, and more importantly due to the fractious nature of the political opposition around 2013 and 2014. But President Kumaratunga sensed the winds of change, did the impossible, and formed the grand national “rainbow” coalition of the NDF, and of course the rest is our nation’s recent history.
The political story of the SLFP post the elections of 2015 is that it did not fully fall in behind President Sirisena, with a section of the Party remaining in the opposition and fashioning themselves as the Joint Opposition, while a section of the Party joined the National Unity Government or the grand national coalition of the two major parties. Joining the intra-party fight at an early stage, though initially in only a semi-executive manner was President Kumaratunga who made no secret of her desire to keep the Rajapaksa’s from ever making a political comeback to the national leadership. President Kumaratunga is also actively committed to the National Unity Government, believing that a measure of consensus between the two major parties is required to give effect to the next generation of state reforms – economic, political and social – required to solidify our transition to a post conflict, upper middle-income country, with social cohesion and justice.
Within the SLFP, the return of CBK to a post of electoral organizer, and especially in the key Gampaha District, puts her on SLFP party parity status with Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a formidable political player and former president, with a mass public following with an electoral appeal to the base of the SLFP party faithful. It significantly strengthens President Sirisena’s hand, with President Kumaratunga aligning her support in line with President Sirisena’s.
The return to active politics from retirement is a not unusual political phenomenon globally, while how it plays out in Sri Lanka and the SLFP will remain to be seen. The most well-known international example is that of President Daniel Ortega, head of the Sandinista political movement in Nicaragua, who governed Nicaragua for eleven years from 1979 to 1990 and then made a comeback after seventeen long years, being re-elected President in 2007 and governs to date.
The Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition, however, also did not let the grass grow under their feet during these past two and a half years, and have formed the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Pakshaya (SLPP), under Basil Rajapaksa, which is likely to be the political vehicle of choice for the Joint Opposition (JO), for the local government elections. This sets up an interesting three-way contest, between the UNP, the SLFP and the JO (SLPP), the first time in nearly three decades when one of the two major parties faced an election seriously divided, the prior occasion being when late Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali broke away from President Premadasa and the UNP to form the DUNF (Rajaaliya). In the ensuing election, the DUNF came a respectable third place, but the weakening of the UNP through the schism witnessed the return to power of the SLFP in 1994, under the then young and newly returned from self-imposed exile, daughter of the SLFP founder, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
The January 2018 local government elections will also end up being a three-way political context and it remains to be seen what the outcome would be. The practice of coalition or alliance partners contesting elections separately and then forming post-election alliances is not unusual, not just globally, but even in Sri Lanka, where essentially the August 2015 General Elections was contested while the SLFP was in coalition with the UNP in the post presidential election national unity government.
Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude with a quote from a senior Indian journalist and political analyst who once told me, some years ago, “it would be a serious political analytical error to ever count out and disregard, the Gandhi’s of India, the Bhutto’s of Pakistan and the Bandaranaike’s of Sri Lanka”. With general elections due in Pakistan in 2018, with local elections due in Sri Lanka early next year, and Indian elections due in 2019, time will tell to what extent the old adage still holds true.