Centrist suicide: Probable extinction, possible survival of SLFP and SLPP

Thursday, 18 April 2024 00:50 –      – 47

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Every stable democracy needs a political and ideological centre. In Ceylon/Sri Lanka, the political Centre as distinct from the Right and Left was always identified with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) founded by SWRD Bandaranaike.

When he crossed the floor in Parliament in 1951, leaving DS Senanayake’s UNP government he was followed by only one MP, DA Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s father.

When the SLFP or a faction of it shifted Right and went into alliance with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP in 2005, Mahinda continued the centrist tradition (which he sincerely thought to be ‘left’). The SLFP’s successor party the SLPP, founded with Mahinda as leader, continued the centrist tradition, however distorted and wayward, until Gotabaya’s nomination in 2019.

Currently, centrism is dying. It began to die with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Constitutional seizure of power through the 20th amendment from Mahinda who was meant to remain a powerful PM under the 19th amendment. Gotabaya’s Trumpian rightwing swerve and the SLPP’s revanchist recoil against the Aragalaya constituted the bridge for SLFP and SLPP parliamentarians to shift Right and embrace Ranil Wickremesinghe, their hate symbol for decades.

In response, the SLFP-SLPP voters either remain uncommitted or have shifted to the JVP-NPP, though the SJB could have been an obvious option. SJB refusal to occupy a progressive- centrist space which draws from all around the compass (as did the SLFP in 1951-’56) and decision to remain embedded in the centre-right ‘generic’ UNP space, has meant it is too far out in right field for the former SLFP-SLPP voter. The anti-UNP democratic leftist NPP is a closer stop.

Child of 1956

An Arab proverb (which Fidel Castro agreed with) says a person is marked more by his or her times than by his or her parents. Sometimes the two coincide.

I was born into an SLFP ideological-intellectual atmosphere of the ‘high’ SWRD years; a nuclear family environment at the interface of world-class professional journalism and SWRD Bandaranaike’s dramatic reorientation of Ceylon’s foreign policy. The year 1956, in the final month of which I was born, turned out to be of great significance for my father, Mervyn de Silva, aged 27, for at least two reasons, the second in importance being his only son’s appearance. The talented Ajith Samaranayake, columnist and editor who died tragically young, traced the first factor:

“…It was, however, after Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s MEP Government came into power that Mervyn found his métier as a foreign affairs analyst, his forte till the last. Nimal Karunatilleke, that amazing dynamo who combined politics and journalism with much else and whose triumph at Matale heralded the 1956 avalanche, took Mervyn to meet Bandaranaike. The foreign affairs commentary on the then Radio Ceylon was then still being handled by an Englishman and Bandaranaike was unhappy about its right-wing slant. Mervyn used to recall Bandaranaike rifling through his bookshelves and giving him a book, saying in characteristic language, “Read this, young man”. Thus was launched a career which made Mervyn roam the capitals of the world meeting political chieftains, Generalissimos, freedom fighters and eggheads, including Abu Nidal, the notorious terrorist of Western demonology…”  (https://www.dailymirror.lk/print/opinion/mervyn-de-silva-prophet-and-jester/172-52047)

My father never joined the SLFP or any party, though he had been an LSSP sympathizer as a schoolboy, while LSSPers like Amaradasa Fernando and Gamini Seneviratne remembered him as more sympathetic to the Communist perspective while an undergrad.

I was never tempted to join the SLFP or the SLPP, still less become an MP, if not more, on either of their tickets. President Premadasa suggested I come in through the National List and take a portfolio, complained to my father when I declined, because I never thought the UNP (or SLFP) my place.

However, the only mainstream electoral political party (as distinct from revolutionary organization) I ever joined was the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) founded by Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga.

While I enthusiastically supported it (with four signed pieces in the Lanka Guardian magazine) from the party’s very inception, I joined only as fulfilment of an expectation of Vijaya as announced to his Politbureau, and when he had been assassinated and the SLMP was under JVP-DJV fire. I was elected Assistant Secretary of the party.

I was more at home in that left-populist offshoot of the SLFP tradition (i.e., leftwards of the SLFP) than in the mainline SLFP or SLPP—though I supported and worked closely with Mahinda Rajapaksa. The relationship with MR was also a legacy:

“…Being only a student of politics, I remained a passive participant at the meetings Mr. de Silva had with my cousins, Lakshman and George, gathering valuable points. However, I came still closer to him after I became a Member of Parliament in 1970. The frequency of meetings grew after the formation of the Sri Lanka Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, when the journalists who launched this organization elected me as its President. Mr. Mervyn de Silva was one of the Patrons…”

(‘The Uncrowned Media King of Sri Lanka’, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Daily News, July 3rd, 1999)

Given my familiarity with the SLFP tradition –Bandaranaike and Rajapaksa– encompassing the SLPP, the ongoing suicide of both parties is saddening. It also alarms me as a political scientist.

