Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • August 2011
    M T W T F S S

Crisis within the UNP – Lessons from the SLFP’s Past

Posted by harimpeiris on August 25, 2011

The political drama of the past few weeks has been the leadership tussle within the opposition United National Party. The issue is of concern and relevance to not just UNP supporters but to all Sri Lankans, since the opposition in a democracy plays a crucial role as a check and balance on the government as well as presenting an alternative government when the next periodic election comes along, which in our case is the general election due in 2015. The consequences of the UNP’s internal conflict has been it inability to act as an effective check and balance on the government. Despite many issues, including corruption, poor governance and post war policies, on which the government should be held to account, the UNP has been almost solely preoccupied with its internal wrangles to the exclusion of matters of national importance.

1.     SLFP has been there before

The leadership challenge within the UNP is reminiscent of the situation the SLFP faced while in opposition. In the 1980’s the leadership of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike was challenged from within the SLFP. She survived that challenge but subsequently after the formation of the People’s Alliance, conceded the leadership to daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, without which transition, the SLFP would not have returned to government in 1994. The political compromise was essentially that Madam Sirimavo would continue as the grand lady of the party, her legacy and political retainers honored, while daughter CBK became PA party leader and presidential candidate. Former PA Minister Mangala Samaraweera, now a UNP front bencher and media coordinator was instrumental in that exercise and is an old hand at orchestrating leadership change in political parties, having been a key player in the SLFP’s most recent transition from CBK to Mahinda Rajapakse as well.

2. Ranil determined not to go

It is clear that opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe is determined that he will not depart gracefully but will do everything possible to hold on, at all costs. The costs are severe. The UNP’s popular voter base is stagnant. It is not eroding, because an anti government voter has nowhere else to go, the JVP having lost its luster subsequent to its own split with Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF and since the government co-opted the JVP’s nationalist politics as its own. Notwithstanding the UNP’s new constitution, there is little that is internally representative or democratic within the UNP. Colombo District and UNP dissident MP, Rosie Senanayake makes a very valid point when she states that the working committee (from which she was summarily kicked out by Ranil) is not really a representative body and is essentially a group of Ranil appointees, who are empowered to decide on the leadership. The Premadasa faction rally held last week was quite a success, the mobilization of several thousand’s being something the UNP has not in recent years being able to do, outside of elections. Ranil’s public spat with the MTV group is quite unbecoming. Since CBK days, it has been the desire of SLFP leaders to ensure that Ranil Wickramasinghe remains leader of the UNP, believing that his leadership of the UNP is the least threat to SLFP governance. Clearly the Rajapakse regime’s preferred Opposition Leader is Ranil.

3.     Some options for conflict resolution 

A discarded option which should be revisited is for Ranil to remain as Leader of the Opposition, while Karu Jayasuriya becomes the new party leader as a point of unity between the two factions. Now Ranil can leave with his head held high. A two time Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, a long serving UNP and Opposition leader, he can depart in the knowledge that he has fought a good fight and finished his course. But he will not. If he insists on staying, he should at least seek to seriously co-opt the Premadasa faction into the UNP’s decision making process. Carrying out a vindictive witch hunt against its members after Sajith Premadasa refused a leadership election was both unwise and unviable in opposition. It merely resulted in this fresh challenge. Government leaders can sack their detractors, but opposition leaders need to unify and create a broad coalition against the government.  Political parties in Britain from which the UNP draws inspiration, have democratic processes to challenge the party leadership and when general elections are lost, the losing party leader resigns. Ranil has observed this convention in the breech for too long.

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