Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Sajith unveils a social justice with security platform

Posted by harimpeiris on October 7, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 03rd October 2019)

Sajith Premadasa finally clinched the governing UNP’s nomination for the presidential election through the formal decision of the UNP’s Working Committee and that decision is to be ratified at their annual convention scheduled for 3rd October. The election itself is only a short six weeks away, the Election Commission having issued the gazette for the date of polling as 16th November 2019.

A UNP younger generation takes over

Soon after clinching the nomination, the basic framework of the political pitch and path of Minister and presidential candidate Premadasa are taking shape and it is fascinating to examine not least because in six weeks’ time, it could probably be government policy. Firstly, it is clear that a new younger generation of UNP leaders have finally come to their own within that grand old party. That much like his late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa, succeeded the longtime UNP leadership of President JR Jayawardena, that Sri Lankan history repeats itself thirty years later, when President Jayewardene’s nephew and political heir Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe hands over the baton to Sajith Premadasa, the clear political heir of his late father. While the UNP’s party leadership will remain with Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, presumably for as long as he wants it, it is clear that a new younger generation of leadership has taken over.

Regarding the presidential election contest at barely 52 years of age, Minister Premadasa is almost two decades younger than his 70-year-old opponent from the Rajapakse camp and only the second youngest candidate, where former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was in her forties in the early nineteen nineties.

Social Justice with Security

The foundation of Sajith Premadasa’s political program is the path of social justice and social democracy. Like his late father before him, Sajith Premadasa articulates a vision for a future Sri Lanka, where the top two percentiles of the populations do not receive over half the national income, while the lowest two percentiles, languish at around five percent. A policy focus on investment in human capital and social infrastructure, is articulated to ensure economic growth with social justice.

Candidate Premadasa, the political machine around him, the UNF’s allied other parties and of course his own party the UNP, are exuding confidence. They believe that the election is theirs to lose. The rationale is not hard to see. The Rajapaksa’s and their political machine in 2015 lost the presidential and the subsequent parliamentary elections despite high doses of Sinhala nationalism and unabashed abuse of state power and resources. The political formulae of 2015 was Rajapakse verses the rest. Candidate Premadasa recognizes that the opposition and his chief rival Gotabaya Rajapakse is clearly following an electoral strategy of solely targeting the Sinhala Buddhist voter. It would be impossible to eat into Rajapaksa’s voter base by being more Sinhala Buddhist nationalist than the Rajapaksa’s and also simultaneously appeal to other communities. It’s a political tight rope walk requiring a careful political balance and Premadasa seems to relish the challenge. To win candidate Premadasa must wean off a small section of the Rajapakse support base and then unify the rest of the electorate baring the JVP’s 5% of the national vote. The UNP voter base has historically been more ethnically and religiously diverse, than its opponents and the UNP even at its low points was still winning parliamentary representation from Jaffna District in their own right and always electing UNP Muslim members.

A track record to go by

Minister Sajith Premadasa is clearly pitching his track record as a member of Parliament and as a Minister of Housing as an indicator and track record that people can trust. He correctly and clearly claims that his ministry has been run without family bandyism and involving his relatives in his government work, while his housing schemes and ministerial programs have been implemented without fear or favor including large swathes of it in the former conflict areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces. He is also, again rather like his father somewhat of a workaholic and is and has been extremely hard working as a minister. He is likely to be a very hands on president, ably assisted by the team around him.

Politically Candidate Premadasa senses the weaknesses in his principal opponent in terms of the lack of political experience and the negative aspects of his opponent’s track record. The Defense Ministry is not the place where you learn to consult and compromise to reach consensus, an essential feature in a democracy and a trait very visibly lacking in his opponent’s campaign and camp. Most recently it was SLFP stalwart from the Kalutara District Kumara Welgama who again mentioned his fear about the return of the white van culture, while slain newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter has initiated legal proceedings against Gotabaya Rajapakse in US courts.