Chandrika chapter

The SLFP and SLPP share the same structural characteristic that dooms India’s Congress party, having at an earlier stage of its history, served it well: the grip of family or clan (unlike the BJP).

The two-terms that Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga secured for herself and her party was a zenith which also marked the beginning of the end, firstly of the Bandaranaikes as a political factor of decisive or qualitative significance, and then of the SLFP itself.

The fault lay squarely with Chandrika and brother Anura. In 2004-5, CBK was at the height of her political achievement. She had rightly ousted Ranil Wickremesinghe from the Prime Ministership and obtained a public endorsement for her decision in an unambiguous parliamentary victory in 2004.

Then, she did a ‘Chandrika pirouette’. From a patriotic anti-LTTE stand that warned the people of what was at stake in a victory for Ranil, namely the signing of the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) which would cede power to the LTTE, CBK pivoted against the advice of Lakshman Kadirgamar to the post-Tsunami mechanism which would have conceded as much or more to Prabhakaran. Not only did the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka freeze one of the three levels of the PTOMS, America refused to contribute a dollar to it because US law ruled out any funding of a structure dominated by a listed terrorist organization.

No Sri Lankan leader had more going for him or her and made less of it than Chandrika. In her mind her failures were weaknesses stemming from her good nature: she ‘permitted’ Mahinda the nomination (2005) and promoted Sirisena (2015). History and the collective memory record however, her failure to win the war as MR did; the Sudu Nelum antiwar movement which cut into Sri Lankan military manpower recruitment at the time the LTTE escalated; lopsided Norwegian mediation; non-unitary Constitutional ‘packages’; and midwifery of a hybrid UNP-SLFP coalition with Ranil Wickremesinghe –which is killing the SLFP.

Nothing is a greater indictment of Chandrika than the fact that her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa won in three-and-a-half years the war that CBK failed to in a decade, along the same lines that Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike would have, but which Chandrika thought impossible or chose to eschew:

(a) Clear, consistent, coherent political will; relentless determination and drive.

(b) Maximum support from China, India and Russia.

(c) Total support from the Global South.


CBK to MR 

With Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination by Prabhakaran during the ceasefire (CFA) and the PTOMS dalliance, domestic opinion shifted decisively to Mahinda.

However, it was to a differently placed Mahinda Rajapaksa that the centre of gravity shifted. Anura Bandaranaike whose buddy Mahinda had been for decades, turned anti-Mahinda, either out of envy or because the Bandaranaike family never thought he would beat Ranil. If not, he’d have been Mahinda’s PM or foreign minister.

Well aware that CBK and Mangala Samaraweera had retained a bloc of support within the SLFP parliamentary group which was unsympathetic to him, Mahinda had to rely heavily on a swathe of the SLFP, radical nationalists like Champika Ranawaka, radical left-patriots like the JVP, and the Rajapaksa family (including Gotabaya who had returned from California for the campaign with a view to returning after the result).

This new bloc helped Mahinda win elections and the war by mobilizing massive voluntary recruitment, but also impeded the postwar implementation of the pledges he had made (e.g. provincial devolution) to secure the international and regional space to win.

The shift from ‘Mahinda’/ ‘Mahinda Mahattaya’ to the Rajapaksa family i.e., from the charismatic, likeable man to the avaricious unlikeable siblings, proved a temporary propellant but caused the crisis of Mahinda’s second term, i.e., the postwar period.

The crises of the SLFP and the SLPP are organically interlinked, constituting a single ‘crisis chain’. It is a ‘crisis of leadership’. Neither party has a leadership that can pilot that party, or both together, to Opposition leadership after the next parliamentary election. That leadership would either be SJB or NPP.

The alternative option pushed by SLFP and SLPP Ministers, is support for Ranil: the factor that caused the cancer eroding the SLFP from 2015 and now, metastasized, is gobbling the SLPP’s electoral support.

Sirisena’s slip slide 

The last SLFP (not SLPP) president the country had was Maithripala Sirisena. Knowing Ranil as she did (she rightly chased him from office in 2003/4), Chandrika, a principal architect of the coalition with the UNP, should have insisted that the SLFP dissidents’ partner be Karu Jayasuriya, not Wickremesinghe. Instead, she accepted Ranil as Sirisena’s partner.

