The rift in Sri Lanka’s ruling party which erupted publicly last week in the wake of its Presidential candidate’s electoral pact with a Marxist-cum-Sinhala nationalist ally has exposed a critical tension: whether its leadership should continue to be dominated by the family of its founder.
And it is Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)’s main rival, the United National Party (UNP), which may ultimately benefit from the schism.
The SLFP was founded in the early fifties by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who split from the UNP. After he died, it was led for a considerable period by his widow, Srimavo Bandaranaike, whose left wing governments of the late sixties and early seventies ruined Sri Lanka’s economy and exacerbated ethnic tensions. Much later, in the early nineties, his daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, took charge of the SLFP and Sri Lanka.
Kumaratunga, who has now served two terms as President of Sri Lanka is constitutionally precluded from running for a third. This has, to her chagrin, paved the way for SLFP stalwart Mahinda Rajapakse to compete as the party’s candidate.
'Our party’s candidate has joined hands with extremist forces and I and my sister strongly feel major damage has been done' - Anura Bandaranaike
Despite having to vacate Sri Lanka’s most powerful office, Kumaratunga still hopes to be head of state again- by abolishing the Presidency and replacing it with a more powerful Prime Ministership, for which there are no bars to her competing.
The inevitable tension between Rajapakse and Kumaratunga have been simmering for some time and despite the former’s public loyalty, his Presidential ambitions have been no secret.
Crucially, if Kumaratunga is to mobilise support for the abolishment of the Presidency - particularly against any delaying resistance Rajapakse (he has agreed in principle to the abolishment of the office) might stage, she needs a united party behind her.
Rajapakse, however, is popular within the SLFP and many younger members are less enamoured of the Bandaranaike clan’s continued dominance of their party’s top-flight positions.
The rift within the party, which has now tumbled into public scrutiny, is ostensibly about Rajapakse’s adherence to party discipline and its political identity. But many Sri Lankans see something routine in their political system: a simple power struggle.
“The president, the Bandaranaike family and the SLFP’s old guard are worried about the leadership of the party moving away from the Bandaranaike dynasty,” Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda, head of Colombo University’s political science department told Reuters last week.
Kumaratunga alleged that Rajapakse had violated party discipline, kept her in the dark about the pact with Marxists until an hour before signing it and jeopardised peace efforts.
“That is not the way to inform the President of the country about the pact. This pact is unconstitutional and it violates several policies of the SLFP,” she told the Daily Mirror.
President Kumaratunga’s brother, Foreign Minister Anura Bandaranaike, also distanced himself from Rajapaksa last week three days later.
“I really don’t care about the outcome of the [Presidential] election now since the party’s long upheld principles have been betrayed,” Anura told the Daily Mirror.
“Our party’s candidate has joined hands with extremist forces and understandably I and my sister strongly feel a major damage has been done to the party by his actions,” he lamented.
But Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), with which Rajapakse signed a staunchly nationalist policy outline, was for over a year the SLFP’s primary ally in Parliament. The JVP quit the ruling coalition after Kumaratunga succumbed to international pressure to sign an aid-sharing pact with the LTTE.
Moreover, Anura Bandaranaike was a key member of the SLFP team that forged the axis with the JVP that enabled the pair, competing on an anti-peace process ticket, to topple the UNP-led government in April 2004.
Rajapakse this week defending his hardline pacts against the Bandaranaikes’ criticism, without openly attacking the siblings.
He pointed out that the JVP whilst close to the SLFP had not always been warm to him personally. Indeed, the Marxists had even backed former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgmar - who assassinated last month - for the post of Premier instead of him.
“The JVP was not on good terms with me at one time. But, now they have studied me and come to know me better. They are convinced that I am fair to everybody. They know that I am ready to discuss with them and others,” he said.
“One must remember that they [JVP] have 20% of the country’s vote bank with them. Are we going to keep that 20% out of the mainstream? The youth of this country are rallying round them. Can we leave them out of any process and find a solution to our problems,” he asked.
“If one thinks one can write off either the JVP or the JHU, one is living in a fool’s paradise,” Rajapakse observed.
The irony is that the clear advantage the broad base of Sinhala nationalist support has given Rajapakse may be negated by the rift within the SLFP – and this may even allow the pro-peace, pro-market UNP’s candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe to pip him to the post.
“This is very damaging to Rajapakse’s campaign. With all the internal politics in his own party, it is going to be very difficult for the prime minister,” Prof. Uyangoda argues.
Understandably, Rajapakse’s camp is playing down the spate.
“It's not a disagreement. Shall we say, she (Kumaratunga) expressed her opinion,” Mangala Samaraweera, who is also handling Rajapakse''s campaign, told the Associated Press.
“Now, in the face of all the details, she (Kumaratunga) realizes no party discipline has been violated,” he said.
But that most sensitive of barometers, the stock market, is optimistic: shares have surged on the Colombo bourse in the wake of the rift becoming public.
“The market is being bullish on the political developments,” Harsha Fernando, chief executive of brokerage SC Securities in Colombo told Reuters.
“Chandrika hammering Mahinda ... the Bandaranaikes most probably might support the UNP or any candidate other than their own one, so I think that’s going to make a stronger case for the UNP – Ranil.”