Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for January, 2020

The irrelevant UNP leadership struggle

Posted by harimpeiris on January 23, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 21st January 2020)

United National Party leader of over 25 years, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is obviously an avid baseball fan. Clearly believing that the rules of that quintessential American sport, applies to the UNP leadership states. In baseball, you need three strikes to be out. Mr. Wickremesinghe has already struck out twice. He lost the party’s nomination for the presidential election, something he sought and fought for until the eleventh hour. He subsequently also lost the attempt to be the leader of the opposition. Both these losses despite holding the levers of party power. Now, there is another rather irrelevant struggle to hold on to the UNP party leadership, for a last hurrah or curtain call performance from 2020 to 2024. It is also a struggle, he is likely to lose, simply because the dynamics that led to his two previous leadership defeats to Sajith Premadasa, still hold true.

Political support verses party structures

There is a basic dynamic at play with UNP and the opposition political dynamics. It is simply that the political forces, of the rainbow coalition which came together to help elect Maithripala Sirisena as president in 2015, ranging from the JHU to the TNA, in the form of the National Democratic Front (NDF) and lost the election in 2019, just do not believe, that Ranil Wickremesinghe is the man to either lead the political challenge to the newly installed SLPP Rajapaksa Administration and eventually present himself as the political alternative in November 2024. That is why they bit the bullet and opted for Sajith Premadasa, first as the presidential candidate and later as the leader of the opposition. It is also why, barring the TNA which will contest independently in its Northern and Eastern strongholds, the vast majority of UNP MPs and its allied parties will contest the general election, as an alliance under Sajith Premadasa’s leadership, whether he is UNP leader or not. The Sajith Premadasa led alliance will end up being the second largest party in parliament behind the ruling SLPP and consequently Sajith Premadasa, will be leader of the opposition in the new parliament as well.

The rump UNP as a possible fifth force

A UNP from which Sajith Premadasa and the allies have decamped, would be in much the same state, as the SLFP from which the Rajapaksas’ decamped in 2015 and formed the SLPP. The SLFP survived those five years from 2015 to 2019 because its leader, Maithripala Sirisena was the executive president. The UNP on the other hand, has just lost an election. Its rising star and future, is clearly the younger Premadasa. While he may not have won the election in 2019, he captured the imagination and the support of the non Rajapaksa political forces in the country. A political ground reality, which procedural manoeuvring by Wickremesinghe loyalists as current UNP party bosses cannot alter.

It leaves the UNP facing irrelevance and decimation subsequent to the next general election. Should it run a separate party list, distinct from the Premadasa led Alliance, it is likely at best to get a few seats, as a fifth force, behind the ruling SLPP, the Sajith Premadasa led opposition alliance, the TNA and the JVP. It will end up as a small fifth force in 2020 and irrelevant thereafter.

The DUNF experience in 1990

History has a weird way of repeating itself in Sri Lanka and not in altogether pleasant ways. In 1990, there was a major split in the UNP and on that occasion it was current UNP National Organizer and Karu Jayasuriya’s son-in-law, Navin Dissanayake’s father, Gamini, who together with Lalith Athulathmudali split from the UNP led at that time by Sajith’s father, late president Ranasinghe Premadasa and formed the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). It garnered 13% of the popular vote in its first electoral outing, eating into the then opposition SLFP’s voter base and died a natural political death in due course. The failure of the Dissanayake breakaway in 1990 was because the UNP had just won an election. For the same reason, the success of Sajith Premadasa breakaway in 2020 will be because the UNP has just lost an election.

Ranil’s governance vs Premadasa candidacy

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s inner circle believe that Sajith Premadasa’s unsuccessful presidential bid has weakened him within opposition and UNP circles. On the contrary, the candidacy has legitimized and solidified his leadership, irrespective of the outcome. However, the reason for Ranil Wickremesinghe failing to gain the presidential nomination and the opposition leader post is because almost universally in Sri Lanka, the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena from 2015 to 2019, was seen as a non-performer, which just did not deliver. This is more than just inefficiency. In seeking to woo the then opposition electorate, a divided government only managed to hamstring itself. Wickremesinghe’s last chance was probably the UNP government’s victory over the October 2018 constitutional coup. But rather than use the opportunity for a course correction in response to the UNP’s Local Government defeat in February 2018 he settled down for business as usual, resulting in the UNP defeat last November. A loss for which Ranil rather than Sajith gets the political blame.

