Sri Lanka-SLFP Hold Crucial 65th Convention
Anushree Ghisad

‘Leadership is action, not position’. - Donald McGannon

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) held its politically crucial 65th Convention on September 4, 2016 at Kurunegala, a stronghold of President Sirisena’s political opponent and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR). The meet was presided over by the President who is also the party Chairman. Despite the boycott by 'Joint Opposition' SLFP MPs loyal to MR, the meeting saw the largest ever turnout of party supporters in the history of the party conventions.

The Convention was considered politically crucial as it was billed as one that would decide the fate of internal leadership struggle between Sirisena and MR over following issues:

  1. Would Sirisena be able to showcase the event to demonstrate his grip over party?
  2. How far would he manage to contain fissiparous tendencies within party?
  3. Would the confrontation within the party lead to a vertical split in party right?

The timeline of events over the past three months, which turned this convention crucial by intensifying confrontations between Sirisena supporters and MR loyalists, is as follows : -

July 1: SLFP Vice President Mahinda Amaraweera, while announcing 65th party convention, categorically mentioned that all SLFP members were expected to attend.

August 12: A group of former Local Government representatives of SLFP refused to participate in the convention if it is held under the patronage of President Sirisena. They refused to recognize him as the Chairman of party and expressed their willingness to participate only if the convention was held under MR’s patronage.

August 17: MR accepts the invitation for party convention and indicates his intention to attend if he remained in the country at that time.

August 17: President removed 16 leading members of the Joint Opposition (JO) as SLFP electoral organizers.

August 18: MR said that such removal has effectively caused a split in the SLFP and that President Sirisena should take responsibility for splitting the Party. He opined that any move to replace nationally known figures with individuals who were either defeated candidates or loyal to Sirisena, was designed to weaken the SLFP and to give the UNP the upper hand in elections.

August 19: While addressing a rally, the President warned that he will disclose secrets about some opposition politicians as and when they formed a new political party.He said, ‘I challenge them to do so. We will disclose what we have maintained as secrets and politically wipe out those who form new parties. They will never be allowed to come to power again.’

August 22: MR hit back at President by stating that political thinking of people cannot be concealed by threats or any other force, and each and every person had the right to form political parties. He added that threats will only motivate somebody to form a new party.

August 23: News appeared in the media that SLFP councilors were divided over the party convention.

September 1: MR leaves for Malaysia to attend the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP).

September 2: MR loyalists finally decide to boycott the 65th convention of SLFP.

September 4: SLFP holds its 65th Convention.6

Rationale behind the boycott:

JO has maintained that the decision of boycott was taken not because the group had any animosity towards Sirisena, but there are some core political issues within the party that upset them. Their grievances can be put in the following two points:-

  1. SLFP was slowly turning into an adjunct of UNP.
  2. There appears an organized conspiracy to attack and discredit MR.

The decision of boycott the party convention was an ostensible attempt by JO to redirect the SLFP to the ‘correct path’.

Implications of convention and the message sent:

  1. The vast crowd pulled by the convention has debunked the claim that MR alone can mobilize the masses, the way he had done in recently held PadaYatra. This has shown that the runaway success of MR’s PadaYatra doesn’t put JO in the class of a political entity the way SLFP is. Apart from successful public protest rallies and frequent press conferences, JO’s claim to fame is nothing more than defying the President, ridiculing present government, fomenting sectarian tensions and projecting so called MR’s legacy. Thus President’s decision to sack some rebels and replace them with party loyalists is a timely and logical move. Timely, because it has sent the signal that no individual was above the party, and logical because it conveys that the party is on right track. This is why people rallied around the President to support him and his decision.
  2. Although SLFP members in JO boycotted the convention, no disciplinary action is contemplated against them. The President has sent a message that he acknowledges the fact that they have been the strength of the party in the past and therefore doesn’t want to push them out, but wants to strengthen the party by using them as a strength in future.
  3. SLFP members in JO are accusing President of betraying the spirit of SLFP by toeing lines of UNP. In the 65th convention, by hinting at contesting under ‘hand symbol’ of SLFP in upcoming Local Government polls and even breaking away with UPFA coalition, the President has spelt out his commitment to SLFP. Since 2004, the SLFP has been the main constituent of the UPFA that traditionally contested elections under the symbol of betel leaf. However, the UPFA’s smaller constituent parties have been strongly critical of SLFP policies under Sirisena’s leadership. By announcing the strategy of contesting under hand symbol in the presence of representatives of twenty political parties including the UNP, President has offered opportunity to JO to work towards strengthening the party instead of engineering factionalism.
  4. It also appears to be an astutely drafted move to bring back the fence sitters into the fold of SLFP.

Conclusion:

The conflict within SLFP has its genesis in the Presidential elections of January 2015, where Sirisena ousted incumbent MR on the promise of good governance, accountability, reconciliation and ending corruption and nepotism. This conflict has little to do with party ideology but is basically a manifestation of the struggle of certain SLFP members and six other minor parties hanging on to the MR group for their political survival.

In an attempt to reassert his relevance in the times of ‘Unity Government’, MR went to a Hyde Park type rally to the May Day Protest, the latest one in that series being the 113 km long Pada Yatra from Kandy to Colombo. MR is not only a SLFP stalwart but a decisive former President. So, despite his electoral loss, he could garner hundreds and thousands of votes. But the sycophants around him seem to be intentionally trying to keep him away from the current reality. Masses might have short term memory but it is difficult to wash off a perception when certain tenets, by default, turn into permanent hallmark of a personality. MR is remembered as a ‘tainted hero’, which might not impact his ‘committed voter base’, but has certainly harmed his credibility. 65th SLFP convention has demonstrated that MR might be a force, but the support base of Sirisena has not declined either.

Some SLFPers in government are trying to pit this convention against the Pada Yatra and project it as a grand success. While the overwhelming turn out at the convention is uncontested, yet it is difficult to assess as to how much of this will eventually translate into votes for SLFP. While one can understand President’s efforts to consolidate the party under his Chairmanship, it would be inappropriate to ignore the political frustrations of some party members and dissuade them from forming a new party. As of now, both sides seem to be using soft black-mailing techniques to get an edge over each other. In the latest round of confrontation, Sirisena has given a clarion call to SLFP members to join hands to consolidate the Party at 65th Party Convention.

What traction this call generates needs to be seen.


Published Date: 20th September 2016, Image Source: http://www.gossiplankahotnews.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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