11th April, 2004  Volume 10, Issue 39

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SPOTLIGHT

Beginning of the end for SLFP

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti 

In the words of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, "it is the highest political victory recorded by an SLFP led coalition in post independance," 

Wimal Weerawansa, Nandana Gunatilake, Vijitha Herath, Anura Dissanayake, Sunil Handunnetti, Bimal Ratnayake and Anjan Umma

and nobody would contest the veracity of Kumaratunga's address to the nation, made in the afterglow of a convincing political victory.

Kumaratunga did not forget to add for good measure that the poll results - despite recording a UPFA victory - failed to reflect the extent of the victory in the number of seats secured by the UPFA in parliament. She quite rightly found the system somewhat flawed, hence the non-reflection of the massive victory.

In strange logic, the leader of the People's Alliance held this to be the best performance by the party so far, a claim that would have been true had it emanated from the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which has suddenly shot to a decisive position in Sri Lankan politics.

There are no doubts about the validity of the Presidential claim as far as the extent of the UPFA's victory goes. But what Kumaratunga in her euphoric state forgot to mention was that this victory, however great it is from the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) perspective, could never be considered a victory for the party founded by her father and nurtured by her mother, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). In fact, it marked the beginning of the end for Sri Lanka's second largest political party and the true emergence of the third force that is able to give the SLFP a run for its place.

History of coalitions

All along, the SLFP, as did the UNP from time to time, has been in coalitions to secure political power. Enjoying a block vote of some 30%, the SLFP always fell short of mustering the required majority to set up government on its own. The dream to be the second largest political force in the country had to be often sacrificed when it came to the ambition of forming governments which called for electoral pacts and even having to put up with troublesome coalition partners who often turned into Shylocks demanding their political pounds of flesh.

But what the PA did not calculate, or miscalculated was the emergence of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), their newest coalition partner as a group that is far stronger than any of their previous allies.

The JVP's political base has increased to such an extent that in the present context, the JVP only requires a few good years work to emerge as the second largest political party in the country with the SLFP showing all signs of simply withering away.

Lulled into thinking that like all the leftist political parties that lent support to the SLFP that the JVP too would be the 'insignificant appendage,' the SLFP did not pause to consider the political consequences of an alliance with the Marxists.

The blues did not foresee the JVP's ability to take over - or simply brush the SLFP's presence aside in areas where they are strong. Not only did they make the SLFP seem an insignificant political influence in their power bases but in areas that were hitherto unfriendly to the JVP - such as Colombo which was given a red hue during the April poll.

The truth, according to several key SLFP members who spoke on the basis of anonymity dawned only when election results were announced. As much as they gloated over the victory which is largely a JVP victory, they realised only in hindsight that their party base had been simply encroached upon with the full concurrence of the party membership and that this alliance was hara kiri for the SLFP.

The effect at electoral level was stunning. It had leading candidates and aspiring leaders like Anura Bandaranaike gasping behind UPFA Vice President and a relative new entrant to politics, Wijitha Herath who not only beat Bandaranaike but UNP's Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya in the preferential warfare. Such was the political humiliation the JVP managed to deliver, reducing non-JVP members within the UPFA collective appear as rather unnecessary baggage.

Swept away

The overtaking of the SLFP was best manifest in the Colombo results. The three JVP candidates, Wimal Weerawansa, Sunil Handunnetti and Lakshman Nipunaarachchi simply swept the polls - all three polling well over 100,000 preferential votes.

The result was the sliding of District Leader, UPFA, Susil Premajayantha to the fourth position. He was also lagging behind with some 137,000 preferential votes less than Weerawansa."It is as if the SLFP members simply did not exist anymore. As if we exist only after the JVP," noted a defeated SLFP candidate from Gampaha.

Premajayantha's predicament was repeated in most areas, barring in districts like Hambantota and Matara where both Mahinda Rajapakse and Mangala Samaraweera managed to keep the SLFP flag flying.

In Colombo, Wimal Weerawansa emerged as the UPFA candidate with the highest preferential votes and the second highest in the entire island, coming only second to former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

A significant factor is that the PA had seven seats in opposition and today, under a new government it has been reduced to five seats with the JVP taking the top three slots.

In Kurunegala, the pattern was repeated with the three JVP members capturing the first three slots. All three candidates, Anura Dissanayake, Bimal Ratnayake and Namal Karunaratne polled over 100,000 preferences. The fourth, PA's Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, a former cabinet minister mustered only 65,724 preferences whereas District Leader, S. B. Nawinna fell to position number six.

