The United National Party (UNP) is in crisis. It is so obvious that not even the need to show a bold front would make anyone disagree. Obviously this is rather disappointing to UNPers. There are also those who, in the spirit of the needs of a vibrant democracy, lament the party’s decline because it doesn’t make for a robust Opposition. Such sentiments are usually made by party apologists. People who would feel shy about saying but would prefer the UNP to other political options.
When parties suffer an electoral defeat, even a slight one, there are whispers and even shouts such as ‘the party is over,’ ‘the party will not recover from this,’ and even ‘this is the end,’ and ‘let’s leave Sri Lanka!’ The truth is, there’s nothing to be too disappointed about. Sure, a resounding defeat in an election usually means a long sting in the Opposition. That can be disappointing for party activist, representative and loyalist. People want their people in power. That’s natural.
Being in the Opposition is part of the story. It’s not the end of the world. The The UNP was in the Opposition for seven years (1970-1077). SLFP and various parties aligned with it were in the Opposition for 17 years thereafter. Since 1994, the UNP has been in power twice (2001-2004) and (2015-2019), although the UNP-led governments had to manage things first with a hostile president (Chandrika Kumaratunga) and later with a dubious ‘friend,’ Maithripal Sirisena.
The thing is, parties don’t die easily. They are at death’s door but recover. They die but are re-born. Case in point: Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), now for all intents and purposes with a new name and address, ‘Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).’
In any event, the angst of a loyalist doesn’t really bother me. Political parties have collectively and individually messed things up big time. The rise and decline of such entities is not something to be sweat over. With respect to the UNP and it’s current dilemma, well, that’s something that could worry the UNP, UNPers, UNP voters and others whose lives and aspirations are associated with that party. Their business. How they handle it is up to them. What is pertinent is what they play indicates regarding impact on political equation.
The UNP’s rank and file are clearly disappointed with party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. For almost three decades the party didn’t have absolute control of Government. It is easy to blame it all on the leader. Indeed, that may be an important and even key reason for the ‘crisis.’ Perhaps this is why there was some euphoria when Sajith Premadasa was announced as the party’s presidential candidate. The sobering fact, however, is that if you take out the numbers of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, Sajith only succeeded in getting the UNP’s bloc vote and little more if at all.
Those subscribing to the notion ‘Anyone-but-Ranil,’ will nevertheless argue that Sajith didn’t really have absolute control of the party. Had he enjoyed such control would the result have been different? Would the margin of defeat have been less? We don’t know. What’s clear is that there’s a call for Ranil’s ouster. And the coronation of Sajith Premadasa as successor, we should add. Whether or not such an eventuality will bring about a change in the UNP’s political fortune only time will tell.
Let’s look at what happened? It was obvious that the UNP candidate would lose. The coalition that helped Maithripala Sirisena defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015 was in shambles. The government’s popularity was low, as indicated by the results of the local government elections on February 10, 2018. The principal opponent, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had the advantage of a well-oiled party machinery, the popularity of his own brother even though defeated and all the negatives associated with the UNP.
Knowing all this, Ranil acted ‘the democrat’ by nominating Sajith. He knew. Everyone but Sajith and a few others in the party as inept at reading the political, knew. Having lost, Sajith whined for the post of Leader of the Opposition. Ranil ‘conceded.’ Sajith, Leader of the Opposition. Sounds grand, but in a Parliament that’s almost done with its term and which rarely convenes, it’s a big-name-no-effect post.
Then, knowing parliamentary elections are going to be held very soon, Sajith and Co make a new push. Party Leader. Nothing less. They believed that had the numbers. They were probably correct. However, when the Working Committee met, Wickremesinghe left in a huff, along with his loyal General Secretary, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam. Those who remained grandiosely announced that Premadasa was elected leader. Wouldn’t hold in a court of law. A lot of noice. That’s about it.
Wickremesinghe re-convened the Working Committee armed with his trump, ‘Leaving in a Huff.’ He must have calculated that Premadasa and his supporters, seriously peeved, would not attend. They didn’t. In their absence the ‘Working Committee’ decides to nominate Premadasa as the leader not of the UNP but the UNP-led coalition, the United National Front (UNF) and as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Wickremesinghe knows that it would be a shocking result indeed if the SLPP were to lose the next parliamentary election. Defeat would make ‘prime ministerial candidate’ meaningless. Having suffered defeat at the presidential election and then ‘leading’ a party/coalition to another defeat, wouldn’t exactly give Premadasa’s profile any boost. ‘Another loser,’ is tag that probably ready for widespread use.
What’s important here is that Premadasa and his backers are all at sea when it comes to even a simple matter of doing the arithmetic pertaining to the party. They haven’t read or haven’t understood the party constitution. What could be of general public concern is that the UNP has a leader who just doesn’t believe in democracy and is not averse to the most pernicious of machinations to remain as party leader. Secondly, the UNP has a leader-aspirant and a set of backers whose political acumen is sophomoric.
Whichever way the UNP cookie crumbles, given these realities, it is optimistic to hope that the UNP could play the role of Opposition to any degree of satisfaction. There is a possibility of course that Sajith might do ‘A Mahinda’ (as in breakaway from the mau-pakshaya and drag the party’s rank and file with him), but Sajith is no Mahinda. Secondly, even if a Sajith-led faction best the UNP, pushing it to third place in a General Election, it won’t really cure him or would-be party of general political ignorance and immaturity.
It is, however, an interesting drama. We could sit back and watch, but it is certainly not an unfolding that could make anyone happy. Sophomoric oppositions embolden regimes and pushes them away from the people-friendly plains of the political. Not something to celebrate.
This article was first published in the Sunday Morning [February 2, 2020]