The outcome was predictable and inevitable. As in 2001-4, the parameters that Wickremesinghe was willing to stick within were beyond the parameters that the SLFP vote base was willing to transgress. The SLFP split, despite the fact that its former General-Secretary was the elected President. The bulk of the SLFP’s parliamentarians went with their vote-base which in turn went with Mahinda. The flash public rally at the Nugegoda supermarket square, February 2015 (of which I was an initiator), mere weeks after Mahinda’s January defeat, was the fastest turnaround in Sri Lanka’s political history.

The fatal blunder of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency was not the ‘52 days’ but his declaration on the very eve of the August 2015 parliamentary election that he would not accept Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM even if the latter won.

Three years later, shocked by the infant SLPP’s victory over the co-ruling parties the SLFP and the UNP at the February 2018 local government elections, Maithripala Sirisena allied with Mahinda Rajapaksa in late 2018: the ‘52-day’ interregnum.

Basil never had a Galle Face rally to support MR as PM and GR’s social media army went dark, because neither wanted the MR-MS equation to succeed. Contrary to UNP propaganda, the ‘52 days’ was not a coup; it was an attempt to do a CBK 2004 and have a snap election, but ran-up against the 19th amendment.

After Mahinda’s last stand, the 52 days, collapsed (also sabotaged by his siblings) the Rajapaksa clan made the blunder of opting for Gotabaya rather than Chamal as presidential candidate. The Easter bombing and the renewed spike in Islamophobia especially in the Kurunegala district forced MR’s hand (conveniently for the nominee and his hardcore followers).

Keeping SLFP alive 

With their support of Ranil’s incumbency, SLPP Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Parliamentarians are guaranteed to crash the SLPP vote through the floorboards at the upcoming elections.

The same goes for the SLFP but even more so than for the SLPP simply because the older (parent) party is a much smaller organization.

Nimal Siripala, Mahinda Amaraweera et al will do to the SLFP exactly that which Kanchana Wijesekara and Prasanna Ranatunga are doing to the SLPP.

CBK’s current political moves cannot succeed any more than Maithripala Sirisena’s can. Their times have come and gone, never to return, and leaving little positive emotional residue.

The only personality in or around the SLFP who can revive and maintain a minimum SLFP ‘heartbeat’ at the electoral grassroots is Dayasiri Jayasekara. However, the SLFP simply has to incorporate into its pantheon the compellingly attractive, youthful, heroic martyr of the centre-left, Vijaya KumaratungaThe SLFP can be revived only as a Vijayaist quasi-SLMP.

After the 2024 Presidential election, the SLFP and SLPP will have to re-set and re-unite or partner-up so as to survive the upcoming Parliamentary election and have some chance of a comeback.

Mahinda magic 

Sri Lankan society will always be divided between those who preferred Mahinda to Ranil and vice versa. Even for non-Pohottuwa voters, Mahinda will always remain a national hero, notwithstanding his grave errors.

Mahinda is the sole figure suitable to join SWRD and Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the pantheon of the left-of-center, statist-populist, moderate nationalist SLFP-SLPP tradition. No one else has the narrative and actual historic achievement –dramatically winning a 30-Years-War against a ‘historic’ enemy– that etches itself indelibly in the public consciousness and the long national chronicle.

It is only the memory of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the collective national emotions generated by that memory, i.e., the Mahinda myth, that can bring the SLPP and SLFP together and sustainably refloat the formation.

But the damage done by Gotabaya Rajapaksa may take at least a generation for the party to recover from.

The chances of SLPP-SLFP revival rest on an equation: the historical-political merits of Mahinda Rajapaksa minus the sociopolitical/socioeconomic demerits of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa.

The SLPP-SLFP can be revived only as part of the project of rebuilding the political center, and that can be undertaken only by flushing out the racist Gotabaya elements (some of them ex-military) from the SLPP.

Only the three left parties (CPSL, DLF, LSSP) of the ‘Uttara Lanka’ coalition have a valuable contribution to make. By contrast, the rest of the coalition consists of elements which spread the Big Lie since 2011 of GR being superior to MR.

The title and timing of the book ‘Gota’s War’ (2012) proves that the Gota project was also a ‘displace MR project’ and was up and running years before the Samantha Power-Yahapalanaya ban on MR running for a third term.

By curious coincidence, 2011-2012 also saw the rise of organized Islamophobia (‘Deveni karalla’, BBS) in postwar Sri Lanka.

The toxic ideology of the Gota project and the parallel Gota networks killed the moderate progressive-centrism of the SLFP-SLPP and the Rajapaksa tradition. These elements, wherever located, should be electorally extinguished by the public and politico-legally uprooted by the newly elected administration (NPP or SJB).

Mahinda’s oldest son Namal Rajapaksa will have the task of keeping MR’s memory and policies alive, but as the only Rajapaksa in politics, because a mere sighting of the clan at anything except the last rites and rituals, i.e., at anything political, and there’ll be a permanent public backlash.