Among the issues facing President Maithripala Sirisena, the most exasperating must be the difficulties he is encountering in reining in members of his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which is in crisis mode, triggered by the defeat at the January 8 presidential poll.
Ironically, the driving force behind the disharmony in the SLFP is its former head and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa has been a SLFPer all his life and has stuck with the party through thick and thin. He now finds himself marginalised by its leaders after losing the Presidency.
So, he has resorted to a ‘Bring Back Mahinda’ campaign. This was first started by leaders of smaller parties in the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunewardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila who were fighting for their own political survival.
As this campaign gathered momentum, SLFPers, some of them with dubious credentials who were uncertain about receiving nominations for the general elections from President Sirisena, joined this camp which has now attracted a reasonable following within the SLFP parliamentary group.
That is partly because Rajapaksa still retains the charisma and the cunning which propelled him to power ten years ago. It is also because SLFPers find some of President Sirisena’s actions in dealing with the United National Party (UNP) dominated government, not assertive enough.
The President is in an unenviable position. He is obliged to the UNP because it was the UNP which handled his presidential election campaign at the grassroots level and ultimately delivered the bulk of the votes that enabled him to cobble together a majority of nearly 450,000 votes over Rajapaksa.
He is also restricted by his campaign pledges: the promise to create an administration free of political interference in the day-to-day running of the government and a commitment to punish those who engaged in corruption in the former regime who happen to be ardent SLFPers.
As President Sirisena adopts a ‘hands off’ approach’ towards a government that is run on the dictates of the UNP, he finds himself increasingly isolated within his party where some members are acting against his agenda and others are openly defying him and siding with Rajapaksa.
This was first seen when he attempted to introduce the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which pruned his own powers. The renegades in the SLFP in tandem with the UPFA’s smaller parties adopted stalling tactics. The 19th amendment did survive albeit with several significant changes.
This process is repeating itself as the President struggles to push through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution encompassing electoral reforms. Instead of working towards this, the SLFP parliamentary group are pursuing a motion of no confidence against Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The strategy to thwart President Sirisena’s agenda in the SLFP is driven by the Rajapaksa camp. Yet, even party seniors not openly identified with this group – the likes of Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha, John Seneviratne and Anura Yapa – are sometimes at cross purposes with the President.
Despite this, President Sirisena still calls the shots. He is the leader of not only the SLFP but also the UPFA. He is entitled to nominate twenty-five members to the SLFP’s decision making body, the Central Committee. He also has the final say on when the present Parliament would be dissolved.
The president also has the ultimate weapon: the final say on who receives nomination from the SLFP for the next general election. Those who do get the nod will be loath to pledge allegiance to Rajapaksa, not knowing what the fortunes of his fledgling political alliance would be like.
Having waited patiently for several months and after several impassioned pleas to party members where he asked that he be given a free hand to run the party, it appears that President Sirisena has now finally begun to crack the whip through a series of measures aimed at regaining control of the SLFP.
This week, he appointed four ministers to replace the foursome who resigned. Perhaps more significantly, he also appointed the two party seniors who Rajapaksa had chosen as his Prime Ministers – Ratnasiri Wikremenayake and D. M. Jayaratane – as presidential advisors.
The latter move is likely to come under fire because Sirisena, during his election campaign, was himself critical of Rajapaksa appointing a multitude of presidential advisors. It is also obvious that this is a move to get the Old Guard of the SLFP on his side as he prepares to do battle with Rajapaksa.
But President Sirisena has more work to do, if he wishes to wrest firm control of the SLFP. It is important that he does so, not only for him but also for the country because a lame duck President does not augur well for the challenges he will undoubtedly face in the next few years to come.