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Is this the end of the road for the SLFP?

When J R Jayawardena led the United National Party (UNP) to a stunning victory at the 1977 general elections, few would’ve expected him to form a coalition government with a minority party built on trade unionism. Despite securing an overwhelming 5/6th majority in parliament, Sri Lanka’s grand old party invited the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), the country’s largest public-sector trade union at the time – represented by a single MP – to join the UNP-led government for purely pragmatic reasons, motivated in large part by the rising tensions in the north and east. Even when a single party dominated the legislature in a way that wasn’t seen before or hasn’t been since, the reality of coalition politics could not be avoided.

Barring just two short-lived exceptions in the early 1950s and ’60s, Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history has consistently been defined by coalition governments. Over the years, governments have been run by political coalitions, or alliances, led by either the UNP or the rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Coalition or not, the two main parties have been at the forefront of governance virtually since day one. With the upcoming parliamentary election, however, that may be about to change.

For the first time in seven decades, a party that isn’t the SLFP will lead an alliance in April this year that in all likelihood will defeat the crisis-riddled UNP and its allies and form a new government. This result, if it comes to pass, will effectively reduce what was once a political behemoth (1977’s spectacular routing notwithstanding) – one that produced three executive presidents, seven prime ministers and seven leaders of the opposition – to a mere hanger-on with limited bargaining power, languishing in the shadow of the ever-rising Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

The transparently nominal chairmanship of the SLPP-led Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Sandhaanaya conferred on SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena will do little to improve the party’s prospects, to say nothing of the rampant speculation that a number of SLFP parliamentarians are anxious to jump ship and formally join the Pohottuwa (lotus bud) upon receiving nominations in the coming weeks.

While it is still too early to write it off completely, that the SLFP’s electoral fortunes have dwindled drastically would be an understatement. This decline can be traced back to the defection and consequent election of President Sirisena in 2015 with the backing of the UNP which subsequently led to the formation of the SLPP (formerly the Sri Lanka National Front and Our Sri Lanka Freedom Front), the brainchild of seasoned strategist Basil Rajapaksa. The all-new right-wing icon soon became the refuge of SLFP-ers loyal to the Rajapaksa brand, and would go on to dominate the nationalist discourse in the months and years to come. And, if the electoral performance of the SLPP since its inception is any indication, the loyalty of those who bit the ‘hand’ that fed them, so to speak, is about to be rewarded.

The SLPP silenced its critics in both the UNP and the pro-Sirisena SLFP when it won a landslide at the local government elections in February 2018, polling a massive 40.47% of the vote. In comparison, the ruling UNP polled only 24.42% while the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) scraped together 12.10% of the ballots cast. The impassioned arguments by media pundits that victory without the backing of one of the two main parties was impossible were rendered instantly invalid, and the electorate was forced to recognise a new major player in the game. The party went on to cement its place in the country’s political landscape when it delivered Gotabaya Rajapaksa the presidency in November last year with an unprecedented lead of 1.1 million votes and is now aiming to secure a two-thirds victory in April with the help of the SLFP and other smaller parties in the alliance it leads.

What explains this dramatic shift?

Political scientist Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda, formerly of the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo, believes it is symptomatic of an ongoing transition vis-à-vis the country’s political makeup.

“Sri Lanka’s political parties are in transition. The whole party system is undergoing change. Traditionally we had the dominant two-party system, with the SLFP and the UNP. Now the SLFP seems to have been absorbed into the SLPP and seems to be disappearing,” he told EcnomyNext in a phone interview. He hastened to add, however, that the SLFP could remain a small party, as an appendage of the SLPP.

The seemingly rudderless UNP meanwhile, with its own leadership squabbles, isn’t faring much better.

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“The UNP is in disarray at the moment. Only after this election will we have some idea of its future as a political party,” he said.

The transition Uyangoda speaks of has occurred primarily in terms of party structure. Parties that were once characterised by extensive grassroots organisational networks now have what he calls very fragile structures that are renewed mainly during an election. These weakened structures, he told EconomyNext, has enabled inter-party mobility – or crossovers, in other words – which used to be difficult, at worst.

Today’s political parties are also characterised by their muted, if not altogether absent, ideology.

As Uyangoda points out, parties of old were known for their strong ideological bent. For example, the SLFP’s identity was state-capitalist and social democratic, values its more renowned members once steadfastly upheld. With the possible exception of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), mainstream parties have more or less abandoned the ideologies that once defined them.

“If you take the UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP, there is hardly a significant ideological difference between the three parties. Of course, there are other differences, but they’re not ideological,” said Uyangoda.

To illustrate, the economic policy adopted by the SLPP – a party made up almost entirely of card-carrying SLFP members – is virtually indistinguishable from that of the neoliberal UNP.

A key difference between the two camps is in their approach to electoral mobilisation. As noted by Uyangoda, unlike the UNP of late which has tended to rely on a more multiethnic, multireligious base, the SLPP uses Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as a strong ideological plank to amass support.

It is worth noting, however, that since its defeat at the presidential polls last year, the UNP – or a section within – appears to be mooting a not unreluctant embrace of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, perhaps in a desperate attempt to eat into its rival’s vote bank. Earlier this week, the enigmatic and increasingly influential Patali Champika Ranawaka, the leader of UNP-ally Jathika Hela Uruyama (JHU), professed an “inclusive nationalism”, with Opposition Leader and prime ministerial candidate Sajith Premadasa right by his side. Premadasa himself surprised some progressives on Twitter recently when he spoke in defence of Army Commander Lt Gen Shavendra Silva.

