In what will no doubt prove to be a historic day for the nearly seven-decade-old centre-left giant, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formally announced its decision today to back the candidate of its biggest breakaway faction-turned rival party yet, in the upcoming presidential election.
Ending months of speculation, bitter disagreements and very public airings of grievances, the SLFP will sign two separate Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa this week.
All but four MPs representing the SLFP in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) were present at an unusually crowded party headquarters on Darley Road this morning to announce its decision before the media.
Analysts speculate that with the new alliance, the SLFP, a party that produced three executive presidents and a number of prime ministers and opposition leaders, will effectively be reduced to something less than the diminished role it played in the ill-fated Yahapalana coalition with the United National Party (UNP) — an outcome that’s nevertheless hotly contested by the SLFP leadership.
Speaking to reporters today, General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara insisted that his party’s identity will not be diluted in the proposed Sri Lanka Podujana Nidahas Sandhanaya (Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance).
“We’re not ready to betray our party for anyone. We will, however, embark on a new journey with all progressive forces of the country. We see Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a candidate traversing that same path. So, as a party, we extend to him our fullest support, whilst maintaining our strength and respect,” he said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by SLFP Vice President Nimal Siripala de Silva, UFPA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera and other party seniors who maintained that the SLFP’s support is conditional and extended strictly to the candidate and not to the SLPP proper.
Today’s announcement came against a backdrop of repeated disagreements over the symbol for the proposed alliance, which led to a near-total breakdown of talks in the past weeks. The SLFP had insisted on fielding Rajapaksa under a common symbol such as the chair (previously used by the People’s Alliance) instead of the lotus bud, or pohottuwa, which has come to dominate opposition politics as a demonstrably marketable brand of its own. It appears the SLFP has finally given up its demand.
“Though we couldn’t change the symbol this time, in upcoming elections we will go for an alliance under the chair symbol,” said de Silva.
In an unexpected move, President Sirisena stepped down from his chairmanship of the party last night, appointing in his place Professor Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa, head of the Mass Communications Department at the Kelaniya University.
Explaining this to the media today, Jayasekara and others claimed that the President had decided to take a neutral position in the run-up to the polls on grounds of propriety, as he did not wish to be party to any campaign as President of the Republic.
“The President gave leadership and strength to our party. He is 100% behind all party decisions. He has bestowed the responsibility of this decision upon us. It would not be appropriate for him as President to get on stage [with a candidate from any party],” said Jayasekara.
“ජනාධිපතිතුමා නිල්පාක්ෂිකයි,” joked Amaraweera, playing on the Sinhala word for ‘impartial’ to suggest that the President, while remaining neutral, will have the blue-themed SLFP’s interest at heart.
All twenty SLFP/UPFA parliamentarians, bar one, are firmly behind the decision, along with rest of the party hierarchy and membership, with the blessings of Sirsisena, Amaraweera said.
MPs Duminda Dissanayake and Weerakumara Dissanayake were not present at the media briefing as they are in Anuradhapura today addressing candidate Rajapaksa’s inaugural election rally.
One key party stalwart that was conspicuous by his absence was the outspoken Kumar Welgama, who had on numerous occasions gone on record expressing his displeasure at the candidacy of the former Defence Ministry Secretary. Welgama went to the extent of placing a cash deposit at the Election Commission last week as a potential independent candidate, though he did not hand over his nomination papers on Monday.
Asked about his colleague and where his loyalties lay, Jayasekara said the SLFP is still talking to Welgama.
“He is an SLFP MP. I think he will join us. With him, it’ll be 20 MPs,” he said. Talks will also be held with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike once she returns to the island, he added.
Along with the SLFP, said Amaraweera, the 20+ parties that form the UPFA will back Rajapaksa in the upcoming election. These include the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) led by Arumugam Thondaman. MP Faiszer Musthapha, too, said that Rajapaksa has the Muslim vote.
“Gotabaya Rajapaksa already won today. The UNP thinks minority votes are with them. The president has done more for the minorities than any other leader,” said Musthapha. In a thinly veiled reference to Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem, the MP said “Just because ‘community leaders’ are over there, it doesn’t mean the communities have flocked to them.”
Asked about allegations levelled against Rajapaksa of being behind the abduction and killing of journalists and activists, the SLFP spokesmen were defensive.
“Everyone’s hands are dirty. Under President Sirisena, there was much media freedom. This will be continued under a Gotabaya presidency, with the support of the SLFP,” he said.
“The Ministry of Justice, the police department, etc were all under the UNP these past four years. They could’ve prosecuted the wrongdoers. There’s no point bringing it up at this juncture,” said Amaraweera.
The SLFP parliamentarians also expressed confidence that an SLFP-SLPP government will be formed immediately after the election of Rajapaksa, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.
“Once Gotabaya is elected, we will form a government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister At some point after that, at an appropriate time, we will call a parliamentary election,” said Jayasekara.
Amaraweera, meanwhile, attempted to allay fears that supporting the candidacy of the former military-man could pave the way for a dictatorship.
“People who talk about militarism have already joined the other side. We will not help bring about a dictatorship in any way,” he said.