It was quite obvious that the UPFA coalition comfortably settled in the saddle of power for over a decade was in serious trouble ever since the party stalwart Maithripala Sirisena broke ranks with it to contest the January 8, 2014 Presidential poll as the common opposition candidate.
Sirisena’s defection which remained a dead secret until the last minute led to a rush of changes in the country’s political compass. Developments and the events that played out subsequently were only the domino effect of that unusual situation.
The SLFP faction and the leaders of the minor constituents of the UPFA who hitched their political wagon to the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa account for what is known as the joint opposition in Parliament today and it is this group that has taken the initiative to form a new political party under the leadership of the former President.
It appears that it is the belief of the protagonists of the proposed new political party that it could become a politicalforce powerful enough to eventually supplant the SLFP.
Factors favouring a new party
According to some observers, there are several factors that may contribute towards turning the proposed new political party into a strong political entity at least in the short term. They are:
• Former President Rajapaksa still remains a popular political figure among the Sinhala Buddhist public.
• He continues to enjoy the support of the vocal sections of Maha Sangha.
• There is an anti-UNP electorate in the country mainly consisting of traditional SLFP sympathizers. With the official SLFP now being part of the national unity government, the former President can easily exploit this anti-UNP sentiment to his advantage at an election.
• Ordinary people in the country are interested in short-term gains from a government like essential consumer goods at affordable prices. They are not interested in long-term grandiose plans. They want solutions to their day-to-day problems. Despite certain relief measures granted by the government, people are not generally happy with what they have got from the government in power. A strong and credible political party led by a leader like Mahinda Rajapaksa can at least look forward to translating this disenchantment of the people into votes at an election.
Let us consider whether thesefactors could work to the advantage of the proposed new political party if a national election is held in the near future.
Factors militating against it
In the absence of an election round the corner, it would be a tall order for a new party to keep up the euphoria of its supporters unabated and the public interest in it alive for a long time. What would normally happen is that the glamour of the new party would wear out and the slogans of its leaders would become dull and boring and may even sound hollow in a matter of three to four months’ time.
Even if an election is held when the euphoria about a new political party is at its peak, will the voter sympathetic to the new party, vote for it?
People in our country have so long been attuned to the two-party system, come an election, the electorate gets immediately polarized between the two main political parties. Most sympathizers of the minor parties despite their affiliations and affinities to these parties would invariably rally round one of the two main parties at the psychological hour, either because they do not want to waste their vote or they do not want the wrong leader to come to power. Therefore, if the SLFP comes forward as a credible rival to the UNP to contest a future election, all chances are that the anti-UNP vote would go to them, not to the proposed new political party.
A unique instance
In the Parliamentary history in our country, there has been only one unique instance where a new political party could capture a popular support base strong enough to challenge the government in power and eventually become the alternative to the UNP which formed the first post-independence government in the country. This unique instance came to pass when a group of Parliamentarians led by the late Mr. S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike broke away from the UNP in 1951 to form the SLFP.
Filling a vacuum
In retrospect, one could easily understand that the late Mr. Bandaranaike only gave leadership to a growing vibrant radical nationalist movement calling for a government representative of a broader spectrum of the masses and committed to fulfilling their aspirations. The SLFP was founded as the political vehicle of this radical nationalist movement. In other words, the SLFP was founded to fill an already existing vacuum in the body politic.
The two Marxist political parties, the LSSP led by Dr. N.M. Perera and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka led by Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe and several splinter groups of these two parties constituted the main opposition prior to founding of the SLFP.
The LSSP and the CP commanded the support of a sizable segment of the organized working class, left-leaning intelligentsia of the country and people in certain parts of the country like Matara district and a few scattered pockets in Sabaragamuwa who were attracted by the stature and personal charm of some leaders of Marxist parties rather than by their political doctrine.
However, these Marxist parties failed to gain a foothold among the masses thereby they lost the precious chance the history offered them to transform into a formidable alternative to the government in power.
There were numerous instances in the post-independence political history of Sri Lanka when powerful sections led by charismatic leaders broke away from the left of centre SLFP and the rightist UNP to challenge the might of the original party, but the new parties formed by the splinter groups despite the initial jubilation they generated were either relegated to the political fringe or had to suffer a natural death in the course of time.
It appeared that the UNP suffered a great blow when a group of dissidents led by the late Mr. Bandaranaike crossed over to the opposition in 1951.Nevertheless, the UNP was returned to power at the general elections held in 1952. The UNP received another jolt which shook its foundation when Rukman Senanayake, the grandson of the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake, looked on as the founding father of the party defected from the UNP when it was led by the late Mr.J.R.Jayewardene. However, the political party, Eksath Lanka Janatha Pakshaya founded by Rukman to challenge the might of the UNP soon faded from the political scene.
The SLFP suffered a major split when a section led by the late Mr. Vijaya Kumaratunga and Chandrika Bandaranaike broke away to form the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP). The SLMP today has been reduced to a name board on the country’s political fringe, disowned by its very founder-members!
Of course, there is space in Sri Lankan polity for the survival of minor political parties representing certain political ideologies, minority or sectarian interests in the society as in any other democracy. However, no person who could come to terms with down-to-earth political realities today would believe that a new political party could succeed replacing either the SLFP or the UNP for decades to come.