Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Ranil consolidates – Lessons from Obama

Posted by harimpeiris on December 6, 2012

As the Rajapakse Presidency pushes ahead with its impeachment of the Chief Justice, UNP and Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe pulled off his own coup within the UNP. He convened a party convention which met on December 1st, amended its constitution to ensure that the UNP elects its leader only once in six years and not annually as at present. He also succeeded in according to himself the right to appoint the all the office bearers in the Party, with some minimal concurrence of the UNP’s Working Committee. Essentially Ranil is now entrenched as UNP leader till 2018, till much after the next presidential and parliamentary elections are due. Right after his Party election, Ranil gave a speech to the party faithful at the convention, that now secure as Party Leader he wants to take on the Rajapakse regime. He vowed to ensure a UNP administration by 2014.

The pledge of a UNP government by 2014 is driven by the considerable speculation in political circles that the next round of national elections or at least the presidential election due in 2016 would be under the 18th amendment and related Supreme Court decisions will be brought forward to 2014, to the advantage of the government. The rationale for this is that the UPFA administration is seeing a slow but steady erosion of its support and popularity. The recent provincial council elections demonstrated that despite the decks stacked in favor of the government and a lackluster underfunded UNP campaign with no prospect of a regime change, the UPFA percentage vote declined from the general elections of 2010 to the gain of the UNP. The UPFA demonstrates no interest, desire or capability to effect the governance and policy corrections which will change this trend and so essentially bringing forward the election is to go for elections at the constitutionally earliest possible moment to get another presidential term.

So with Ranil consolidated as UNP leader till 2018 and giving voice to the natural desire of the UNP faithful to see a UNP administration in office once again, here are some lessons and parallels from President Barrack Obama’s US experience, which might profit the UNP and its leader.

1.    People vote for a candidate not against an incumbent

It is a fact of political life that the uncommitted swing voter, defined as those with no fixed party loyalty and who hence decide national elections, tend largely to vote for a candidate rather than merely against someone. The Republican Bush administration in 2008 was at historically low approval ratings and the presidential election of that year was the Democrats to loose, but it was still necessary for the first African American candidate on a presidential ticket to define himself as a credible leader to the electorate. It is important for the swing voter, thinking about the future to understand what vision and direction is being proposed for the country and society as a whole. This is especially so in a country like Sri Lanka, when taking on a regime in power for close upon a decade and that represents some deeply  entrenched interests.

 2.    Complement the leader’s weaknesses

Candidate Obama recognizing his need to reach out to older white males, an electorate with whom he did very badly in his recent reelection effort this year, accordingly choose then Senator Joe Biden as his vice presidential nominee and running mate. Thereby picking  a person, who by his political persona and background could appeal too and reach out to this crucial electorate. Similarly ensure that the UNP leadership and team are not merely seen as an Urban Colombo preserve but include those that resonate with rural voters. It is for very valid political reasons and not due to personal chemistry or friendship that former President Jayewardene teamed up with Ranasinghe Premadasa as a two man act, to bring the UNP to power in 1977.

3.    Once the election is won, be inclusive.

President Obama after winning the US presidency in 2008, immediately tapped his primary election challenger and bitter critic Hilary Clinton to serve as Secretary of State. This not only served to unify the Democratic Party but also immediately consolidated his support with key democratic constituencies that had favored the former first lady and New York Senator. Similarly, Ranil should ensure sufficient political accommodation of UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa as a key part of the UNP challenge to the Rajapakse regime.  Not merely Sajith, but some of the key reformers are stalwarts in their own right. Rosy Senanayake, Ranjith Maddumabandara, Sujeeawa Senasinghe besides their own electorate would be important in attracting women, rural support and the youth vote.

4.    Do a major reform; commit to reintroduce the 17th amendment

President Obama after winning the 2008 election moved into the difficult but necessary task of health care reform in the USA. Targeting health care to the more than thirty five million Americans who were vulnerable and without adequate health care coverage. Today we have Obama care, which while not quite a great society initiative, certainly is a major and signature policy achievement  The Rajapakse regime is seeing a slow but steady slippage and facing considerable challenges in governance. From farmers and fishermen to teachers and university dons, there is dissatisfaction on governance issues. The Regime is paying a significant political price for its efforts to impeach the Chief Justice and while they will succeed, after all it just requires 113 MP’s voting according to the UPFA party whip, it will be at some political cost in legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. A major commitment on governance would attract broad support on a governance front and a UNP commitment to reintroduce the 17th amendment to the constitution and abolish the 18th amendment would be a good basis for a  core political message on governance and democracy.

Sri Lanka needs a strong two party system and an opposition that is a viable alternative government and an effective check and balance against excesses and abuses of power by the government of the day. If the Rajapakse regime is both authoritarian and dictatorial as both Ranil Wickramasinghe and Sajith Premadasa clearly stated at their recent Party convention, then perhaps they should give serious thought to what the UNP as the main Opposition party should do about it.

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