Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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The UNF loss and looking ahead

Posted by harimpeiris on December 4, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 04th December 2019)

Two weeks after Sri Lankans elected a new president and consequently also received a new prime minister and government, and it is time for the United National Party (UNP) to take stock of the situation, their new found but not entirely unfamiliar role as the main opposition party, and devise a strategy to be both a democratic opposition playing a vital role as a check and balance on the executive and eventually, five years hence a viable alternative government.

The first rather self-evident truth is that the electorate will not change its mind in a few months’ time, and accordingly the SLPP administration is guaranteed a win at the forthcoming parliamentary elections, early next year. In fact, the real challenge for the UNP would be to prevent the SLPP from securing a two-thirds majority in parliament, and thereby being able to effect constitutional reforms without consulting and accommodating multi-party views and multi-stakeholder interests. A nation’s Constitution is more than the supreme law of the land; it is a social compact between peoples and between the people and the state, which therefore requires a high degree of consensus and acceptance, especially in non-homogeneous societies. Accordingly, it is ideal if constitutional reform is affected with consensus. A feature of the now somewhat maligned 19th amendment being that it was passed in 2015 after significant debate, consultations and with near unanimity and with no opposition in parliament.

IMF mandated austerity and low GDP growth

The UNF government ended after a single term, a term in which it saw support slip away precipitously by mid-term. The February 2018 local government elections made that very clear. There was a surprising renaissance of sorts after the October 2018 constitutional putsch and the resultant very short lived UPFA administration, which was subsequently deemed ultra vires the constitution by the superior courts. However, the UNF, after the LG elections or after the October surprise, did not engage in any serious course correction. Resulting in a significant loss of voter support from 2015 to 2019, specifically from 52% to 42% of the national vote. In fact, a far greater voter decline than what the UPFA suffered for a similar period, which from 2010 to 2015 went down from 55% to 48% and two weeks ago, came back up strongly to 52% in the shape and form of the SLPP.

The defining economic aspect about the UNF’s period of office, was the austerity measures adopted under the IMF’s tutelage, which essentially saw taxes raised and cut backs not so much in welfare spending but in public investment, resulting in the approximate GDP growth under the UNF government ranging from a meagre 3.5% to a dismal 2.5%, this in the context Sri Lanka’s war time twenty year growth average being 5%. The belt tightening was only eased at the last moment by former Finance Minister Samaraweera’s various development programmes, but these obviously came too late to impact the grassroots before the elections. Around the world, the IMF mandated austerity programmes have caused popular discontent against generally liberal minded governments that implement them. Governments went to the IMF in the first place, because of belief and trust in their benign intent and policy prescriptions. The result of the high taxes and low growth UNF government is that we now have an SLPP government which was able to cut taxes immediately upon winning office, would likely kick out the IMF, be bailed out by China, albeit at a price, and to put it very mildly, be considerably less liberal than its predecessor.

Looking ahead for the UNP

It was Ambassador Javid Yusuf, who in his popular column in a leading Sunday broadsheet, argued essentially that the UNF should take a page out of the Rajapaksa script from 2015 and regroup and plan ahead for a comeback five years from now. To their credit, Sri Lanka’s premier political and now recently re-elected first family, made some adroit political moves over a five-year period to stage a comprehensive comeback in 2019, after their shock defeat in 2015. A new political party was formed, a leadership succession plan adopted to deal with the term limits barring PM Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting the presidency. There was grassroot mobilization through the fledgling SLPP, still Sri Lanka’s newest and now ruling political party, but equally importantly also an organizing of political society around business circles, professionals and civil society through the Eliya and Viyath Maga organisations. Basically, the UNP would have to do much the same.

The rather obvious issue of reorganising the UNP first as a responsible and democratic opposition party and later to be a viable alternative government would be the leadership of the opposition. The UNP is led by the longest ever serving leader of a democratic political party and the longest serving party leader in the International Democratic Union (IDU), that international union of conservative parties to which the UNP belongs. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been leader of the UNP since 1994 or for twenty-five (25) years. In contrast the Conservative Party of the UK has had six (6) leaders during this time. Perhaps the UNP as part of its reforms should consider term limits for its own party leader. Perhaps a 15-year period or until two terms of elected office is over, whichever comes later. Sajith Premadasa played a bad hand really well, and picked up the UNP from the doldrums to a respectable 42%. This is seemingly why a vast majority of the UNP parliamentary group have written to the Speaker that they believe the UNP should be led both in parliament and in the country by Sajith Premadasa. This will eventually happen. The real question is when?

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