COLOMBO: A bold and confident bid by dissidents in the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to unite rivals Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa, suffered a setback on Tuesday when they failed to get “common candidate” Dr.Sudarshani Fernandopulle elected to the post of Deputy Speaker of Parliament.

While the attempt ended with a glimmer of hope, the result was surprising and indeed disappointing. Dr.Sudarshani should have got 90 plus votes, if the rivals, Sirisena and Rajapaksa had voted together as expected. But she got only 53.

The United National Party’s candidate, Ananda Kumarasiri, got 97 votes and won convincingly.

Many MPs of the 224-strong House did not participate in the voting leaving a grey area which left everyone guessing about the future of the unity move.

Before the voting, SLFP (S) dissident leader S.B.Dissanayake had announced that Dr.Sudarshani would be the common candidate of the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions. A leading follower of Rajapaksa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, had seconded the name of Dr.Sudarshani. But voting showed that there was no unity.

Those SLFP MPs who had stuck to Sirisena had decided to vote for the United National Party (UNP) candidate Kumarasiri as he was part of the ruling alliance between SLFP (Sirisena) and the UNP.

Thus, the ploy of the 16 SLFP dissidents to unify the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions and split from the alliance with the UNP backfired.

According to political observers, the unity move has some miles to go before it can claim any real progress.

Neither the Rajapaksa nor the Sirisena faction wants to rush into unification. Any serious moves, one way or the other, will be made only before the next major elections.

Some Provincial elections are expected to be held later this year. The Presidential election is due in January 2020 and parliamentary elections are to be held in August 2020.

In the meantime, President Sirisena would like to fully utilize his position as the Executive President of Sri Lanka to garner support for his faction and beef up its strength before going for a link up with Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, in turn, would also like to make use of his growing popularity to get the best bargain in a unified SLFP.

As a Hill Country Tamil MP said, Rajapaksa would have made a serious efforts to get Dr.Sudarshani elected if she had been from his faction, which is now known as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or SLPP. But she was not.

Sudarshani had broken away from Rajapaksa and joined Sirisena. But after the SLFP (Sirisena) got a drubbing at the hands of the SLPP in the February 10 local bodies elections, she became a rebel and a votary of unification with the Rajapaksa faction.

It is said that Rajapaksa will not admit the rebels at any cost. He will have his conditions some of which may hurt the dissidents’ egos. By getting Dr.Sudarshani defeated, Rajapaksa was conveying the message that the rebels cannot take his support for granted.

Meanwhile, Daily Mirror reported that the 16 rebels are themselves a divided house, with some saying that it is too early to move away from Sirisena and that a low profile and thoughtful actions are called for.

Be that as it may, the SLFP (Sirisena)-UNP alliance continues to be rickety. There are sharp ideological differences. While the Sirisena group is leftist, nationalistic, and somewhat Sinhalese- majoritarian in its thinking, the UNP is a neo-liberal, Right of Center and pro-West party.

There have been clashes over policy and decisions since the National Unity Government (UNG), comprising the SLFP( S) and the UNP, came into being in January 2015. The President, who heads SLFP (S), has revered many decisions of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe who heads the UNP.

The absence of unity in the “National Unity Government” led to a policy and administrative paralysis which made the NUG government unpopular. Its unpopularity was reflected in the February 10, 2018 local bodies elections, in which the SLFP (S) and the UNP were severely mauled by Rajapaksa’s SLPP.

The election defeat led to a mild revolt in the UNP against its Supremo, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. But it was soon quashed by promises of policy changes.

The defeat’s impact on the SLFP (S) was greater as it came a poor third in the elections. Sirisena’s followers blamed the alliance with the UNP and the premiership of Wickremesinghe for the electoral debacle. They wanted President Sirisena to sack Wickremesinghe.

But when Sirisena said that the 19th. Amendment of the constitution enacted in 2015 had taken away the President’s power to sack the Prime Minister, the dissidents, numbering 16 MPs including cabinet ministers, walked out of the government side in parliament and sat with the opposition.

But they insisted that they were still SLFP members and would work for the unification of the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions with the aim of setting up an SLFP-led government without the right wing UNP.