The Rajapaksa’s through the SLPP secured about 40% of the national vote in the February 2018 election. But the political sheen and ascendency of the Rajapaksa political machine was clearly severely dented by the failed constitutional coup and the short lived third Mahinda Rajapakse government of 52 days, a prime minster who never once stepped into Parliament and lost the first of several no confidence votes within days of being appointed. So the conventional wisdom would have it, that the election is currently a tie within the statistical margin of error, between the UNP nominee Minister Sajith Premadasa, set to contest under the Swan symbol and banner of the National Democratic Front and the SLPP nominee of the former defense secretary and brother number two Gotabaya Rajapakse, with the election likely to be decided by the large number of uncommitted and undecided voters.

Somehow one gets the feel, that Sajith Premadasa is the centrist and moderate candidate who will be the pick of the currently undecided and uncommitted voters who will be the deciding factor in the November election.


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TNA and late attempt to abolish Executive Presidency

Posted by harimpeiris on September 25, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 23rd September 2019)

At the tail end of the term of office of Maithripala Sirisena as President and after the independent Elections Commission had called nominations for election to the office of president, a special cabinet meeting was summoned last week to discuss the issue of Government support for the JVP’s proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution, which sought to abolish the executive presidency. While late in the president’s term and better late than never, the timing of the initiative in the heat of the nomination battle reduced elite support for the proposal. However, while much debate has ensured whether Cabinet was summoned by the President or the Prime Minister, the timing was an exploration as to whether the three leaders in Sri Lanka, Maithri, Ranil and Mahinda, may well find it in their political interests to abolish the executive presidency and fight it out for the post of Prime Minister next year, an arena in which they are all entitled and well able to. The substantive issue however was the joint effort of the JVP as the initiators of the 20th Amendment and the TNA as the drivers for constitutional reform in Sri Lanka, including the crucial reform or abolition of the executive presidency.

A consensus since 1994

The issue of abolishing the executive presidency, first introduced by J.R. Jayewardena in the second republican constitution of 1978, arose after just three terms when by the 1994 presidential election, then candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, swore to seek the abolition of the executive presidency and reform what she pithily terms in Sinhala, the “bahu butha viyawasthawa” loosely translated as the constitution of many demons, the chief offender being the centralized power in the executive president and the consequent weakening of other institutions of government. President Kumaratunga did her share of the work to keep her word, introducing a draft new constitution to Parliament, in August 2000, and her government with a single seat majority, after UNP crossovers, came just eight votes short of securing the required a two-thirds majority. Back then in 2000, the TNA, due to death threats by the LTTE on TNA leaders, well remembering the supreme price paid by their predecessors from Appaapilai Amirthalingam to Neelan Tiruchelvam, refused to support the measure. If they had, Sri Lanka’s recent history would have been quite different. For the past two decades since the year 2000, both the Mahinda Chinthanaya and the public mandated manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena have pledged to abolish the executive presidency. Mahinda Rajapaksa cynically went in the opposite direction to his own pledges and further strengthened the executive presidency by abolishing term limits through the 18th amendment, while on the contrary President Maithripala Sirisena’s crowning glory, which he paradoxically seemingly rues now, is the 19th amendment, which significantly reduced the powers of the presidency, making it a semi-executive presidency.

