SLFP – A Party Sans A Policy?
by Wimalanath Weeraratne
Recently a journalist inquired from Minister Susil Premajayantha as to why the Sri Lanka Freedom Front (SLFP) is safeguarding a United National Party (UNP) government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. His answer was “Why don’t we take it as if the UNP leadership, and Prime Minister is helping a President from the SLFP?”
Although, the government does not fully constitute of SLFPers, one must not forget that the President was elected by anti-SLFP votes. A majority of SLFPers along with affiliated parties of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) voted not for President Maithripala Sirisena but for Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on January 8, 2015. As such, even though the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) constitutes of many parties, factions and camps, there is no doubt that Sirisena won because of UNPers.
There is no debate or debacle that cannot be disentangled here. But, this has been used as an argument only by the bankrupt politicians of the Joint Opposition supposedly led by Former President Rajapaksa. They only want a pure SLFP President not baptized by the UNP and having no affiliations with Tamils or Muslims.
Minister Premajayantha states:
“If we were not with the government, wouldn’t Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe forge an alliance and still go forward? He would have. We are faced with a dilemma here. We are having a Hobson’s choice.”
Pro MR supporters are not ready to accept Premajayantha’s theory. Unable to understand or comprehend this hybrid government, they seek a puritan SLFP President and a government.
Minister Premajayantha further states:
“This government was formed with the amalgamation of two opposing political movements which went along two opposite political schools of thought for close to 60 years. When a national government is formed it will face inherent teething problems.
We have to face these challenges. The primary question here is as to how we resolve the burning issues faced by the people. We are engaged in an internal struggle to eliminate these domestic discrepancies and mismatches within us.”
One can say Premajayantha is looking at this in a very realistic manner. It is easy to being the government and work towards intensifying internal issues but difficult yet prudent to work harmoniously to iron out issues.
Susil who was more or less like a dead man during the Rajapaksa regime has opened his mouth to come out with far reaching statements. Under Rajapaksa he opened his mouth only to eat and drink. Close to the August 17 General Election, he was removed from the General Secretary post of the UPFA. However, he accepted the decisions taken by the leadership in silence. He never opened his mouth to criticize the party leadership.
He did so only when Mahinda Amaraweera was appointed General Secretary of the UPFA quite recently. He announced that he would retire from the politics in the near future and reveal to the country several lesser known incidents that took place in the run up to the election. Furthermore he stated, had he not executed his role of UPFA General Secretary and acted as an Attorney-at-Law, the results of the election would have taken a different turn.
Furthermore he said that he would have never ever intended to send candidates rejected by the people to Parliament. He said he had no other option.
Both UPFA and SLFP must accept Premajayantha’s revelations as constructive self criticisms and not as attacks against the party. He has been able to open his mouth and talk openly not because he became ‘enlightened’ in the run up to his retirement in politics but democracy which did not exist during the Rajapaksa regime seems to exist under Sirisena.
However, he cannot be white-washed for turning a blind eye to the wrongdoings of the Rajapaksa regime for his own political gain. This criticism is not valid only for Premajayantha but for many others who turned a deaf ear to Rajapaksa’s wrongdoings.
Victor Ivan vociferously insisted that President Sirisena should dissolve Parliament and go for a general election soon after winning the Presidential Elections. Prof. Sarath Wijesooriya too said the same thing. Neither Sarath Wijesooriya nor Victor Ivan is Presidential advisors. In Sri Lanka leaders only accept the advices of ‘official’ advisors. If the government had worked according to this advice, Premajayantha would not have had to send defeated candidates to the parliament. President Maithripla Sirisena too would not have had to give nominations to Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and many others who are now trying to send him home.
Where he went wrong
Susil further said:
“I was always loyal to the party leadership. I was with tje late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike through thick and thin. I was loyal to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. I was with President Rajapaksa for 11 long years and till I was removed from my position. I was with President Maithripala Sirisena.”
He also stated, “I told you before that I always work according to the instruction of the leader.”
It is important to be loyal to the leadership of party. However, it does not give licence to approve any wrongdoing of the party leadership. Sometimes when you do not approve wrongdoings of the leader, you may lose perks and privileges and fall into his or her bad books.
Susil cannot be given the benefits always because even those who were with Adolf Hitler, Vellupillai Prabhakaran and Osama Bin Laden did what their leader wanted them to do. A true friend would not always approve what his friend or leader does. Sometimes this may lead him or her to become unpopular with the leader, but the people will one day prove him right.
There has been a crucial crisis faced by the SLFP since its inception which no party leader has openly accepted. There is no one unchanging vision or coherent philosophy for the SLFP.
The party was set up by the late President S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to go on the middle path in stark contrast to ultra-right UNP and the leftist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Marxist bandwagon. However, aligning with the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) in the run up to the 1956 General Election where Bandaranaike won a landslide victory; the party shifted from the center to left-of-center. In order to win power, the party had to give up its secular position and flirt with ultra-Sinhala nationalist and Buddhist revivalist camps.
