No political party worth its salt, especially a major political force such as the SLFP, which dominated Lanka’s political stage for over sixty years, can afford to remain without fielding a candidate of its own or supporting a common one at any presidential election.
In the last dying days of his presidency, SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena seems thoroughly obsessed in proving to the gallery that though he and his party were no more on the stage they were still in the cast, even if they were standing only in the wings, and had the will and the power to determine the final act of the drama being enacted under spotlights.
Here was the last ditch straw he clung steadfast to show the world that though his party had fallen to its nadir under his leadership, the SLFP should not be easily written off and he, in particular, be pensioned off in haste.
This he had made known to all and sundry when he announced last week that though it appeared the fire had died out in him, it still blazed within. And to those who thought otherwise, he had a strong message.
Last Saturday, speaking at a welfare centre opening in Polonnaruwa, President Sirisena declared that he is not ready to retire and a new step will be taken after December. “I am in good health and I would not retire in order to continue my agenda for the country and the people. Some people may be thinking that I will disappear since I haven’t said that I will contest for the presidential election. I will be making a dramatic transition and emerge in a new role.”
Every man is entitled to indulge in his fantasies and what is permitted for the common man must not be denied to the president. Though the inevitable end may stare in one’s visage, one still sees hope in resurrection draped in a new countenance, for the grasping compels one to cling on desperately until the dream dies with the man.
One week before Sirisena’s “I will never retire’ speech, he had told the crowd at the SLFP’s Matara District Convention that no party can win the presidential election without SLFP’s support.
He declared: “I have received surveys which state that neither the Pohottuwa nor the UNP can get more than 40 percent each at the forthcoming election. Thus it is clear that no party can get over 50 percent of the votes to come to power without an alliance or a common front and no party can win the upcoming presidential election without the support of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.”
Ever since he made this speech — and, possibly, even before it, for it is tough to catalogue his many mood swings — of how he held in his hands the commanding 10 percent of the votes that would swing victory in the way of the party he chose to back, he has been knocking on the Pohottuwa door one side of the street and popping over to the other side of the street to knock on the UNP door and rushing back to the other side of the streets to tap on Pohottuwa’s door again and back and forth, again and again, like a travelling second hand goods salesman would do to get a better price for the precious ‘ten percent’ wares he held in hand.
As he wanes and waxes, as he moonlights between his two suitors unable to decide which of the two may prove to be the more chivalrous and whether they will be able to afford his price and, looking at himself in the mirror wonders whether the used wares are worthy of the price quoted, he is wracked with doubts and fears and torn between these two who may now promise him the world and leave him desolate in the ditch after they have used him. And to crown it all he thoroughly detests both.
Earlier on September 22, he had expressed his horrors thus; “The SLFP will never support any party which consists of thieves, corrupt persons, underworld assassins.” At the same time, he expressed his horror of supporting a party that was of a capitalistic bent. Speaking at the SLFP Matara District Convention, he said the upcoming presidential election could only be won through a leftist progressive political movement and not a rightist one.
And to increase the degree of his dilemma that makes him come out in a sweat at night it was the voice telling him that no party can come to power without the support of the SLFP. He said “The two main parties will get 40% each of the votes but it will of course not be enough. So I ask you where are they going to get the balance 10%? Only the SLFP can give them a chance to win.
Thus began the quest to find Mr. Right. One day it was Gota who was Mr. Right, with a statement issued by the SLFP that talks were successful and that a statement will be issued the following day. But by the time morning had broken, the sun seemed to have cast a new light on the proceedings; and the suitor was hailed as Mr. Right turned out to be Sajith instead. While the following day Gota was back in the frame and touted as the new favourite to win the hand that held the magic 10% of the vote.
The matchmakers of both sides had dealt with negotiations whilst Gota stayed aloof and Sirisena remained at his official Pagett Road Residence anxiously waiting for the news of the talks to return home. Towards the end of the week it became clearer, especially after face-to-face meetings with Sajith, that Sirisena’s heart had flitted towards Gota.
But there was a snag. Whilst the groom had proved his credentials and caught the fancy of Sirisena, the vehicle which he arrived in was totally unacceptable. It wouldn’t do. Wouldn’t do at all. From September 29 to October 4, the lotus bud became the hub of contention. And Sirisena and his few solitary backers went on fallen knees and ‘humbly’ pleaded with the SLPP to be flexible on his party’s conditions to form an alliance between both parties.
Addressing an SLFP rally in Kurunegala, Mr. Sirisena said he informed the SLPP that although his party would be willing to support presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, they would not agree on contesting under the lotus bud symbol of the SLPP.
