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Sri lanka News – Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the island nation’s strongest ruling coalition in over four decades, is facing an imminent split into fractions after the party’s failed economic policies led to public anger, protests and the ouster of a powerful sitting president.

The party emerged into a strong political force after the 2018 local government elections before winning the presidency in 2019 in a landslide followed by the 2020 general election which gave the ‘Pohhottuwa’ (lotus bud) a stunning two thirds majority.

But now the SLPP, led by the Rajapaksa dynasty, is struggling to survive as lawmakers that represent the party have lost support at the grassroots level, the party’s top leaders say.

Infighting between members, a blame game over the party’s ongoing downfall, and dramatic betrayals just to survive have left the once-mighty SLPP in shambles and forced its ailing supreme leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, two-term president and four-time prime minister, to reach the public in a “let’s rise together” campaign.

But many in the party are aware of its fate and are in the process deciding the next stage of their personal political career, internal sources say.

At the peak of the popularity of the party, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the prime minister, his younger brother and former war-winning defence ministry secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the most powerful executive president of Sri Lanka under an amended constitution backed by a parliamentary majority. Another younger brother Basil was finance minister, while elder brother Chamal held the irrigation portfolio.

Gotabaya was also the minister of defence and digital infrastructure.

Namal Rajapaksa, the son of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the minister of youth and sports, while Chamal’s son Shasheendra Rajapaksa was junior agriculture minister. Rajapaksa’s another nephew from the southern district of Matara was the Chairman of the District Development Committee.

All was well, until a mass anti-government movement gathered momentum around March this year, forcing the Rajapaksas down from the top of Sri Lanka’s political food chain.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to step down on May 09, after which he fled to a naval base in the country’s easter coast fearing for his life. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country not long after and resigned from Singapore. Basil Rajapaksa was compelled to resign from parliament, weeks after all other Rajapaksas had stepped down after the government was ousted following the protests.

“[Mahinda] Rajapaksa’s recognition as the national leader is diminishing and his efforts to keep the SLPP together will be in vain. It’s all over,” a senior SLPP lawmaker who is in talks with an opposition political party to contest the next election told EconomyNext asking not to be named.

“The SLPP was a successful model to win the last election giving priority to national security and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. But the failure of the Rajapaksas in economic policies led to the current situation. They (the Rajapaksas) did not listen to party members including ministers on their economic policies.”

Under the SLPP government, Sri Lanka’s rupee collapsed after excess money printing by the central bank to keep interest rates artificially low.

Inflation has skyrocketed to over 70 percent, forcing the country to join the list of failed economies in the world like Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Syria, Venezuela, and Argentina.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s strategy to reduce taxes to boost consumer spending backfired with record low government revenue, which also led the country to declare sovereign debt default on April 12.

President Rajapaksa’s stubborn decision to ban chemical fertilizer has also resulted in making most foods unaffordable to the average Sri Lankan amid a food shortage.

His economic experts’ decisions have led to Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt crisis and lack of foreign inflows after migrant workers switched to informal money transactions like Undiyal and Hawala after witnessing lower rates in the formal banking system.

The island nation is now facing a risk of a collapse of the local banking system in the event of a restructuring of domestic debt.

The previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration’s (2010 to 2015) heavy Chinese borrowings for infrastructure projects that are not giving a sizable return on investment to repay such loans are also taking their toll, analysts say.

The SLPP coalition was started in 2016, a year after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s surprise defeat at the 2015 presidential polls.

The new party campaigned against higher taxes, high cost of living, a perceived neglect of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist interests, and on the then government’s alleged compromises on national security.

The Easter Sunday attack, a series of suicide bombs by Islamist extremists in April 2019 targeting high-end hotels and Catholic churches, helped the SLPP prove its point on national security and prompted the Rajapaksas and their backers to launch a strong campaign against the government.

The party was overwhelmingly backed by Buddhist clergy, professionals, majority Sinhala Buddhists, and government servants who claimed that the 2015-2019 government had failed to address the key issues faced by the country.

The SLPP was silent on anti-Muslim riots after the Easter Sunday attack and backed the Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led government’s decision to cremate dead bodies of Muslim and Christian victims of COVID-19. For many months, international calls for a reversal of the decision would fall on deaf ears.

The party also disregarded a request by the West-led rights group to address past human rights violations attributed to the Sri Lankan state.

The SLPP was known for its China bend until last year before it was neutralised.

The party was seen as a group of extremists because of the racism its individual members indirectly espoused to win votes from majority Sinhala Buddhists. “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country” seemed to be theme of the party stalwarts, with little or no concern for minorities like Tamils, Muslims and Christians.

Some of  SLPP members had a hand in peddling conspiracy theories to win votes. One of these was the false allegation that forced sterilisation of Sinhalese women was performed by a Muslim doctor. Adding sterilization chemicals to food and undergarments was also a common, unproven allegation.

