Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2020
    M T W T F S S

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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