An attempt by dissidents in the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to unite rivals Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa, received a setback on Tuesday when they failed to get “common candidate” Dr.Sudarshani Fernandopulle elected to the post of Deputy Speaker of Parliament or even get a decent number votes.
Dr.Sudarshani should have got 90 plus votes if Sirisena and Rajapaksa were united. But she got only 53. The United National Party’s candidate Ananda Kumarasiri got 97 votes and won convincingly.
Many MPs of the 224 strong House did not participate in the voting.
Before the voting, SLFP (S) dissident leader S.B.Dissanayake had announced that Dr.Sudarshani would be the common candidate of the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions. A leading follower of Rajapaksa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, had even seconded Dr.Sudarshani. But voting showed that there was no unity.
Those SLFP MPs who had stuck to Sirisena had decided to vote for the United National Party (UNP) candidate Kumarasiri as he was part of the ruling SLFP (Sirisena)-UNP alliance.
Thus, the ploy of the 16 SLFP dissidents to unify the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions and split from the alliance with the UNP backfired.
According to political observers, the unity move has some miles to go before it can register progress.
The fact is that at this time, neither the Rajapaksa nor the Sirisena faction wants to rush into unification. Any serious moves, one way or the other, will be made only before the next major elections, political observers said. But elections are not far away. Some Provincial elections are expected to be held later this year. The Presidential election is due in January 2020 and parliamentary elections are to be held in August 2020.
In the meantime, President Sirisena would like to fully utilize his position as the Executive President of Sri Lanka to garner support for his faction. He would like to beef up his strength before going for a link up with Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, in turn, would also like to make use of his growing popularity to get the best bargain in a unified SLFP.
As a Hill Country Tamil MP Thilakaraj said, Rajapaksa would have made a serious effort to get Dr.Sudarshani elected if she had been from his faction, which is now known as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or SLPP. But she was not. She has also not been consistent. She had broken away from Rajapaksa and joined Sirisena. But after the SLFP (Sirisena) got a drubbing at the hands of the SLPP in the February 10 local bodies elections, she became a rebel and a votary of unification with the SLPP.
It is said that Rajapaksa will not admit the rebels unconditionally. Some of his conditions may hurt the dissidents’ egos. By getting Dr.Sudarshani defeated, Rajapaksa was conveying the message that the rebels cannot take his support for granted.
Meanwhile, Daily Mirror reported that the 16 SLFP (S) rebels are themselves a divided house, with some saying that it is too early to move away from Sirisena and that a low profile and thoughtful actions are called for at this juncture.
Rickety National Unity Government
Be that as it may, the SLFP (Sirisena)-UNP alliance continues to be rickety. There are sharp ideological differences. While the Sirisena group is leftist, nationalistic, and somewhat Sinhalese- majoritarian in its thinking, the UNP is a neo-liberal, Right of Center and pro-West party.
There have been clashes over policy and decisions since the National Unity Government (NUG), comprising the SLFP (S) and the UNP, came into being in January 2015. The President, as SLFP (S) leader, has revered many decisions of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe who heads the UNP.
The absence of unity in the “National Unity Government” led to a policy and administrative paralysis which made the government unpopular. Its unpopularity was reflected in the February 10, 2018 local bodies elections, in which the SLFP (S) and the UNP were both severely mauled by Rajapaksa’s SLPP.
The election defeat led to a mild revolt in the UNP against its Supremo, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. But this was soon quashed by Wickremesinghe with promises of policy changes.
But the electoral defeat’s impact on the SLFP (S) was greater as it came a poor third in the elections. Sirisena’s followers blamed the alliance with the UNP and the premiership of Wickremesinghe for the electoral debacle. They wanted President Sirisena to sack Wickremesinghe.
When Sirisena said that the 19 th. Amendment of the constitution (enacted in 2015) had taken away the President’s power to sack the Prime Minister, the dissidents, numbering 16 MPs including cabinet ministers, walked out of the government side in parliament and sat with the opposition. The ministers resigned from their posts.
However, the rebels insisted that they were still SLFP (S) members and would work for the unification of the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions with the aim of setting up an SLFP-led government without the right wing UNP.