Sajith Premadasa, largely escaped unscathed from the political vacillation and non-performance of the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe administration, both due to his very visible housing programme, together with a go getter approach to his Cabinet housing ministry and also because he was neither a member of Ranil’s inner circle nor an apologist for the non-performance. While not critical of his party leader in public, Sajith was silent and maintained his credibility. Hence the rather unanimous decision by the majority of the UNP parliamentary group and its allies to contest under a Sajith Premadasa led alliance at the forthcoming general elections. Ranil Wickremesinghe has already lost the political support of the UNP’s voter base and allies, though he retains the party’s namesake leadership. In baseball parlance, three strikes, you’re out!

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The Sirisena Presidency in retrospect

Posted by harimpeiris on January 9, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 08th January 2020)

January 8th 2020, marks the fifth anniversary of the election to office of Maithripala Sirisena as the sixth executive president of Sri Lanka, an occasion overshadowed by the recent election of his successor Gotabaya Rajapakse less than two months ago. With parliamentary and provincial elections due and expected by or before mid-year, it is worth reflecting on the Sirisena presidency and its impact on Sri Lankan society.

The current politicized election period has meant that the Sirisena presidency is viewed by how it ended. The unravelling of the rainbow coalition and the political alliance which elected Sirisena and its recent defeat at the presidential election. A president who strived to get re-nomination from both major political alliances and failed, the decline of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) into political irrelevance under his leadership and also for the bitter and counterproductive relationship between the president and his prime minster, Ranil Wickramasinghe, which ultimately contributed to impasse in governance and the stringing defeat of the centrist and moderate political forces, which elected them to office five years ago.

Currently former President Sirisena, seems intent on pursuing an active political future, as a parliamentarian and seeking to reorganize and re-energize the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) though at complete loggerheads with the matriarch of the party, former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The political struggle within the SLFP between Sirisena and CBK, is not about personalities, but a more fundamental one about the future direction of the SLFP. Former President Sirisena desires the SLFP to be an appendage of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), while the political objective of former President Kumaratunga is for the SLFP to be a dynamic party in the opposition and play an important role as a check and balance on the new SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration. It is clear that the distinct identity and political future of the SLFP is surer as an opposition political party, rather than being swallowed up as an irrelevant side show to the SLPP juggernaut.

However, the Sirisena presidency, in 2015 started off with much promise. Beginning from its political platform of good governance. The good governance platform was especially meaningful, because it was a civic basis for a political alliance and not parochial or identity-based politics as much of Sri Lankan politics tends to be. Due to the very fact that the rainbow coalition, did not play on identity politics but was an unlikely alliance between such disparate forces as the JHU on the one side and the TNA on the other side, including the UNP and the Muslim parties, political pundits in 2014 did not credit the hastily patched together grand opposition alliance with much chance of winning the election. But five years ago, they did. It was a victory based on ideas and not identity. That was significant.

There were some notable gains in the early years and seeking to fulfil the promises of good governance made to the electorate during the election campaign. Foremost among these gains, is the 19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, which re-established the independent commissions, reduced the discretionary powers of the president and reintroduced term limits for the office of the executive president, among other democratic governance strengthening measures. While the 19th amendment has come in for criticism of late, including by President Sirisena, it remains an important piece of constitutional reform, perhaps even in the traditions of the Magna Carta in Britain, which reduced the absolute powers of the British monarchs and was an important step towards constitutional governance as opposed to an absolute monarchy in Britain.

However, the 19th Amendment was not the Sirisena Administration’s sole achievement. The Right to Information (RTI) Act, the release of private lands back to their owners in the North and East occupied by the military during the conflict, the resettlement of the conflict related internally displaced persons (IDPs), the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and a Reparations Office as part of the post war reconciliation process. The rebalancing of foreign relations from a China centric policy and the opening up of democratic space, the institutionalizing of judicial independence and greater media freedom. The then Joint Opposition (JO) political forces, elected to government in last November’s presidential election in the shape and form of the SLPP, may well relook at these and many other reforms effected by the previous government, with a view to rolling back the clock and indeed they may well succeed. Especially if the upcoming parliamentary election puts the SLPP government within sight of the constitution amending two third majority it seeks. However, this does not detract from the significance or the value of the above-mentioned civic policy platform and governance reforms effected by the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration during its period of office.

The unravelling of the Sirisena presidency probably began with the miscalculation by both Sirisena and especially then premier Wickramasinghe, that the Rajapakses defeated in the 2015 election were politically down and out. Down they certainly were in 2015, but out they certainly were not, even then. The change in the political equation from the two way contest between the Rajapakse led political forces and the rest, to a three cornered one between Sirisena, Wickramasinghe and former president Mahinda Rajapakse, resulted in a divided government, an opposition unified under the Rajapakses and directly led to the decisive victory of the SLPP in the November presidential election, once again placing the nation under the leadership of the political first family from Medamullane, who are now elected to govern for the next five years and likely to do so with an iron fist inside a velvet glove.

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