26 April 2018

Is the SLFP about to scream 'Mayday! Mayday'?

"I surrender" might be a consideration

‘Mayday’ is a signal. The term indicates a life-threatening emergency usually used by aviators and mariners, but also in some countries by firefighters and other working in difficult conditions. Apparently it was coined by a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport, London in 1923. He had bene asked to come up with a ‘distress-indicating word’ and had drawn it from the French word m’aider which means ‘help me’.

‘It is unrelated to the holiday May Day,’ Wikipedia notes. May Day predates Mayday, and conspiracy theorists may very well say that it was pernicious twist. May Day has rarely distressed anyone, especially the capitalist class. Indeed, one might even say that the capitalist class has appropriated May Day through political parties that by and large take care of their interests. 

This year won’t be different in this sense, and yet for at least a couple of reasons May Day 2018 will be quite unlike May Days of the past. 

‘May Day not being on the 1st of May feels strange,’ many have said. ‘May Day’ however is International Workers’ Day, where workers all over the world, in and out of unions, in and out of political parties, talk about the distance traveled and the distance to be traveled, so to speak. 

What’s important is that it is a single day that’s set aside to celebrate labor and workers, talk about conditions of work exploitation, articulate grievances and discuss what needs to be done.  Well, in Sri Lanka, that’s not what happens in the main, but let’s put that aside. 

It’s a single day. It’s as if ‘labor’ counts only on a single day, which of course is all rubbish.  So, one could argue, if it’s just a single day and if it is close to meaningless, it shouldn’t matter when May Day is held, in May or in another month, or whether it is held on the 1st of January, the 31st of December or the 28th of February.  

Those who are religious about May Day have objected, and that says a lot about the status of the working class movement and the Left in this country. In short, they are religious about May Day, i.e. the trappings, and are clueless about the conditions of exploitation.  
May Day 2018 is strange for another reason and one which makes us think of ‘Mayday! Mayday’. Let us say it in the form of a question: will the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) hold a May Day rally this year? 

In 2017, the Yahapalana Government, which seemed less watery in terms of cohesion than it is now, threw a challenge to the Joint Opposition (JO): ‘we will let you have the biggest open space in Colombo, Galle Face — try filling it!’ The JO was essentially a breakaway faction of the SLFP. The ‘mother party’ decided to do its thing in Kandy. The JO took up the challenge and drew unprecedented crowds to the Galle Face. It was an even bigger show than their rally a year before in Kirulapona.  

If that was an indication of slippage in the SLFP’s and especially President Mairhtipala Sirisena’s political fortunes, the true dimensions were realized on February 10, 2018.  Sirisena’s share of the party, so to say, diminished to the point that his faction, the official SLFP, could hardly muster 15% of the total vote at the local government elections.  

Further erosion was evidenced when 16 SLFPers who officially sided with Sirisena supported the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on April 5, 2018.  Today, they are threatening to organize a separate May Day rally if the party leadership does not move to replace certain office-bearers.  Whether they can do it is not relevant here. What’s pertinent is that as we write, just two weeks before the official May Day (May 7), the SLFP does not seem to be in any position to do the show-of-force number that May Day has traditionally been. 

Apparently a committee has been appointed to organize the event, this time in Batticaloa. From Hyde Park to Kandy to Batticaloa might sound like a retreat to some

The JO is to have it’s May Day rally in Galle this year. ‘Retreat’ cannot be applied to this ‘distancing’ from Colombo simply because the JO is in consolidation mode. Their numbers increased in Parliament and they are well ahead outside. In all likelihood, they will put up the best show this ‘May Day’.

Some UNPers are cock-a-hoop over their leader surviving the no-confidence motion, but they’ve failed to understand that this ‘victory’ came from a parliamentary composition that inflates considerably the voter-sentiment as evidenced on February 10. They’ve moved from Campbell Park to Sugathadasa Stadium.

More importantly, the entire exercise has driven the key coalition partner, the SLFP and its leader Sirisena, into a serious identity crisis. They are not sure if they are part of the government or not, whether they should or should not be in the government. 

Sirisena, whose tenure has been marked by tremendous efforts to be accepted as the leader of the SLFP (not just in name), doesn’t have a party to speak of. It’s as though the SLFP has upped and left its official residence on Darley Road.  The party office remains, but the building is all but empty. We will know for sure when the show is over. There will be some chest-beating and bravado. No one will actually blurt out ‘Mayday! Mayday! and not just on account of language preferences, but the distress signs are so unmistakable that cries for help are not necessary.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com