The TNA support for the 2015 mandate

Nationalist elements in both the Sinhala and Tamil polities have been attacking the TNA and its seeming strategy of working within and defending the mandate of 2015, using terminology such as UNP proxy about the TNA. They aim much of their ire on the TNA’s human rights and constitutional law expert MA Sumanthiran, who stands head and shoulders above the younger Tamil leaders and the only one with a non-militant past. The TNA was decisive in the Rajapaksa defeat, beginning with the defeat of the “Divi Neguma” bill in the Eastern Provincial Council, then staunchly defending the consequently sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, with Sumanthiran as her lead counsel and finally, in January 2015, ensuring that the 750,000 majority for Maithripala Sirisena, erased his deficit in the other provinces to enable him to win the election. Again, in October 2018, when the constitutional coup was launched and Mahinda Rajapaksa made his short-lived return through the political backdoor as it were, the TNA was the kingmaker in parliament and instrumental in swinging the balance of power towards embattled and unconstitutionally sacked Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. For this staunch commitment to the moderate centre, the TNA and Sumanthiran has been labelled pro-UNP. However, the TNA is actually pro, a set of pragmatic political principles, while representing an ethnic minority as a regional political party. The abolition of the executive presidency is one such pragmatic principle. A political position that has much support in the country, irrespective of ethnicity, requiring every successful president since 1994, to pledge a commitment to abolishing or at least radically reforming that office. The TNA has quite wisely and correctly decided that Tamil rights can be ensured within a staunchly democratic (and indeed undivided) Sri Lanka and to that end promote efforts to strengthen and develop Sri Lankan democracy, which even Sinhala politicians would concede require much improvement. Any democratic and free society, requires a constant safeguarding of its citizens democratic, human rights and freedoms.

The JVP and the TNA, as effective left and regional parties

The JVP, with about 6% of the national vote and the TNA with a little less, are both very effective as a moderate and centre force in Sri Lankan national politics. Together, they combine to make a decisive 10% or more of the national electorate and though their voice is not amplified by a mass media prone to highlight nationalist voices, for readership and viewership purposes, they are significant political players in their own right in national life and the two major political blocs have to deal with that reality, which their leaders well understand. The UNP, understands and internalizes this much more than the SLPP / SLFP since the UNP support base is more diverse and less ethno centric. The JVP has come a long way since its two armed insurrections and the passing of the leadership from the old school and discredited past of Somawansa Amarasinghe to the younger generation of Anura Kumara Dissanayake saw the JVP’s best ever national electoral effort in February 2018, giving it the political courage to both introduce the 20th Amendment to the constitution and to run their leader for president.

The TNA’s decade long, post war, political journey has been equally if not more impressive. Led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan, the ITAK with its TNA allies mostly in toe, now sans the EPRLF (Suresh faction), adroitly moved into the political vacuum created by the demise of the LTTE and relatively established itself as a player in Sri Lankan national politics. Tamil nationalist voices, ensconced in either Jaffna or in isolated pockets in the Diaspora have disingenuously and have somewhat unkindly questioned as to what the TNA has achieved for the Tamil people, after a decade of democratic politics, from 2009 to 2019. However, these same voices never use the same yardstick to question as what three decades of armed struggle from 1983 to 2009, achieved or did not achieve for the Tamil people, especially an armed struggle that finally rejected power sharing and democracy including dissent and the rights of a child.

With the JVP running its third-party presidential candidacy and hence moving the left vote away from being decisive at the presidential election, the TNA’s command and sway over the Tamil vote in the North and East, like in 2015 may well end up being decisive in the 2019 presidential election. In the parliament to be elected in 2020, again like in 2015, in a close and potentially hung Parliament, the TNA votes may be crucial in deciding who the next Prime Minister of Sri Lanka would be. It was Wimal Weerawansa who in the year 2000, then as JVP spokesman, famously coined the phrase, the political remote control, meaning decision making power, was in their hands. Since 2015, we may well be in a medium-term situation where the remote controlled has moved away, from the JVP to the TNA, or at least at a minimum, it is shared between the two parties. It is a good check and balance on overreach and extremist tendencies by either of the two major political parties in Sri Lanka.

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The SLFP crafting a third way

Posted by harimpeiris on September 17, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 15th September 2019)

It was the political scientist and theorist Anthony Giddens who coined the term, a third way, to describe a political alternative between the conservative right and the socialist left, a middle ground that avoided either the extremes of neo-liberalism or the dogmas of Marxist class struggle. Listening to President Maithripala Sirisena, most recently at the SLFP’s annual party convention at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium and in other public comments subsequently, the President as the leader of the SLFP has been making some effort to articulate a political position which is seemingly distinct from either the governing UNP or the main opposition SLPP. With presidential elections around the corner and parliamentary and provincial polls also due subsequently, the potential political space for the SLFP deserves examination. The SLFP though seeking an alliance with either the SLPP and reportedly even the UNP, under a possible Premadasa candidacy, is also exploring the option articulated by President Sirisena of sitting out the presidential poll and launching themselves into the subsequent parliamentary elections.