Pathetically he begged them; “Didn’t we do you’ll favours to accommodate your party member Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister? I did what no other state leader has done so far. I issued five gazettes to help Mahinda Rajapaksa to form a government”. Despite my doing all that Mr. Rajapaksa could not command the majority of the House and I was forced to replace him with Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mahinda Rajapaksa is only serving as the Opposition Leader thanks to a letter sent by the UPFA General Secretary to the Speaker confirming that Rajapaksa and his followers were still members of the SLFP”.
Mr. Sirisena claimed that the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), of which the SLFP is a constituent party, had written to the Speaker to secure the parliamentary seats of UPFA parliamentarians after they crossed over to the SLPP, thus confirming that beneath the veneer of the SLPP’s supporters there flows SLFP blood.
His stance on the symbol issue is understandable. The SLFP is the mothership and the SLPP had been one of its lifeboats into which those first deserting the sinking ship had jumped and sailed away to seek a newer horizon. Raising, in the meantime, their own distinctive flag — not the pirate’s skull and crossbones — which carried as its symbol their lotus bud. The mothership was being asked by its mutinous crew to come under the protection of its flag, thus effectively surrendering their lives, liberties and rights to those who commanded ‘the Pohottuwa flying’ mutineers’ ship.
On October 1, this view and dread was echoed by Duminda Dissanayake, who was one of the first to have crossed over from Rajapaksa’s SLFP same time as Sirisena did, when he declared that, “The main objective of the lotus flower bud of the Pohottuwa party is to gobble up the SLFP. When you watch television in the night the Pohottuwa symbol dangles in the background poster with the pictures of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya and Basil in numerical order. This means that the Pohottuwa is a Rajapaksa symbol. Even though Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted to defeat Gotabaya, we will work for his victory rather than defeat if we stand together with them.”
He further said, “The SLFP parliamentary group which met recently decided that the party should never join the Pohottuwa party. They were not joining the Pohottuwa for the sake of the future of the SLFP rather than their own future. If they joined the Pohottuwa, the future of the SLFP would be in danger.” Strong stuff. A textbook description how to stay loyal and safeguard the party that one loves. Except for one thing. Duminda Dissanayake this week climbed the Pohottuwa stage and took his seat on the dais.
The see-saw continued. Now it was the turn of SLFP Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera to disclose the state of the negotiations. He said, “The SLFP Central Committee chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena will meet this Saturday to take a final decision on whether to support Sajith Premadasa or Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential election”.
The central committee of the SLFP, he said, had met on Monday to consider the proposal put forward by the UNP General Secretary, Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam which was an invitation to support Minister Premadasa while talks on forming an alliance with the SLPP was put off for October 5. Then he warned that, “If there was no positive feedback from the SLPP by Saturday, we have no option but to consider the invitation extended to us by the UNF”.
Sajith’s fortunes seemed on the ascendance on the see-saw only for it to come tumbling down during the weekend when the Pohottuwa party came back to the negotiating table with an offer Sirisena couldn’t and didn’t refuse. For whatever reasons both parties had found common ground for the Pohottuwa’s Presidential candidate to walk alone towards his ambitious goal.
At the weekly press conference SLFP Secretary, Jayasekera said; “We have humbly requested the SLPP to change its rigid stance on the ‘pohottuwa’ symbol and choose one that is acceptable to both parties. It is not a demand but a request made with bona fide intentions because the SLFP cannot ask its supporters to vote for the ‘pohottuwa’. Besides, we are prepared to abandon the SLFP’s hand symbol for the common good,”
He said if the SLFP received a positive reply from the SLPP with the consent to change the symbol to one acceptable to both parties, the SLFP would sign two separate agreements with Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mr. Jayasekera said the SLFP had also drafted its policy document and work programme for future elections and a government to be formed in the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency.
For long the Pohottuwa had remained steadfast to their demand that the Pohottuwa remains their party’s symbol and that it was non-negotiable; whilst the SLFP had gone on their knees, making their humble request to have another symbol viewed in a more positive light. But that carried no clout.
The thorny issue of the Pohottuwa symbol had been resolved. All talk by SLFP loyalists that they will never compromise on their own party symbol and embrace the lotus bud as their own seemed rather hollow. And all opposition to the Pohottuwa demand vanished. And the SLFP had ended up capitulating to the rising forces of and yet unbloomed bud.
The SLFP central committee first met on Saturday night and they were to announce the decision on Sunday, but delayed it to Monday, then Tuesday and eventually held a press conference on Wednesday. Finally, the agreement was signed between the SLFP and the SLPP on Thursday: Another agreement is due to be signed between Gotabaya and Maithripala later. But this may considerably take much longer. For the crafty Maithri knows quite well the art of drawing circles and would attempt to delay execution as far as possible.
For he knows perhaps in his heart of hearts the fate that would fall on the SLFP and him. Even before the ink had dried on their MoU, the SLPP front would have them for breakfast to make it bloom sooner.