Who or what is the main political problem facing Sri Lanka today?
The answer you give will reveal where you are on the ideological spectrum, and will in turn have determined your answer. Here are the answers that form the political spectrum of our society:
1. The UNP is the main problem.
2. The current leadership of the UNP –Prime Minister Wickremesinghe–is the main problem.
3. The SLFP is the main problem.
4. The leadership of the SLFP- President Sirisena- is the main problem.
5. The UNP-SLFP alliance is the main problem.
6. The TNA as Opposition is the main problem.
7. The JO-SLPP led by Mahinda Rajapaksa is the main problem.
8. All of the above are the main problem.
The anti-UNP populist bloc, currently consisting of the JO-SLPP and the vote base of the SLFP, which regards itself as progressive and left-of-center, tend to feel that the rightwing UNP with its pro-western, anti-national policies, is the main problem. Their solution is that the UNP as a whole should be defeated and thrown out of office.
A subset within this bloc, and even some within the UNP, feel that it is not the UNP that is the main problem, but the current and longstanding leadership of the UNP, Mr. Wickremesinghe and his cronies, that constitute the main problem. While the JO leaders feel that a non-Ranil government of the SLFP and JO could provide a viable interim solution, the UNP dissidents feel that a reshuffle by the President and a substitution of Sajith or Thalatha for Ranil as the PM and/or leader of the UNP, will be adequate to set the country on the right path.
Those within the UNP, TNA, and the NGOs and INGOs which support Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his neoliberal globalism, feel that the SLFP is a retrogressive force in government and that President Sirisena is by his own ideological convictions, a problem. They believe the country would be better off with the UNP government led by the PM (they oppose the UNP’s nationalists and populists such as Wijayadasa Rajapakshe and Sajith Premadasa). They further believe that the SLFP should adhere to CBK Chinthana and permanently converge with the UNP as junior partner or leave the government, allowing the UNP and TNA to govern.
In an interesting twist, there are hardliners in the JO-SLPP who believe that President Sirisena and the SLFP prop up the UNP and screen it from public displeasure, and therefore play the worst role in politics today. These elements believe that the main blow should be aimed at the SLFP collaborationists including the President. In a mirror image of the UNP-NGO bloc, theirs is a strategy of polarization in which the main blow is aimed at the intermediate element which is their competitor.
Then there are those who believe that the abandonment of the two-party system by the contradiction-ridden convergence of the UNP and SLFP, is what has gone wrong, and that the traditional competition between the Government and strong center-left Opposition would have been the best chance for Sri Lanka’s progress.
There are others who feel that the TNA with 16 seats, as the official opposition, is the biggest disappointment of all, and that the JO or SLFP should have been allowed to play its rightful role, bringing pressure to bear from the populist center-left upon the government, thereby improving its performance.
There are still others, especially the hardcore UNPers and the minorities, the CBK faction and the NGO-INGOs, most of whom are concentrated in Colombo, who believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa, his family and the JO, are the most retrogressive element in Sri Lanka’s politics. Their favorite political figure is Mangala Samaraweera and they believe in his message that the local authorities’ election will be “the third defeat inflicted on Mahinda”.
Finally there are those on the independent or radical Left, namely the JVP and FSP, who believe that all those named above are the main problem or are outward manifestations of the problem because they all constitute the Establishment and are culpable.
In the interests of transparency and full disclosure, my diagnosis as a political scientist and ex-diplomat, of Sri Lanka’s main political problem today is No 2 on the list I have set out at the commencement of this article: Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. No Sri Lankan leader was willing to give India a footprint in Trincomalee harbor. No Sri Lankan leader for millennia was willing to give India a strategic base (in this case a dual-use airport) in the island’s Deep South, the Ruhuna. Ranil Wickremesinghe has done both. Worse, he has promised India a stake in the strategic locations of KKS-Trinco-Mannar-Colombo-Mattala, which constitutes a noose around this small island. All this comes on top of his protection of Prabhakaran from an LRRP hit on Dec 20th 2001 and his appeasement of the separatist Tamil Tigers during which Lakshman Kadirgamar was killed. Add to this the giant bond scam. All this makes Ranil one of the worst ever political figures in this island’s long history. Leave alone the allegations of facilitating, aiding and abetting massive crookedness, the acts of treachery alone make him a reviled figure.