Now all of this has backfired to the point that SLPP members cannot go to their voters. The Rajapaksa government’s economic failures and fabricated stories in the last election cycle have come back to haunt them.

And the blame game has already started.

“We chose Gotabaya Rajapaksa assuming he would work with our guidance to take the country on a corrective path,” Channa Jayasumana, a prominent member of Viyathmaga, a group of professionals who backed the former president at the last presidential election and also, incidentally, a key figure in the campaign of dubious news spread on forced sterilization.

“He worked like that at first, but as the months passed, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stopped listening to us. That is the reason for the current suffering,” said Jayasumana.

“Not only us, he didn’t even listen Mahinda Rajapaksa,” he said.

Speaking at a public gathering last week, Jayasumana also blamed Namal Rajapaksa for the failures of the former president.

“This damage is the result of heeding Namal Rajapaksa’s advice. Had he (Gotabaya Rajapaksa) worked the way we’d advised him, he wouldn’t be in this situation,” he said.

“Now Namal Rajapaksa is trying to blame us. The whole country is suffering due to his wrong advice. We as professionals cannot take this blame. We would like to tell him (Namal Rajapaksa) that the country would not have suffered like this if our advice was heard.”

The SLPP has split into at least four groups, party sources said.

“One group is with President Ranil Wickremesinghe who has given more space to young SLPP parliamentarians to prove themselves and showcase their talents with ministerial posts. Most of these young SLPP members are likely to end up in the president’s party,” an SLPP state minister told EconomyNext asking not to be named.

A second group is with Dullas Alahapperuma, former media minister who challenged Wickremesinghe at the July 19 presidential vote in parliament. Another group has become independent now, the state minister said.

“Finally, there is a group with Mahinda Rajapaksa, but they don’t see eye-to-eye because of the past differences. Some are core Basil Rajapaksa supporters while some are with Namal Rajapaksa,” he said.

“Those who are with Mahinda Rajapaksa are the people who are struggling now because they are concerned about their future in the event Mahinda Rajapaksa retires from politics.”

Two other sources who are closely aligned with the Rajapaksas said lawmakers backing Sri Lanka’s biggest political dynasty are divided because they are uncertain over their personal political future after Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“The SLPP as a political party is likely to remain only until the death of Mahinda Rajapaksa,” one source said.

“This is why the MPs backing the Rajapaksas have started separate political campaigns using Mahinda Rajapaksa. They are in a hurry to organize the grassroots level political machinery. But we hardly see real and genuine backing from lower level SLPP supporters.”

The second source said there are also SLPP lawmakers who are in discussions with the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP).

“The real split can only be seen only in the next parliamentary election,” the source said.

Namal Rajapaksa, who is seen as a potential leader of the SLPP, shrugged off the split in the party.

“Basically these kind of divisions are not new in Sri Lankan politics or even in global politics. But as long as you believe in your policies, it will not have a major impact,” Rajapaksa told EconomyNext.

“We believe we have a very strong national programme or policy framework that will cater to the national interest and the interest of Sri Lankan people,” he said.

The biggest challenge faced by the SLPP is changing itself as a party for all Sri Lankans instead of the current go-to nationalist or Sinhala Buddhist party.

“Podujana Party never accepted racism. However, it’s most unfortunate some people who were associated with SLPP worked otherwise. Some Tamil parties we worked with also had narrow agendas. I agree at times mistakes were made, considering the situation, but this has been rectified,” Namal Rajapaksa tweeted this week in response to a request to change the SLPP’s ethno-religious supremacy ideology.

Many of the SLPP members who spoke to EconomyNext said the only reason they are still in the party is Mahinda Rajapaksa who gave political leadership to win a 26-year war against Tamil Tiger separatists in one the Asia’s longest civil conflicts.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, despite many setbacks, is still hailed as a leader who saved the country from division, though his popularity is waning, analysts say.

The SLPP is exploiting the soft corner people have for Mahinda Rajapaksa in a last-ditch effort to revive its party machinery, gradually and steadily.

“We have seen a downfall in the last couple of months as a political party, but we believe that the people will also realise and we have also understood where things have gone wrong from our end and we will correct them,” Namal Rajapaksa, who is also involved with the party revival, said.

“We are also looking at formulating a think tank, especially to see what sort of changes we should bring in not only to the party’s structure but also to our policies or how we can modernise some of our policies and make it more flexible so that we can address more current needs and demands of the youth,” he said.

“Most of these groups who have broken away do not represent the policies of SLPP, even though they were claiming to do so. You can see their alliances, their groups aligning with the SJB or the JVP whose policies are totally different from SLPP’s.

“So as a political group that believes in policies, it doesn’t matter if individuals leave or not. We will reach out to the people and we will do politics with our grassroots and we will be with our people and we will be with the party and we will look at a modern approach on the national issues,” he said. Colombo/Nov04/2022)

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