In Galle too it was the same with District Leader Amarasiri Dodangoda securing only the fifth place while in Kalutara, District leader Reginald Cooray secured the third position - after the two JVP candidates who led by a huge margin.

The SLFP's slide was also manifest in Puttalam and Kegalle where District Leaders Milroy Fernando and Athauda Seneviratne came last on the preferential list. In Badulla, a new entrant pushed seniors Nimal Siripala de Silva and Dilan Perera to second and third positions.

Body blow

However, the most stinging blow was delivered to the UPFA's Anuradhapura District Leader, H. B. Semasinghe who altogether failed to secure a place in the 13th Parliament.

Statistically, the People's Alliance this time has secured only 57 seats as a party whereas the JVP has won 39 seats and  that too only after it patronisingly conceded two national list slots to the SLFP. The JVP afterall had to string the SLFP for the rest of the ride, at least till the next election to complete their coup de grace. It is an indictment on the party's performance that it has 57 seats when in government as opposed to having 77 seats when in opposition - a plight that the SLFP led coalitions have never suffered before.

"If there was a reduction of seats, that was due to us being defeated. Not that we lost to coalition partners," explained a leading PA member from Colombo who was known for being anti-JVP.

Though unwilling to be critical, most PA members are now beginning to complain that their political futures are at stake.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, one successful candidate from the south said that hereafter the SLFP would definitely have to play second fiddle. Though successful, the same candidate said that his preferences have plummeted as the JVP members have polled much better.

'Unexpected'

"It is true that we only looked at forming a government. We seriously did not believe this would be the outcome," said a senior PA politician from Raja Rata. He was unhappy that a family member who fared extremely well at the 2001 election has lost out to the JVP in the preference battle.

It is this factor that the PA leaders did not bargain for. They did not fear the possibilities of falling way behind the JVP candidates, overconfident as they were of their own popularity as a party and candidates both.

Today, the parties are almost in reverse position with the JVP in the driving seat with more numbers - 41 to boot - having received more convincing mandates from the people.

"We have obviously had more public acceptance. This party is willing to work and work alongside the people, and the people have kept faith and given us a better mandate," says JVP's MP elect, Sunil Handunnetti.

There is no doubt that the JVP's propaganda strategy too has paid off. Out of 39 candidates, 36 have made it to parliament - a rare feat by any political party and a relatively young party as the JVP. So much so that the Marxists who have been promised five slots on the UPFA National List felt generous enough to give up two positions.

Effective campaign

The JVP's effective campaign strategy, according to analysts undermined the collective UPFA campaign. The JVP simply campaigned for their three candidates and where there were two candidates as in the case of Hambantota, they also campaigned for a favoured PA candidate.

"It is interesting how they have manipulated the system. When you have simply three candidates, there is no confusion in the mind of the voter. He simply marks three preferences unlike the bigger parties that give you 20 odd names to select from," explains UNF's Dr. Rajitha Senaratne who admits that the JVP has been "extremely clever" in its campaign strategy.

It is also this factor that contributed largely to the defeat of two popular Colombo District candidates - Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and Chandana Kathriaarachchi - SLFP members who opposed the forging of an alliance with the JVP. It is well known that the JVP conducted an orchestrated campaign in Colombo to discredit the two members for "opposing new wave socialist and reformist politics."

"We never had to suffer this humiliating defeat. This is a collective victory which covers the true defeat within," said a defeated Colombo District UPFA candidate. 

The strategy was to get more seats secured in parliament and to build a considerable JVP parliamentary group - a feat easily achieved by the JVP. Having entered parliament just 10 years ago and having started off with a single member, Nihal Galappatty from Hambantota - today it has grown to a group of 39 - a feat that would have made late leader Rohana Wijeweera proud.

Anniversary gift

As Wijitha Herath said: "On April 5, the day we celebrated our 33rd heroes' day, the JVP had reasons to be truly proud. We have proved our worth and the people have accepted us. Our sacrifices have not been in vain," he said.

As for the SLFP, it is a clear case of sleeping with the enemy with more defeats and the further deterioration of its political base imminent as the JVP continues to gain political ground upon a platform that has largely  been created by the SLFP itself.

 In the final analysis, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe saw this as a "stand off" and a selection of the "young and the new"- a political truth that encapsulated the JVP's victory at the recently concluded poll.

However, the litmus test for the young Marxists - in government for the first time - would be to translate the opposition rhetoric into reality. People have kept faith with the Tissamaharama Pradeshiya Sabha example, voted as the best local body in the island. The country waits to see how the JVP would now, paint on a larger political canvas.


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