Blues of the Blues (Island Editorial)
President Maithripala Sirisena is reported to have called for the appointment of a committee to sort out differences between the UNP and the SLFP with a view to strengthening the unity of the government. (He has a monumental propensity for appointing committees and commissions!) Having got tough with the UNP on some issues such as the bond scams, he wouldn’t have struck such a conciliatory note if not for the scare the Joint Opposition’s successful May Day rally gave the SLFP.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must be grinning from ear to ear and rubbing his hands in glee. Now, the SLFP’s split is permanent and it is sure to stand the UNP in good stead at future elections with the JO going it alone. President Sirisena has also become amenable to fence-mending. Lady luck has smiled on Mahinda Rajapaksa, but she is flirting with Ranil!
The UNP threw in its lot with Sirisena at the 2015 presidential election, expecting him to do a D. B. Wijetunga; it wanted him to maintain a low profile, let the Prime Minister run the show, and fade away at the end of his first term. In fact, Sirisena declared, upon being inducted, that he would not seek a second term. But, after savouring power for a few months, he asserted himself to the extent of confronting the UNP. The SLFP-UNP marriage almost collapsed owing to a tug-of-war between him and the PM over the appointment of a new Central Bank Governor. Ministers representing the two main parties have also been at loggerheads on numerous issues with the UNP Cabinet members asking their SLFP counterparts to leave the government.
Theme cartoons googled and added by TW
The UNP is all out to consolidate its power in the government in a bid to ready itself for the 2020 elections. This, it can achieve only by debilitating the SLFP. When media reports said, about two weeks, ago, the PM had ordered that adequate police protection and all necessary facilities be provided for the JO May Day rally at the Galle Face Green, we argued in this space that he was trying to kill two birds with one stone. The UNP would gain politically if the JO failed to bring enough people to fill the Galle Face Green and if the JO succeeded in holding a mammoth rally President Sirisena would get a scare and become more dependent on the UNP, we said.
President Sirisena is now the leader of the SLFP, but, where party members’ allegiance is concerned, he is apparently not in a much better situation than he was before the 2015 presidential polls. Rajapaksa has demonstrated once again, through his May Day muscle flexing, that he not only has the majority of the SLFP MPs on his side but also can mobilise them to achieve his political goal.
President Sirisena is in a dilemma. He cannot give up power after completing the first term for obvious reasons. Many people are now dependent on him for political survival. In case of his retirement in keeping with his pre-election promise, they will face a fate much worse than being ousted from the SLFP. Similarly, his rivals will also go to any extent to make life miserable for him if they capture state power.
It is being argued in some quarters that the DUNF (Democratic United National Front), formed by Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and G. M. Premachandra after being sacked from the UNP for an abortive attempt to impeach President Ranasinghe Premadasa, also drew massive crowds to its rallies, but could not achieve its political goal. However, unlike the DUNF, which did not have any sitting UNP MPs within its ranks the JO has as its members about 50 MPs, most of whom represent the SLFP. The SLFP dissidents in the JO haven’t been expelled. The SLFP threatened to take disciplinary action against its MPs if they attended the JO May Day rally. But, now, it is doubtful whether the SLFP leadership will dare take punitive action against them.
President Sirisena’s increasing dependence on the UNP is likely to alienate more SLFPers and make a bad situation worse for the current SLFP leadership. The challenge before the President is to ensure that the SLFP MPs who are currently with him for expediency won’t pole-vault to the other side.