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UNP to benefit immensely from mini-budget

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President Mahinda Rajapaksa has departed the political arena at least temporarily and his exit has left a vacuum in the two political outfits he headed, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) from which he contested and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in which he politically matured.

A curious situation now exists: there is a lack of a credible Opposition in Parliament. The Cabinet is mostly from the United National Party (UNP), with a few SLFP ‘dissidents’. Meanwhile, the SLFP, which is now headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, sits in the Opposition!

This anomaly has arisen because President Sirisena had to leave the SLFP to contest the presidential poll. That the bulk of the votes he polled were from the UNP is a fact that he has to live with. He must be also aware that at the grassroots level, his successful campaign was run by UNP party workers.

In the post-election scenario, initially it appeared as if the SLFP, and with it, the UPFA, would divide in to two factions. That is because some Rajapaksa loyalists were attempting to bring back the former President to the lead the party’s campaign at the general elections, likely in June this year.

The SLFP even held two central committee meetings on the same day at different venues, one chaired by Rajapaksa and the other by President Sirisena, each claiming to have a support of the majority of committee members. If this was pursued, that SLFP would have suffered a crippling split.

Sanity prevailed, though. Rajapaksa relented, conceding the leadership to President Sirisena. The party Constitution had ironically been amended by Rajapaksa who, in a bid to gain control of the SLFP from Chandrika Kumaratunga, decreed that the country’s President would automatically lead the party.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/2015/01/04/Main/this-my-nation.jpgLong-standing SLFP stalwart Nimal Siripala de Silva has been appointed as the Leader of the Opposition. De Silva was vociferous in his support of Rajapaksa in the presidential election campaign and maintained that the former President headed the SLFP even after his defeat.

Now he finds himself having to take orders from President Sirisena. De Silva has tried to make the best of an uncomfortable situation, pledging to lead the SLFP to victory in the general elections and asking voters to remain faithful to the party. However, he will have to overcome many obstacles.

Not least among them will be the potential disintegration of the UPFA. Leaders of the smaller parties in the Alliance are unhappy that most SLFPers, having quickly switched allegiance to the new President, have forgotten the services of the former President. They are now threatening to contest on their own.

UPFA party leaders also sought permission from Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa to be recognized as separate entities in Parliament - a public snub to De Silva. And, when Parliament resumed after the election, the eulogies for Rajapaksa were led not by the SLFP but Wimal Weerawansa and Dinesh Gunewardena.

Negotiations are still continuing but it is unclear at this stage whether the UPFA will contest as an alliance under the ‘betel leaf’ symbol or whether the SLFP will go it alone under the traditional ‘hand’ symbol. If it is the latter, the anti-UNP vote would be divided, giving the UNP a distinct advantage.

Opposition Leader De Silva would also be mindful that the SLFP dissidents who left the party to join the President during his election campaign mostly represent the Kumaratunga faction of the party. There is also speculation that Kumaratunga herself might not be averse to a return to politics as Prime Minister.

Another unknown at this stage is whether the election will be held under the first-past-the-post system or under the current proportional representation system. If the Westminster system is reintroduced, it will be harder for the SLFP to obtain a parliamentary majority or even a decent number of seats at the polls.

In all this, the role of President Sirisena will be crucial. He has reportedly expressed a wish to remain ‘neutral’ allowing Silva or whoever leads the SLFP at the elections to run the election campaign. In the present setting, it is unlikely to expect the President to actively campaign against the UNP.

The SLFP would also need to factor in the advantage held by the UNP: they practically hold the reins of the government and any benefits from the ‘100-day program’- such as the benefits announced in Thursday’s ‘mini’ budget - will be interpreted by the electorate as being mostly the work of the UNP.

If the SLFP wishes to regain its lost glory, they would do well to leave out the individuals who were discredited during the last few years of the Rajapaksa regime. That would be a good start, but it will still be an uphill struggle as more and more excesses of the regime come to light and the UNP gains ground.

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