SLFP propounded the ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’ (Great five-fold movement) which consisted of Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru classes (Buddhist priests, traditional physicians, teachers, farmers, and the working class) leaving out the minority groups such as Sinhalese Christians, the Tamils, the Moors, the Burghers, the Malays and other groups. He promised to bring the Sinhala Only Act within 24 hours of his coming into power. SLFP’s licentious nexus with racism made the party lose its moderate policy and triggered the beginnings of the ugly internal conflict that resulted in the three decade long-drawn bloody civil war.
Again under late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the 1960 and the 1970-77 United Front Government, the SLFP had no choice but to align with left parties and distant itself from Tamil and Muslim political groups.
In terms of economic policy, although, successive SLFP-led governments promised to foster a mixed economy, instead they promoted socialist policies, nationalizing private enterprises and taking over foreign business undertakings. The SLFP took over Colombo Port, Katunayake Air Base, Trincomalee Naval Base, public transport services, Bank of Ceylon, insurance industry, private schools, plantation companies, petroleum companies, graphite mines, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House), and Times of Ceylon.
However, in 1994, then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga came into power with a People’s Alliance Government with the help of Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Indian Tamils, trying to get rid of the nationalist (or racist) policies of her progenitors for the first time.
Abandoning the traditional SLFP legacy, she proposed a United Sri Lanka (more or less a federal model) instead of the then hitherto unitary State concept. In the economic stage, she privatized many State owned enterprises (SOEs) such as Sri Lankan Airlines, Colombo Gas Company, Lanka Marine Services (LMS), Sri Lanka Insurance Company (SLIC), and many more.
However, towards the end of her tenure, she too had a private inner circle that got the majority of the best deals and made her the center of controversy in the deals of Colombo Gas Company-Shell Gas, Emirates-Air Lanka, Tawakkal, Channel 9, Water’s Edge scandals.
She too espoused an authoritarian style by deploying underworld figures as part of her security to terrorize opponents and suppressing media freedom.
But when Mahinda Rajapaksa came into power in November 2005, he reversed many policies of his predecessor embracing the unitary State model, State-led economic policies and Keynesian school of thought. He opposed evolution and worked towards not only eliminating the ruthless Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam but also moderate Tamil and Muslim politicians.
He even went onto the extent of eliminating even Sinhala opponents to his rule and espousing ultra-nationalism and Buddhist extremism culminating with the 2014 Aluthgama incident, which proved to have been a decisive precursor to his downfall and ultimate defeat in January 2015.
Espousing State-led economic policies and Keynesian school of thought vigorously, he set up more and more State enterprises burdening the public and ended the vital foreign collaborations in enterprises such as Sri Lankan Airlines, Shell Gas, etc.
He started a vigorous infrastructure development progamme that was never seen in history before but at a huge cost to the economy, borrowing heavily from China. Finally, the most dictatorial and authoritarian ruler ever to reign in Sri Lanka – Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated on January 8 2015, and his successor made a comeback to moderate and progressive political and economic programme.
As such, the SLFP has never been fully faithful to either the left or the right leaning politics or to socialist or capitalist economic school of thought.
Lack of discipline
SLFP General Secretary several times announced that the party would take strict disciplinary actions against SLFP members who take part in activities of the Joint Opposition. However, no tangible action has been taken so far by the SLFP. Challenging the party leadership, MR faction stalwart Dullas Alahapperuma had the audacity to say that only a fool would talk about disciplinary action anymore. Those who participated in the Hyde Park rally openly breached the decisions of the Central Committee of the SLFP. One may say that as there was overwhelming participation at these activities, they cannot be reined in by disciplinary action. This too is a fault of the SLFP, rather than taking wavering decisions the party should implement whatever decisions it takes notwithstanding the outcome. If one takes the UNP from the Father of Our Nation and First Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake to his son Premier Dudley Senanayake to John Kotelawala to President J.R Jayewardene to President Ranasinghe Premadasa to President D.B Wijetunga to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the policies of the UNP have not shifted from its original stance during the last six decades. More or less, all promoted free market economy and right-to-center politics.
One may say that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has espoused ultra-capitalism, neo-liberalism and ultra-rightist policies but that too is within the policy framework of the party. Thus the current UNP leadership has not shifted away from the fundamentals of his party. Unlike most SLFP leaders, for Wickremesinghe, understanding global political and economic trends matter most, and he drives the government towards responding to them.
Taking a stand
If one does not have a stance, he or she would have to act dumb. It is high time that the SLFP adopts a political and economic policy programme of its own.
Till the party moves towards that goal, stopping SLFP members running towards Hyde Park behind a beleaguered leader in breach of party decisions is a farce.