Efforts to enlist MR for poll campaign

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Efforts to form a grand partnership of former Presidents Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga for the general election will not succeeded Efforts to form a grand partnership of former Presidents Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga for the general election will not succeeded

Just six months ago, the United National Party (UNP) was in disarray, locked in a leadership battle between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa that was driving the party on a downward spiral. Now, they are in government and the rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) faces that fate.

This was after the defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election. In fact, even after the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena, a faction of its decision making body, the SLFP central committee, met at their party headquarters at Darley Road with Rajapaksa in the chair.

After this meeting, the present Leader of the Opposition, Nimal Siripala de Silva noted that though the party Constitution stipulated that if the President was from the SLFP, he would lead the party, this did not apply to President Sirisena as he contested from a rival party and ran against the SLFP candidate.

What could have escalated into a wide rift in the SLFP was pre-empted when Rajapaksa met President Sirisena at Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa’s residence shortly afterwards and the party leadership was conceded to the President. Now though, the cracks in the SLFP are emerging again.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is a group within the SLFP who feel that Rajapaksa’s charisma and mass appeal is essential to the party’s campaign, if it is to make any headway in the general election that will be held in June. Otherwise, its prospects are quite bleak, they believe., there were efforts by the old guard of the SLFP to rope in Rajapaksa and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga into a grand partnership of Presidents for the general election. That did not materialize because Kumaratunga was vehement in her objections to giving Rajapaksa any position.

Secondly, there are several leaders of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) such as Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunawardena Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila who are agitating for Rajapaksa’s return. They will hold their first rally at Nugegoda this Wednesday.

This group feels marginalized in the ‘new’ SLFP under President Sirisena. They are likely to contest the general elections as a separate entity because they feel they will not be accommodated alongside the SLFP as much as they were during the Rajapaksa era.

Wimal Weerawansa in particular is keen to enlist Rajapaksa’s services. That is because a section of the SLFP views him as one of the major reasons for Rajapaksa’s downfall. Weerawansa was at the forefront of Rajapaksa’s election campaign, even more so than die-hard SLFP stalwarts.

His oratory, while entertaining, also has the power to polarize the masses. His remarks at the UPFA’s campaign, where he referred to President Sirisena in a derogatory manner went viral on social media. Moderate sections of the SLFP believe this alienated voters away from the former President.

Weerawansa and his Jathika Nidahas Peramuna would not be welcome under a SLFP-led list because President Sirisena will have the final say on party nominations for the elections. Hence the clamor for an alliance headed by Rajapaksa.
The likes of Weerawansa, Gunawardena, Nanayakkara and Gammanpila all head political parties with a negligible vote base. While they can aspire to become ministers under a SLFP-led government, they carry no clout by themselves. So, the Rajapaksa proposition is very attractive to them.

The biggest stumbling block to such an alliance is ironically Rajapaksa himself. In his public utterances since the election it is evident that Rajapaksa, the political street fighter that he is, is itching to re-enter the political arena. However, for now, that would have to be from outside the SLFP.

Rajapaksa would have second thoughts about this. The Rajapaksas - save for Basil, who worked as an election agent for the UNP at the May 1983 by-election in Mulkirigala - have been loyal SLFPers for generations. Mahinda Rajapaksa has been with the SLFP all his political life, for forty-five years.

That is an umbilical cord that is hard to cut. Besides, the prospect of contesting with three or four small-scale political parties, with the likelihood of being an ‘also-ran’ at the polls cannot be appealing to a man who ruled the waves and waived the rules in the country only a few months ago.

 The most likely outcome of all this is that Rajapaksa will not get on the Weerawansa-Gunawardena-Nanayakkara-Gammanpila platform but would allow his return to be used as a slogan. Besides, Nimal Siripala de Silva wouldn’t want to let go of the chance to be at least the Deputy Prime Minister.

With the benefits dished out to the masses by the UNP-led government and the details of wastage of public funds and allegations of corruption that are slowly but surely coming to light, this elections is not for the UNP to lose. Yet, stranger events have occurred in Sri Lankan politics in the last few weeks!

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