We once again see the Sri Lanka Freedom Party going through the same stresses and strains that the party went through in the 1980s only this time at a much greater magnitude. There are repeated meetings of the party central committee, stormy meetings of electoral organizers, and MPs holding furtive meetngs at each other’s houses to consider survival strategies. That things were going to come to this pass sooner or later after their ill-advised entry into a national government with the UNP in 2015 was obvious to everyone except those blinded by yahapalana propaganda.
On the one hand, the SLFP as represented by the authority wielded from its Darley Road headquarters, is all but dead. But the politics and the policies that the SLFP represented over the decades is alive and well outside the SLFP in the form of the SLPP and the Joint Opposition.
The stresses and strains within the SLFP that we have been witnessing over the past several weeks is due to the official SLFP deciding to ditch the failed marriage with the UNP and to rejoin its former camp which re-organized outside the SLFP after 2015. Over the past three years, the MPs who decided to remain with the Joint Opposition were one by one removed from their SLFP electoral organizer positions and replaced with complete non-entitites. The latter gave themselves airs on the basis that they were now the electoral organizers of the SLFP. With the SLFP leadership deciding to reunite with the SLPP and the JO, many of these newly appointed organizers have been left high and dry because very few of them will have any chance of being elected to represent the people. The actual fact is that these people never had a chance anyway – even if the SLFP contested on its own at the next Parliamentary election, very few of them would have stood even a fighting chance of getting elected.
If they had contested in partnership with the UNP, they would still be in the same position. If they contested together with the SLPP, once again their position would not be any different. The actual fact is that the electoral organizers and the sitting MPs still associated with the SLFP have no real standing politically and they have no option but to reconcile themselves to the fact that only a handful of them will make it to the next Parliament. Those who have the best chance of getting re-elected if they contested on the SLPP list will be those in the group of 15 who were seen by the public to be exerting themselves to break up the failed marriage between the UNP and the SLFP.
The various districts also may have certain peculiarities which may allow some members of the SLFP to make it even on the SLPP list such as the SLPP not having sufficient candidates with national name recognition to win preference votes in that particular district. This too is however not very likely because the wrenching struggle between the SLPP/JO and the UNP-SLFP coalition government over the past four years has given rise to ‘opposition heroes’ in every district. Though some them are not yet known at a national level, the people of the district knows who stood with the opposition during difficult times and those who did not. Hence the reality is that the 23 MPs who remained with the coalition with the UNP and even some of the people associated with the Group of 15 will have to think of retirement.
It was a wise decision that was made by the likes of Champika Ranawaka, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, Hirunika Premachandra and others to contest on the UNP list at the 2015 Parliamentary election because it will be the UNP voter who will determine whether they remain in politics or not. What the SLFP segment of that government did however was to fight the 2015 August Parliamentary election on an anti-UNP, anti-Yahapalana platform under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa and then join the UNP government. After doing something like that it will be difficult for even the most influential politicians among them to obtain the critical number of preference votes necessary to get re-elected to Parliament.
Maithripala Sirisena as the President has some room to maneuver because he wields the ultimate power in the country and after October 26 he has demonstrated to the anti-government voter that he has now switched sides. Thus, he and some in the group of 15 who broke away from the UNP led government early may have a chance of being re-elected but not probably any of the 23 who remained in the government till the end. The talk that is doing the rounds about this group seeking refuge in the UNP is not going to do anything to endear this lot to the anti-government voter either.
The only reason why this entire group of 23 has not already made a bee line to UNP headquarters is probably because they know that their chances of getting elected on the UNP ticket are also virtually non-existent. If the results of the last local government election are anything to go by, it is clear that the UNP is on a downward trend and when the UNP is on a losing streak at an election, they will lose some of the seats they already have and it will be impossible for outsiders to get elected on UNP votes in such circumstances. Thus these days, we see a great deal of angst among members of the SLFP but the fate of the party is more or less sealed. They may enter into a coalition with the SLPP and field some candidates, but very few of them will win and the SLFP will be relegated to the level of a minor party in the SLPP led coalition.
In any case the SLFP has never really contested under
its own name since the local government election of 1991 and has always been a part of a coalition styled as the People’s Alliance or the United People’s Freedom Alliance. This time they will be in an alliance led by the SLPP who are also former members of the SLPP but the official SLFP will be a minor partner in the coalition. So to the question whether the SLFP is dead or alive, the answer is both yes and no. On the one hand the official SLFP is but a shadow of its former self, but the SLFP tradition is thriving within its offshoot the SLPP.