Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Will the UNP go the way of the SLFP

Posted by harimpeiris on December 19, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 16th December 2019)

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) today is in a particularly pathetic state. Pathetic because it has lost the constituency which it was representing for a half century of its existence. A proud history of being in government as well as the main opposition, providing the world’s first woman prime minister, Sri Lanka’s first and so far, only woman president and essentially having state power, either in entirety or in cohabitation or in coalition through the presidency, unbroken since 1994. However, the political dynamic shifted sometime during the past five years, with the leadership of the constituency, the SLFP represented shifting clearly and significantly away from Maithripala Sirisena and the SLFP to Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapakse and their new political vehicle the Sri Lanka Podujana Party, the (SLPP). Which consequently won the recent presidential election decisively, resulting in Gotabaya Rajapakse being elected president of the republic.

The prognosis for the opposition, led by the United National Party (UNP) is not good for the impending general elections to parliament. The newly appointed Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa has not been given to speculation about the general election, but has taken the position that he must be party leader to lead the party into the future. In contrast, the veteran UNP leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe who rather like the protagonist in the movie “The man who came to dinner” and was unable and unwilling to leave, seemingly strongly believes his retirement needs to be in the same vintage as his late uncle, former President Jayewardene, who retired in his early eighties. But then in his defense he was only at the helm for a much shorter period of time, not 25-years and came into both party leadership and governmental office at an older age. As a majority of the UNP parliamentary group contents, after 25 years at the helm of a political party and having decisively lost a national election, reorganizing the opposition political forces to be a viable alternative government in five years, time requires new executive leadership and requires it now. There are alternative party roles, such as a party Patron, more suited for an elder statesman, party counsellor role which Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe can and should play rather than seeking to lead the day to day affairs of the party, into three decades and more. For Ranil to take a page out of Nelson Mandela’s book, who after a single term as president of South Africa, gave up the national and party leadership, but continued to serve the African National Congress (ANC) by mentoring the second-tier leadership which took over.

However, Ranil Wickramasinghe has taken to publicly speculating about the impending general election and in his contention that should the UNP secure the same vote which Sajith Premadasa did at the presidential election, it would get one hundred and three seats. This is not just wishful thinking, it is inconceivable. Firstly, the presidential election was the real, government changing election, resulting in a high turnout under a “neutral” executive. The Parliamentary election would be under an SLPP government. The outcome of the parliamentary election would be considered a foregone conclusion by a politically astute electorate and the real question is by just how large a margin would the SLPP win. The turnout will decrease and largely by opposition supporters. Our electoral system favors the common symbol, so the SLPP and its allies contesting as Pohottuwa, will get the district bonus seat in16 or 17 districts, plus the lion’s share of the national list seats. The five and a half million votes of the NDF Swan in the November election, would be divided up to its constituency parts, at least the TNA contesting separately, if not the Muslim parties, resulting in a lower national list seats for the opposition as well. A two-thirds majority for the SLPP is not inconceivable and stopping that, would be the real challenge for the opposition.

The opposition constituency and the support base of the UNP is with Sajith Premadasa and not with Ranil Wickramasinghe. What Mr. Wickramasinghe has is a tight grip on the party’s legal structures. But what Maithripala Sirisena in the SLFP and even V. Anandasangari, undisputed leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) has learnt at their cost, is that a party machinery without that party’s support base is a pyric victory and a lonely road in the political wilderness. Looking up North, with the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the leadership of the Tamil United Liberation Front, was firmly in the grip of veteran leader and former MP, V. Anandasangari, who declined inter party democracy, resulting in the rest of the TULF resurrecting SJV Chelvanyagam’ s old Illankai Tamil Arasau Katchi (ITAK) and running the TNA, through the ITAK, not the TULF, which Mr. Anandasangari still controls to no political purpose.

The political future, the democratic opposition and the political alternative to the SLPP’s newly installed Rajapakse Administration, is Sajith Premadasa, his political allies and their support bases and constituencies. It would be desirable for that leadership to be through the vehicle of the United National Party (UNP). But if Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe refuses to concede to the inevitable, the desirable and the politically viable, Sajith Premadasa and his allies contesting under a new political alliance and symbol, will leave the old UNP under Ranil Wickramasinghe, in the same political boat as the SLFP under Sirisena, his partner in government of the last 5 years. A political nameboard, a history but no political support and no future.

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