Rajapaksa joins SLPP, weakens Sirisena-led SLFP

Bidding farewell to his political party of 50 years, controversially installed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sunday joined the recently formed Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP).

 

His official membership in the SLPP made clear that he would contest the snap election, announced for January 5, from the new party, and not from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), where he built his political career.

With this move, Mr. Rajapaksa also drew several other members of the SLFP to the new party, leading to the disintegration of the already-fractured SLFP, led by President Maithripala Sirisena.

Unstable political terrain

Just as Opposition parties geared up for a high-stakes legal battle challenging the President’s actions, Mr. Rajapaksa’s move signalled a shift in the political terrain.

The SLFP is one of the two main parties that has shaped Sri Lanka’s national politics for half-a-century. Led by members of the iconic S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike family for the most part, the party is now on the verge of collapse.

‘No one can stop elections’

Mahinda Rajapaksa told reporters on Sunday that the elections scheduled for January 5 would go ahead, and that he was confident of his party “sweeping” the polls.

While admitting that he was speaking to lawyers on the legal challenge being mounted by the Opposition parties, following the dissolution of Parliament, Mr. Rajapaksa said, “no one” could stop the elections.

“The international community must realise that this is democracy. They must understand our position. We are seeking a mandate from the people,” he said, amidst growing concerns expressed by Western powers — including the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Canada, on the dissolution of Parliament.

A major break

Sunday’s decision by Mr. Rajapaksa to break ties with his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has ratcheted up the political instability in the country. His move to join the newly formed Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) has left the SLFP on the verge of collapse, with a rump led by Mr. Sirisena.

Mr. Sirisena’s victory in the 2015 presidential election led to a split in the SLFP. The faction aligned with Mr. Sirisena was in government while the other, backing Mr. Rajapaksa, sat in the Opposition. In the local government polls held in February this year, the Rajpaksa faction garnered formidable political mileage with major wins.

According to academic Harshana Rambukwella, from the Open University of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajapaksa’s move marks “the beginning of the end” of the SLFP and signals a decisive politico-ideological change.

“It marks the end of a strand of Sinhala majoritarian nationalism, which was infused by goals of social justice and an anti-imperialist stance backed by local capital,” said Mr. Rambukwella.

For most of Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history, dominated by the two main parties, the United National Party (UNP) was seen as the pro-liberal, capitalist-friendly alternative while the SLFP was considered the left-of-centre, indigenous and anti-imperialist vehicle.

“The general elections billed for January 2019, if held, will see an impotent and debilitated SLFP, overshadowed by Rajapaksa and an ascendant SLPP — with many of the forces traditionally aligned to the SLFP gravitating towards the SLPP,” Mr. Rambukwella told reporters.

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