Mercifully for this island, there are three people who can stop this treacherous project in its tracks. One is President Maithripala Sirisena. He is best positioned to intervene at this moment and hit the brakes because he is at the apex. The others who are more inclined to do so, are not yet in power, are two heroes from the Ruhuna, one who is now on the march yet again, as in 2005, in a possible Mahindaagamanaya 3, and the other who is in waiting or on the horizon. These heroes can, singly or together, liberate us from the Ranil roadmap. They are, in the first place Mahinda Rajapaksa and in the second, Gotabhaya.
Which of these options or which basket of options listed at the beginning of this article are preferred by which political actors, will become obvious on the morning after February 10th. The election will show the percentages of shares of the political marketplace that each player holds. That in turn will indicate the likely results of the Presidential election late next year.
The UNP will know whether or not to retain the present leadership in order to be viable by next year. President Sirisena will know whether or not to run, and who his partners must be if he is to run.
The SLFP will know which way the wind is blowing. It will know whether its partner should be the UNP or the JO-SLPP. It will perceive whether it should remain with the UNP and if so whether that should be with Ranil as PM and UNP leader, or whether it should remain with the UNP only if there is an immediate reshuffle of that party’s leadership.
Mahinda will know whether he is within striking distance of the country’s leadership or the powerful No 2 spot, as Prime Minister.
The JVP will know whether it has actually carved out a third space of real consequence i.e. whether it can be a credible base for a serious third candidacy in 2019.
February 10th 2018 will be the day everyone’s chickens come home to roost.
The SLFP should be thinking not only of Feb 10th but even more so of Feb 11th. It should position itself so as to be able to form the local councils in alliance with the JO-SLPP.
The JO-SLPP (Pohottuwa) too, should be planning to form anti-UNP administrations in the councils, preferably under its leadership, together with the SLFP and the JVP.
Both the JO-SLPP and the SLFP should be willing to reach out to the JVP while the JVP should be unsectarian enough to ally with the non-UNP forces in forming administrations. If it fails to do so it stands in danger of being labeled indirect allies of the UNP.
The SLFP will have to decide whether it wants to be the junior partner of the UNP or the JO-SLPP. The “blue-greens i.e. the Chandrikaistas and ex-UNP closet Ranilistas, will prefer the former option while the centrists such as Susil Premjayanth, John Seneviratne and Dayasiri Jayasekara will prefer the latter.
Much will be decided by the pressure emanating from a different level of the party and government: the SLFP Chief Ministers and Provincial Councilors, who will be thinking of their chances of victory or even survival at the Provincial Council elections later this year.
The SLFP now seems doomed to be the junior partner of either the UNP or the JO-SLPP, unless it is able to reunify the SLFP, which in turn means breaking out of the Ranil-Chandrika axis, ditching the alliance with the UNP and displacing Chandrika, replacing it with a Mahinda –Maithripala joint leadership, a duumvirate, instead, at whatever political cost or with whatever sacrifice.
The bottom line, as I see it, it this: just as Mahinda Rajapaksa lost his Presidency in 2015 because he failed to make Maithripala Sirisena the PM in time, President Sirisena may lose his Presidency in 2019 or may find it unwise to run and may opt to bow out like DB Wijetunga, if he mirrors/repeats his predecessor’s mistake and doesn’t make Mahinda Rajapaksa the PM soon enough.
If so, the SLFP and the JO-SLPP will have little option but to agree on a Presidential candidate who can bring both camps together under a single umbrella, in a united front if not a reunified party, while securing the wholehearted endorsement and active support of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Prime Ministerial candidate in 2020.