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Mahinda’s re-entry can rock SLFP’s boat

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The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the party with the majority in Parliament and headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, is in crisis. Thrust into the opposition ranks following President Sirisena’s victory at the presidential election, it is now at a critical juncture.

There are many reasons for this. Firstly, after enjoying almost 20 years of uninterrupted power, the SLFP resents seeing the United National Party (UNP) holding office now. Worse still, the UNP did not win an election; it only supported the President at the election.

Secondly, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has not opted for a quiet retirement. Had he done so, many of the squabbles now surfacing in the SLFP would not have occurred. Instead, Rajapaksa, a political street-fighter, is keen on staging a comeback.
Thirdly, other elements in the coalition that was the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) see no future for themselves in an administration led by President Sirisena because Sirisena loyalists see some of these personalities- Wimal Weerawansa, for instance- as the reason for the UPFA’s downfall.

So, the SLFP is now convulsing in a manner reminiscent of the late 70s when Sirima Bandaranaike was ousted from power and Maithripala Senanayake attempted to wrest control of the party. With general elections imminent, this does not augur well for the once formidable SLFP.

The SLFP still has one trump card, though. The parliamentary majority it currently enjoys- albeit for a limited time- is needed by both the UNP and President Sirisena if they wish to push through constitutional amendments that will reduce the powers of the Executive Presidency.

The President does have the power to dissolve Parliament, but if he does so he will be taking a huge gamble: there is no guarantee that a newly-elected legislature which would be chosen under the existing proportional representation system will allow a two thirds majority to any party.  
http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/logo/tis.jpgThe President therefore has to convince, coax or coerce the SLFP into supporting his reforms. SLFPers are using this as a bargaining lever. Some parliamentarians have been rewarded with ministerial portfolios. Other are insisting on electoral reforms before Parliament is dissolved.

The SLFP believes- based on the January presidential election- that a first past the post system would be to its advantage and that if this is introduced, it could edge past the UNP. That is why it is insisting on this change in return for supporting the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Underlying all this are the personality clashes within the party. Many stalwarts burnt their bridges with President Sirisena when they lampooned him mercilessly during the recent election. Now, some baulk at the prospect of serving under him, others feel they wouldn’t receive nominations. 

Rajapaksa meanwhile has his own game plan. Seventy years of age in November, he can ill afford to wait until an election in five years to make a comeback. Goaded on by the public display of support he still enjoys when he is out and about, he feels he can return as Prime Minister.    Rajapaksa’s actions are detrimental to the SLFP, but conversely, there is a sizeable group within the party which feels that without him on their platform, it will fare poorly at the general election. Hence the clamour for him, even at the risk of splitting the SLFP down the middle.

Any plans for Rajapaksa’s return however must pass muster from his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga. The animosity between the duo is too well known. It is Kumaratunga who stood by President Sirisena and orchestrated his candidacy late last year.  
Since then, Kumaratunga has lashed out at Rajapaksa stating that if wished to serve the SLFP he could still work for the party like any other member. Rajapaksa, who was an all-powerful President for almost ten years, is unlikely to rise to the bait of a consolation prize and serve under Sirisena.

That is more relevant in the context of the Supreme Court ruling on the 18th Amendment which ensured that the President is the head of the Cabinet and will decide on the allocation of ministries. This means that even if Rajapaksa was the Prime Minister, the President would still be in charge.    

The likely outcome of this tussle in the SLFP is a possible three-cornered tussle at the general election; the UNP, the SLFP and a breakaway coalition led by Rajapaksa which could also include some of the smaller partners of the UPFA. Such a line-up can only benefit the UNP.  

If sanity is to prevail in the SLFP, Rajapaksa must step away from the contest and allow the party some breathing space. This is the best the former strongman can do for the party he once led- instead of being led by those who want to use his charisma to ensure their own survival in the seats of power.

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