THE BLOG
02/16/2016 11:52 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2017

Whose Sri Lanka Freedom Party Is It Anyway?

2015 proved to be an unpredictable year for Sri Lankan politics. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man who ended the country's civil war in 2009 was booted out of office by an unanticipated challenger, Maithripala Sirisena. Like Rajapaksa, Sirisena is a longtime member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and was even a member of Rajapaksa's cabinet.

Sirisena promised that he'd govern in a less authoritarian way than Rajapaksa and was backed by a diverse coalition. In order to win the presidency, he relied heavily on support from the United National Party (UNP), one of the nation's two principal political parties and the traditional rival to the SLFP.

Yet Sirisena never really left the SLFP and Rajapaksa, who was elected to parliament in August 2015, didn't either. The recent parliamentary elections reveal that Rajapaksa, a very savvy politician, remains popular amongst ethnic Sinhalese, the majority community. Speculation about a pro-Rajapaksa party being formed has persisted for months and is expected to continue in the weeks ahead.

So, whose SLFP is it anyway? And how concerned should people be about Sirisena's inability to consolidate his position within the SLFP?

Colombo-based journalist Kusal Perera says that the current state of affairs between Sirisena and Rajapaksa "is a tug of war now for political power, beyond that of controlling the SLFP." Perera believes that Sirisena needs to have complete control over the SLFP in order to be in control of the government, and that his presidency would be "meaningless" if that doesn't happen.

This year Sri Lanka's coalition government is supposed to move beyond words and implement a diverse array of reforms -- from constitution-building to transitional justice. Yet the implementation of an extensive reform agenda -- a formidable task, even under the best of circumstances -- won't be possible if Sirisena is bogged down with internal SLFP struggles. Indeed, there were several instances in 2015 when it wasn't clear what mattered more to Sirisena: leading the SLFP or leading the country. While elected to do the latter, there were moments when he seemed far more interested in the former.

No matter how things play out, for Sri Lanka, 2016 will be another complicated year.