While chauvinistic politics is nothing new to the UNP, to say the least, could this recent shift be indicative of a new, ill-conceived electoral strategy by a party grasping at straws?

Uyangoda is unconcerned.

“The UNP said this when they lost in 2005. There are those who say it needs to appeal to those voters. This is a very small strand of the party. It is very difficult for the UNP [to reach those voters],” he said, noting that, in the final analysis, Ranawaka is still an outsider.

The academic is also optimistic of an electoral victory that will not require riding the nationalist wave.

“The UNP won in 2015 through a coalition without a specific extreme Sinhala nationalist appeal. In 2001 they won without that. The SLFP-led People’s Alliance under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won in 1995 without it,” he said.

However, he noted, the UNP has been presenting what he called a moderate “Sri Lankan” nationalism over the years, one that isn’t exclusive to the Sinhalese. The SLPP, in contrast, has adopted an almost exclusive Sinhala Buddhist electoral strategy — although you wouldn’t know it listening to its family of leaders.

“Interestingly, the SLPP doesn’t put this forward this as a major ideology. Their alliance doesn’t really have ideological leadership within their ranks except people like [National Freedom Front leader] Wimal Weerawansa, who is in the SLPP’s periphery,” said Uyangoda.

“The Rajapaksa brothers themselves will not openly advocate Sinhala nationalism, but the party uses very clever strategies and occasional interventions in the debate through television and social media manipulation to create that appeal,” he added.

Against this backdrop, Uyangoda went on to say, it will be difficult for the UNP and Premadasa – who Uyangoda believes has been rather quiet on the ethnic issue and does not have wide appeal among nationalist voters – to compete with SLPP prime ministerial candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa on a purely Sinhala Buddhist platform.

“Mr Rajapaksa has already managed to control the Sinhala Buddhist vote. It will not be easy for the UNP. I think the UNP’s electoral future will continue to remain with a moderate, multiethnic electoral identity,” he said.

Asked if that identity is shrinking or if it is expanding parallel to the wave of right-wing populism abroad, Uyangoda said that in the case of Sri Lanka, it has been quite flexible, at least electorally. Looking at election results from the 1980s onwards, he said, there are instances where a nationalist strategy worked and instances where it didn’t.

Rising rightwing sentiment in the United States, India, Europe and elsewhere, he noted, has been met with an encouraging trend of resistance.

“We’ll see how it goes. Even in India, we see resistance in the form of protests. These trends are not permanent. These are mostly conjunctural trends that emerge under certain circumstances,” he said, reiterating that trends decline over time and rarely go unchallenged.

Is that counter wave of resistance strong enough to translate to actual votes, however?

Uyangoda believes that electoral outcomes depend on factors that aren’t limited to existential fears of ethnic identity. Economic crises, for example, could change regimes almost overnight.

“People become fatigued. The same bunch of people and policies, over two terms. People change their evaluation and assessment of these rulers. My feeling is that this populist wave will decline. There are so many other economic, social factors that play a part,” he said.

Back home, now that one of the two major parties has been effectively dislodged from the political mainstream, what are the chances for an alternative, progressive movement to emerge as a viable ‘third force’ à la the JVP of yore?

If the less than stellar performance by JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake at the last presidential election – amid much ideological fervour – is any indication, the possibilities aren’t exactly endless. An opposition with a strong JVP presence, therefore, is looking less and less likely.

Uyangoda concurs.

“What is very clear is that in Sri Lanka there is no room for a single political party to emerge as a third force,” he said.

Under the current proportional representation (PR) electoral system, even with its 5% cutoff mark, the vision of a JVP dominated ‘third force’ remains an unfulfilled dream. Uyangoda said the JVP is likely to remain a “very small party” with less than five seats in parliament – unless it opts for a broad, multiethnic coalition.

“It is only a broad coalition of small parties and ethnic minority parties that can emerge as a third front – with a truly Sri Lankan identity,” he said.

Unfortunately for the JVP, the party hierarchy doesn’t seem ready for that at present. The once Marxist-Leninist party has yet to indicate interest in forming such a coalition.

Had the SLFP decided to go it alone, it would’ve likely ended up in an even more unenviable position than where the JVP currently finds itself in.

“Even Mr Sirisena has realised that the SLFP’s electoral future is quite precarious. That is why he instinctively realised that for the SLFP to survive as a party, it has to align with the SLPP,” said Uyangoda.

Sri Lanka has what he calls a peculiar dimension in its party system not unlike the UK and the US with their prominent two party system. Are we better off with a two-party system, then?

Not quite.

“Sri Lankan society has so many political, social cleavages, which requires a multiparty system. But what is really significant here is that maybe a new coalition of political parties might be able to emerge as a third front,” he said.

The multiparty system in Sri Lanka, coupled with proportional representation and various other factors, has increasingly necessitated coalition politics. This inescapable reality has led to a chain of events culminating in the SLFP’s current state of decline if not demise. A party that once once boasted immense strength and survived even in the face of brutal adversity is now at the mercy of a powerful political dynasty of its own making. Is this the end of the road? Where does it go from here?

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