The Sri Lanka Freedom Party is so prone to splits that one might wonder if the SLFP means the Sri Lanka Faction Party. It has set a world record as the party ruled by a single family for the longest period of time. The grip of the Bandaranaike family on the party ended about a year ago with the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse, son of a co-founder of the party, ousting former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as the party President. Now, a cynic says, the Rajapakse family looks set to break that record!
The intra party dispute of the SLFP took a dramatic turn on Tuesday with the Mangala-Sripathy duo pulling another rabbit out of their collective hat. They crossed over to the Opposition and announced that they had formed a wing of the SLFP called SLFP-Mahajana Faction?SLFP (M). They have taken a leaf out of the UNP dissidents` book.
If they timed their crossover for Tuesday`s vote on the supplementary estimates, which the Opposition bragged the government would lose?even the JVP joined forces with the UNP and the TNA in a bid to make President Rajapake eat humble pie?because they wanted their surprise exit to coincide with an ignominious defeat for the government, they failed to achieve that objective. The government won the vote with a majority of 20 votes.
Western Province Governor Alavi Mowlana is reported to have expressed hope that rapprochement is still possible. He doesn`t seem to have read the situation well. Reconciliation between the dissidents and the President has the same chance as a cat in hell! The stage is now set for the showdown.
Mangala and Sripathy are only the whip crackers, as it is said in this country, and the perahera is round the corner. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who is their handler, will make a dramatic entry after Friday`s launch of the SLFP (M) at Horagolla. It is she who will officially throw down the gauntlet for the President.
Their game plan is clear: While the LTTE is targeting the government on the war front, the dissidents and the UNP will engage it on the political front. Others including the pro-UNP media and the politically driven human rights activists?as opposed to the few genuine campaigners?will charge from other directions. The best way to unsettle a leader is to provoke him or her. A group of UNP dissidents did this to President Premadasa, who on the eve of his assassination was almost moved to tears and pleaded with his political enemies to assassinate him without assassinating his character?mawa ghathanaya karanna, mage charithya ghathanaya karanna epa! The UNP did that to President Kumaratunga a few years after her election in 1994. The UNP propaganda guns zeroed in on her and she, true to form, started throwing tantrums and heaping abuse on her opponents in typical vatti amma language. Her popularity plummeted as a result and she, who had romped home at the presidential election in 1994 only scraped home in 1999.
There are signs of President Rajapakse buckling under pressure, if his tirades against his detractors at public functions are anything to go by. He is playing into the hands of his opponents exactly the way his predecessors did. If he is wise, he will learn from JRJ, who was famous for his sphinx-like visage. Even at a time when the JVP top guns led by Rohana Wijeweera were attacking him hammer and tongs, he kept his cool behind his `iron mask` and deliberately mispronounced the JVP leader`s name as `Rohan`. He used to call him `Rohan Wijeweera lamaya (child)`. Nothing hurt Wijeweera, the man with a massive ego, more than being belittled like that.
President Rajapakse`s woes don`t end there. Politically speaking, he is accused of being too much of a `family man`. The impression his detractors are creating is that his government is being run by a `quartet` of Rajapakses. Politicians are ambitious by nature and if they feel that they have no future in their parties because of nepotism, they tend to stage mutinies. It is believed that Mangala confronted the President, as he felt he had been denied his due place in the SLFP. Party seniors are naturally averse to eminences grises and kitchen cabinets if they don`t belong to them. President Rajapakse reacted in the same manner as Mangala, short of creating a faction, when he was in President Kumaratunga`s cabinet as an ordinary minister.
Although this country has an Executive Presidential system, unless the President has control over Parliament, he becomes a lame duck as was seen from President Kumaratunga`s experience. Prime Minister Premadasa famously said once that under a presidential system, the Prime Minister was no better than a peon in a government office. That is true only when the Prime Minister belongs to the President`s party. Else, Prime Minister dwarfs the President as was the case during the 2001-2004 period, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe became de facto President. He even entered into a truce without the concurrence of President Kumaratunga, who was technically the head of the government and the cabinet and Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces.
Thus, President Rajapakse will have to be ever mindful of his parliamentary majority, which the dissidents are trying to gnaw away at with the help of the UNP. Whether the dissidents will pose a serious threat to the President or remain only an irritant depends on the way the President handles the affairs of his party, the government and the country.
Chandrika boasts of having some following among the SLFP parliamentarians and if that is true, the President will be having sleepless nights. An incumbent president rarely becomes more popular with the passage of time. The SLFP (M) members must be waiting till President Rajapakse`s popularity slides further down and resentment brewing within the government group finds expression in a revolt to make a foray into the presidential camp.
The road is far from clear for the Mahajana Faction. Chandrika is a spent political force and liability. She will hijack the new faction to use it as a bludgeon to beat the President. After Friday`s event at Horagolla, the Mahajana Faction will lose its magic. The SLFP dissidents are being propped up by the pro-UNP media at present and if they eclipse UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe with either Chandrika or Mangala functioning as de facto Opposition Leader, their media friends will ditch them in no time. They did that to Mangala a few months ago when he began to outshine Ranil.
Even if they manage to run on their own steam, they will be up against a brick wall at the next general election, where they will be denied nominations. Even the loyalists of the former president will be wary of joining forces with her for that reason. In such an eventuality, they will have to either contest as independent candidates or obtain nominations from the UNP. Their chances of winning as independents are remote and if they join the UNP, the President will be free from trouble. (The UNP dissidents now in the Rajapakse cabinet are also in a similar predicament.) Mangala, who has sided with Chandrika, runs the risk of becoming another Maithripala Senanayake, who sided with Anura Bandaranaike over a party dispute in the 1980s, only to ruin his political future.
The use of the word `Mahajana` is a mistake in that it evokes the SLFPers` memories of Chandrika`s Mahajana Party, which she formed with Vijaya after breaking away from the SLFP following a tussle with her mother and leader Sirima Bandaranaike.
President Rajapakse`s trump card will be his war against terrorism, which has so far helped him get away with many things including the high cost of living. He may not be able to do so until kingdom come, but if he manages to project the Mahajana Faction collaborating with the UNP as an impediment to his war effort, the SLFP dissidents will find it difficult to sell their cause to the vast majority of people who are abhorrent of terrorism. The government propagandists are already busy trying to stick various labels on the dissidents. The problem with labels is that they tend to stick!
The Mahajana Faction has now given the SLFPers a choice between President Rajapakse and Chandrika. (It would have been more appropriate for them to call their wing SLFP (Chandrika Faction) or SLFP (C) a la the Congress (I) of India.)
It will be interesting to know how President Rajapakse proposes to face the emerging challenge. Whether he will be able to do a JRJ, (who politically floored the Senanayakes in the UNP and ended the domination of the Botale Walawwa), and rid the SLFP of the domination of the Bandaranaikes of the Horagolla Walawwa remains to be seen.