Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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UNP formation of National Democratic Front – lessons from CBK / UPFA

Posted by harimpeiris on August 8, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 07th August 2019)

The onset of the presidential election season has seen hectic political activity towards the formation of political alliances, aimed at creating coalitions which would be electorally viable in an essentially two-person presidential contest. Which will require the winning candidate to secure more than half the votes cast. A sophisticated electorate generally disregarding the also rans.

The past weekend saw the near birth of a UNP led National Democratic Front (NDF), which was ultimately still born, due to the protests of several UNP heavyweights and reformers, the sticking point seemingly the decision-making powers ceded to the NDF by the UNP. Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe who had been procrastinating on the formation of the Front, since the restoration of his government, after last October’s short lived constitutional coup Rajapakse administration, had moved into high gear in seeking to establish the Front, which also creates the political space and framework for a small SLFP breakaway group to formally join the UNP led alliance.

The concept of the NDF, which incidentally is the same name as the alliance which succeeded in electing Maithripala Sirisena as president in 2015, is essentially an attempt to formalize the remnants of the 2015 rainbow coalition, sans its successful candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who is engaged in talks at returning to the Rajapakse fold from whence he came. The political alliance between the SLPP and the SLFP is a more natural one, reflecting that the two parties, draw their support from essentially the same socio-political segments, largely a rural and suburban ethnic Sinhala constituency. Efforts however are underway within UNP circles to formalize the NDF constitution, the issues being a proxy for the underlying issue of who would be the UNP’s / NDF’s presidential candidate.

These efforts can draw some lessons from Sri Lanka’s recent political history, in the SLFP’s formation of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and its precursor the Peoples Alliance (PA), two / three decades ago. The SLFP had been languishing in opposition for seventeen long years prior to 1994, its leadership dominated by the iconic Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister, a leader in the likes of other great women political leaders like Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margret Thatcher. She lost the close contest of the 1989 presidential election, to Ranasinghe Premadasa, largely due to the electoral boycott enforced by the second JVP uprising, in much the same way as Ranil Wickremesinghe lost the closely fought 2005 election to Mahinda Rajapakse, largely due to the LTTE enforced boycott of that election.

But by 1994, sections of the SLFP was convinced that their icon of “Mathini” as she was fondly known was not a politically viable candidate for an electorate looking to the future and not the past. Then young SLFP stalwarts like current UNP front bencher Mangala Samaraweera, was instrumental in the formation of the Peoples Alliance (PA), which brought on board the traditional left parties of the LSSP, the CP and range of other smaller parties, which were instrumental in selecting Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as the Alliance’s presidential candidate and who consequently won the 1994 election with 62.25% of the popular vote, the record victory margin ever, which even Mahinda Rajapakse in 2010 could not eclipse, winning as he did with 57.8% of the vote at the zenith of his post war popularity.

In reality, the UNP will always dominate a political alliance or front its creates, in much the same way as the SLFP dominated the People’s Alliance and its successor the UPFA, in the manner in which the SLPP will always dominate the alliance it is in the process of creating and as a Northern example, the manner in which the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK / Federal Party), dominates the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), much to the chagrin of its smaller allies.

The real issue for the UNP is the choice of its presidential candidate. IN 1994, when the PA was formed, Madam Sirimavo was the choice of the old guard in the SLFP but the People’s Alliance (PA) partners were crucial in providing support for the young SLFP reformers to maneuver CBK as the presidential candidate. In the current situation for the UNP, seemingly the allies may be more comfortable with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, with whom they have worked together over the years, while UNP reformers may be looking ahead and hungry for change. The result is a proxy war over the NDF constitution, the real issue being the choice of candidate.

Sajith Premadasa has risen to the top as Deputy Leader of the UNP, by creating no enemies, causing no controversies and generally working hard in his constituency as an opposition MP, holding his own in the Rajapakses’ political backyard and then even harder as Housing Minister, seeking to realize his father’s vision of “shelter for all”. But, the political challenge for the UNP candidate is to be acceptable and attractive to a much more diverse constituency than the SLPP’s candidate, who is clearly targeting an election victory on a Sinhala only constituency, based on ethnic Sinhala nationalism. The UNP / NDF candidate will have to coalesce everybody else together to repeat in 2019, what was achieved in January 2015.

The UNP and its allies, with or without a formal alliance will face the 2019 presidential election with the considerable disadvantage of the anti-incumbency factor, which it did not have in 2015. Accordingly, the challenge for its candidate is greater than five years ago. It is well advised to gather all its allies in a big tent to create a viable coalition for the presidential election. A united opposition and a fractured government is a recipe for defeat which the Rajapakse’ experienced in 2015 and the UNP will be seeking to avoid in 2019.

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