COLOMBO: Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is unlikely to break away from the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and form his own party even though 40 of his key followers have been removed from district and electorate level posts by party Chairman and Sri Lankan President Mithripala Sirisena in an exceptionally strong purge earlier this week.
Political circles here feel that Rajapaksa would want to remain in the SLFP and capture the entire party. And the reasons are as follows:
Firstly, past experience of breakaway parties has not been encouraging. Secondly, Rajapaksa has the greater right to consider himself a hardcore SLFPer than Sirisena because unlike the latter he had never left the party.
Sirisena had contested the January 8,2015 Sri Lankan Presidential election after breaking away from the SLFP and forming an alliance with the United National Party (UNP), the traditional rival of the SLFP. Furthermore, Sirisena formed a government with the UNP and made the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe the Prime Minister instead of appointing Rajapaksa who had majority support in parliament.
Thirdly, Rajapaksa hopes that the Sirisena faction of the SLFP will fare poorly in the local bodies elections due before April 2017 because the party rank and file and the SFLP voters are with him rather than Sirisena. If Sirisena’s faction fares poorly ,Rajapaksa could engineer Sirisena’s neutralization in the party and even change the party constitution to enable anyone with majority support to become Chairman.
As of now, if an SLFP leader becomes President of Sri Lanka, he or she automatically becomes Chairman of the party. When Sirisena became Sri Lankan President he was invited to become SLFP Chairman. He accepted the offer with alacrity. SLFP MPs wanted to arrogate the new President and in the process sidelined Rajapaksa though he was more popular in the party.
Sirisena is aware of his weakness vis-a-vs the SLFP rank and file and the SLFP voters and has been trying to tarnish the image of Rajapaksa, his family and his clique by slapping corruption charges and court cases against them.
On Friday he threatened that if Rajapaksa forms a separate party, he will come out with some secrets which will throw the Rajapaksas and his loyalists into the street.
Sirisena has power to the extent that he occupies the powerful office of President. Using that power, he has won over a sufficient of MPs to be able to form a government in which he has a decisive say. His coalition government has been able to get almost every measure through parliament. The Rajapaksa group, comprising 50 MPs has been unable to stall government measures.
But the crucial test for Sirisena is not in parliament but within his party. And that test will take place when the local bodies’ elections are held before April 2017. He will have to fight those elections separately from the UNP to show his strength among the SLFP cadres and voters and firmly stem the Rajapaksa factor. If he loses, his political career will suffer gravely.
To avoid this, Sirisena has been moderating the reformist and right wing UNP and stalling unpopular measures including tax hikes. He has also moderated the UNP’s bid to please the UN Human Rights Council on the question of ethnic reconciliation. Sirsena knows that very radical affirmative actions in the field of ethnic relations, will be unpopular among the Sinhalese majority, the constituency Rajapaksa holds and Sirisena is trying to grab.