Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Making the case for Sajith Premadasa

Posted by harimpeiris on July 8, 2010

UNP Reforms

Several days ago, the UNP reforms committee, headed by party senior and former speaker Joseph Michael Perera, handed over its report to long serving UNP and opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe. The reforms committee was the UNP’s response to its worst ever electoral showing in terms of percentage of the popular vote and resulted in relegating it to the opposition benches for the next half decade. In any democracy, the opposition has a vital role to play, essentially as a check and balance against attempted excesses of the government and hence the health and vitality of the UNP is of interest not only to its supporters but also to the general public.

The UNP has sunk to its nadir, with electoral support at 29.3% of the popular vote at the general elections of 2010. This was while contesting as the UNF with some minor allies in the upcountry area who delivered some votes and won some seats. But for purposes of political analysis there is no difference between the UNF and the UNP. Interestingly it was the minority voters of the Colombo District, more its’ Muslims rather than Tamil voters who stayed away from the polls and consequently the UNP failed to return a single Muslim MP from the Colombo District.

The UNP suffers now from a lack of electoral credibility. It cannot claim credibly nor is it seen to be a viable alternative or a “government in waiting” as the opposition is generally required to be in a democracy. This situation has arisen mainly because the UNP has been out of office for so long, essentially since 1994, baring a brief sojourn in an unwieldy cohabitation arrangement with the PA/UPFA in which it came off second best and got booted out by the electorate in little over two years.

Ranil must be responsible

There is a long tradition in Britain, from which Sri Lanka can trace its democratic inspirations and foundational institutions that when an election is lost, the leader of the losing party steps down. Even in the recent general elections in Britain which resulted in a hung parliament, Gordon Brown stepped down as Prime Minister, when it became apparent that while there were doubts as to who may have won the elections there was no doubts as to who had lost it. The UNP which is a member of the International Democratic Union, together with the Conservative Party of Britain, can take a page from their Conservative colleagues, whose leaders such as John Major and William Hague all stepped down as party leader after losing elections. While opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe cannot be held solely responsible for the dismal slide of the UNP, he must take or bear the responsibility and as the motto of his alma mater states, “disce aut discede” having failed to learn and deliver winning ways he must now depart. Having imbibed the best and learnt of books and learnt of men, he must now play the game, in the spirit and the way it must be played.

SLFP in a similar position

The SLFP and its longest serving leader and matriarch the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike found themselves in a similar situation in the early nineteen nineties. Having been trounced over a decade and half earlier in the general elections of 1977 it was relegated to third place in parliament behind the TULF. The SLFP clawed its way back and twelve years later in 1989, Ms.Bandaranaike was the losing candidate in a cliff hanger presidential election, which conducted at the height of the JVP insurgency, was neither free nor fair. In the ensuing general elections, thanks to proportional representation, the SLFP secured a more respectable parliamentary presence but was just not seen as a viable alternative government. As the 1993/94 electoral cycle approached, the SLFP had a choice to make. They could persist with the grand old dame, seeking to replay the close 1989 election but hope to secure a different outcome or they could seek someone who would be seen as a credible agent of change. Should they have persisted without a leadership change, Sri Lanka might have been cursed with a one party state, in which the UNP was the institutional ruling party.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka, then young SLFP turks such as Mangala Samaraweera, SB Dissanaike and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, persuaded a younger more energetic Bandaranaike and subsequently two term president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to take up the mantle of leadership as a fresh political face, a credible agent of chance and a harbinger of new thinking. The matriarch of the party was given due respect, a stateswoman like elevation and consequently served a third term as Prime Minister when the SLPF led People Alliance won the General Elections under Chandrika Kumaratunga’s leadership in 1994. The way the SLFP handled its leadership transition in 1993/94 and the respect and affection afforded to the former leader is surely a model for the UNP as it struggles to come out of the doldrums that it finds itself in.

The challenger Sajith

Sajith Premadasa comes from vintage UNP stock, the son of a late leader and former President. He did not have the luxury of cutting his teeth in politics while his father was at the height of his power but entered politics later and while blessed with a political heritage entered the party as a junior organizer and worked his way up the ranks through sheer hard work, persistence and creativity. In the 2000 general elections which the People Alliance (PA) won, Sajith was instrumental in going against the tide and ensuring a UNP victory over the Rajapakse led SLFP in the Hambanthota District and holding this lead in the 2001 general election and only conceding it in the general UNP drubbing in 2004 and 2010. Recognizing that the life of an opposition MP is hard, he used the Sajith Premadasa Foundation to good effect and did low cost but high impact social welfare work in Hambanthota, resulting in electoral benefit to himself and the UNP. After the periodic electoral defeats of the past while the UNP was going through convulsive self immolation, Sajith anchored himself in the party. When aspiring leaders such as Karu and Milinda engaged in palace coups and finally joined the UPFA, though Karu is now back in the UNP and Milinda was found unattractive by UPFA Colombo District voters, Sajith stayed firm in the UNP. Internal and other opinion polls show that Sajith is quite popular nationally and has a national following outside his own electoral district.

As the UNP considers its future, the electoral map of Sri Lanka is to paraphrase President Jayewardene rolled up for six (not ten) years till 2016. Hence the UNP really needs to select not only a leader just for the present but for the future, but one who can grow in stature with responsibility and lead the party into 2016 and beyond. The UNP needs a leader who can capture the public imagination, be a credible agent of change and yet promise stability and respect for tradition. One who is accepted by its’ own base but has an appeal that goes beyond it to that floating voter who decides elections in Sri Lanka, as in most other countries.  One finds it difficult to imagine Ranil in that role, but Sajith is an exciting prospect and the general public can await the outcome of the UNP reform committee’s recommended secret leadership ballot with some anticipation.

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