No mea culpa, but Sri Lanka PM calls for self-reflection at ruling party convention

ECONOMYNEXT – The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), juggling crises on multiple fronts amid rising tensions in the coalition it leads, has its work cut out to win back the trust that the people of Sri Lanka – many of them young voters disillusioned with party politics – had placed in it in the last election cycle.

That seemed to be the crux of the uncharacteristically sombre speech that Prime Minister and SLPP Chairman Mahinda Rajapaksa gave at the party’s fifth anniversary convention in Colombo on Tuesday (02).

“I remember in the early days of our victory, the youth of this country painted murals on walls everywhere. They used paint they had themselves paid for. It was a voluntary effort by patriotic young people with no affiliations [to the party]. Today we have no idea where those youths are,” said Rajapaksa.

The former two-term president was referring to a seemingly organic explosion of graffiti and wall-art that had immediately followed the victory of his brother Gotabaya at the 2019 presidential polls. With a running theme of national security and environmentalism laced with ethno-religious chauvinism and a touch of jingoism, the art didn’t stray too far from the ideals the SLPP seemed to stand for.

The young party, which is largely a collection of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) alumni and other Rajapaksa allies, made impressive gains in the last two years of the dysfunctional ‘Yahapalana’ (Good Governance) SLFP-United National Party (UNP) cohabitation. This culminated in a near two-thirds majority at the August 2020 parliamentary polls, with the new kid on the block enjoying unprecedented popularity even during a raging pandemic.

A year later, to say that that popularity has waned would be a gross understatement.

“The youths’ appeal to us, with their art, was to not sully the country with the brand of politics they had seen thus far. We must understand that message. We need to find out if those youths are now in the queues of people at the passport office waiting to leave the country.  We need to engage in a kind of politics that will make them want to come back,” the prime minister said.

It didn’t take long for things to change drastically. Plagued with myriad economic, social and political issues against a backdrop of over 13,000 COVID-19 deaths, the public is increasingly critical – sometimes viciously so – of the ruling alliance, to the point of burning effigies.

If social media feedback is anything to go by, to say nothing of the increasingly hostile protests propping up in various parts of the country, the SLPP may be at its lowest point in the party’s short history, and Prime Minister Rajapaksa – long considered a pragmatic leader blessed with the common touch – is in a unique position to understand this in a way that others in the party hierarchy may not.

“I believe the teachers’ protest escalated because we took a step back from active politics [after coming to power]. The farmers’ protests today are dragging to such a degree also because we didn’t have a working presence among them,” he said.

School teachers and principals in Sri Lanka were on a strike for a record 100+ days over salary anomalies that have remained unresolved for 24 years. Trade unions only recently returned to work after much back-and-forth with the authorities, but protests continue islandwide with teachers demanding that the cash-strapped government find a solution to their woes fast. Farmers, meanwhile, are increasingly desperate in the face of a blanket ban on agrochemicals that critics say makes no scientific or economic sense. Farmers’ protests are now reaching a fever pitch, with some beating up and burning effigies of senior government members.

Related: Sri Lanka president defends controversial agrochemical ban amid mounting opposition

“We must listen to the voice of the people. When we stray from active politics, the forces that we defeated try to make inroads to the public, looking to create chaos. To entrench the SLPP in this country, as a party, it should continue to engage in politics among the people even when in government.

“Don’t wait for government officials to serve the public on our behalf. You have the task of implementing the political vision in the Vistas of Prosperity [the election manifesto of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa],” said the premier.

“We have to strengthen our presence in the factory, the workshop, and the paddy field,” he added, to applause from a packed audience of SLPP ministers, MPs, coalition partners and others gathered at the Chinese-built Nelum Pokuna auditorium.

Conspicuous by his absence, however, was Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who has of late been critical of some of the more unpopular decisions by the government, the most recent  being a controversial LNG deal with a US power company. Weerawansa, along with his colleague Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila have also earned the ire of SLPP general secretary MP Sagara Kariyawasam over a number of issues that analysts speculate are really a reflection of differences with SLPP chairman and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Related: New twists to Sri Lanka ruling party’s factional theatrics as alliance partners cry foul

The prime minister, known for his people skills, is widely regarded for his ability to turn even the harshest critics into grudging admirers if not staunch allies.

“We’re a party that has always welcomed unity. This is something we inherited from the SLFP. The SLFP always stood with the left. They worked together despite much internal debate. The SLPP too must think about this. Some parties may not be represented in parliament. They may be small in size. However, it’s not size that matters in politics but a party’s vision.

“These are people who are on the same path with us, people who were with us in hard times and fought for one goal. We cannot push any of them away. Nor are they our tools or crutches. All the parties that were together then must continue to be together. Protecting that unity is our responsibility as the main party,” Rajapaksa told the SLPP members in attendance.

The premier spoke further on the hardships faced by the public.

“We need to understand that the people who voted for us are in a very difficult situation. We are used to such trying times. Isn’t that right, Vasu? At times like these, people blame the government even for things it didn’t do. That’s just how it is,” he said, turning to Minister Vasudewa Nanayakkara, who has joined Weerawansa and Gammanpila in the somewhat muted chorus of voices criticising the government from within.

“The people may criticise us, they may burn effigies, but we must go to them, “ said Rajapaksa, recalling his visit to the Kebetigollawa bomb blast site in 2006 that saw the death of 68 civilians before fighting escalated between Sri Lanka’s armed forces the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).

“They were crying, those people. They held their dead babies in their arms. I was able to console them, and before them I took up the task of defending the nation,” he said.

“You may also remember the incident in Beruwala, Aluthgama. I went there after. I saw with my own eyes what had happened,” he added, referring to a racially motivated riot that targeted the country’s Muslim minority. The PM did not comment on the president’s recent and controversial appointment of a Buddhist monk widely accused of inciting hate against Muslims.

“That was how I acted when I was both in government and in opposition. We visited the churches after the Easter bombings even before the then government was there,”
he said.

“We faced the questions and emotions of the people. We need a politics like that today. The SLPP must take up that responsibility,” he added.

The present government has been under fire for allegedly dragging its feet on the Easter bombings investigation, with the head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, once considered a spiritual ally, now bitterly critical of the powers that be.

Rajapaksa went on to say that the country his party inherited was not the same it had handed over the to the UNP-led Yahapalana government in 2015.

“National security was not a consideration, Buddhist monks were not respected. The [United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)] was about to be signed. We put a stop to that. We have reversed all of this.

“We went head to head with the international community for this, prepared to face any challenge that came our way. What is coming our way now bearing different slogans are the results of those things we did. We have the task of explaining to the people the politics behind it all,” he said.

“Nobody talks about the sacrifices made to ensure the independence of this country. Why? Because there is nothing to talk about. The people of this country are aware of what we have done,” he added.

The SLPP will never betray the country that its leaders saved from the Norway sponsored ceasefire with the LTTE, the UN resolution on the country’s human rights record and the controversial MCC compact, said Rajapaksa. The SLPP has maintained a non-aligned foreign policy on paper, but observes say it has gotten closer to China at the expense of former friends in the West.

The leaders who went to war to save the country can be trusted to protect it, the premier said.

“We need to a have a clear assessment of the situation in the country as the governing party.

“We were able to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament without dancing to the tune of extremist Tamil and Muslim parties. The Pohottuwa was able to reduce the 70-plus-year-old UNP to a single seat. The people did that with confidence in us.

“It was a historic victory that the people gave us, and we need to understand what the nation expected form us in return,” he said. (Colombo/Nov03/2021)

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