Could an independent SLFP break the two-party system?

Sri Lanka has long had a two-party system and our presidential system of government, has only served to solidify that trend. However, both the two major parties the UNP and the SLFP had seen it necessary to incorporate and form alliances and coalitions to win elections and establish administrations, both parliamentary and presidential, the existence of the UPFA and the UNF being the most recent examples. President Sirisena himself won the presidency at the helm of a multi-party coalition which styled itself the National Democratic Front (NDF). The UNP is currently in talks with its governing allies to form an alliance for the upcoming presidential elections. The choice of their presidential candidate being perhaps the sticking point in the formation of that alliance.

Sri Lanka’s most recent election was the local government elections of February 2018 and it demonstrated a significantly diversified electoral landscape, where essentially the SLPP emerged as the largest party with 40% of the vote, the UNP a poor second with 30%, the SLFP a creditable third with 13%, the JVP next with 6% and the TNA fifth with 3% of the vote, the other minor parties and independents, accounting for the balance. The February 2018 election results could be read in different ways. A charitable explanation was that the 52% polled by President Sirisena as the NDF candidate, demonstrated its constituent parts once broken down, when the votes of the UNP, SLFP, JVP & TNA was combined, making it 52% of the vote. Interestingly, should this coalition have held together, which of course it didn’t and hasn’t, it would like in 2015, be a winning alliance for the presidential poll.

The JVP has, as have many left parties in the world, and like the CPI (M) in neighbouring India, sought to be an ideologically driven third political force in national politics, an alternative to a two-party system. It is accordingly a credit to the SLFP that it beat the JVP and emerged as the third force in 2018. Now while many might plausibly have thought the SLFP would be 2nd largest party and the SLPP the 3rd, the reality was that the SLPP, formed by the anti-government elements of the SLFP, had by 2018, captured the major opposition political space in Sri Lanka. Not least through its own self-styled name and brand of the “joint opposition” (JO), it moved into the political vacuum of the dissenting voices against the “Yahapalana” administration. The SLFP in the presidency and also holding cabinet posts could not successfully run with the hare and hunt with the hound, be simultaneously in the government and occupy the opposition space at the same time. The vacuum it created was filled by the SLPP.

No room for a non-Rajapakse leadership of SLPP

Today, the SLFP which ended its alliance with the UNP government, just before last October’s constitutional coup, has quite correctly despite numerous efforts failed to enter into a successful alliance with the SLPP. This is unsurprising and the SLFP should be cautious in seeking an alliance for the presidential election, a poll in which it may not field a candidate.

SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera has been the most vocal of all the current crop of SLFP leaders, in arguing for a radical independence from both the UNP and the SLPP and also is quite critical of the SLPP. Both President Sirisena and General Secretary Jayasekera believe and have articulated that the SLFP, though coming in a distant third, would well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament after the next general elections and accordingly will be king makers and an influential political player.

A major obstacle for an alliance between the SLPP and the SLFP lies in the Rajapakse family domination of the SLPP. The SLPP is the political vehicle of the Rajapakse clan. Its leader is Mahinda Rajapakse, the presidential candidate is brother Gotabaya, the party convener is brother number one Basil, the heir apparent is son Namal and the patron is elder brother Chamal leaving not much room for any other politician to blossom or spread their wings. During the previous two terms of the Rajapakse Administration, senior SLFP leaders at the national level like Maithripala Sirisena himself or Nimal Siripala and provincial leaders like late Berty Premalal Dissanayake or MKDS Gunawardena, found themselves not just shut out from the system, but actively politically undermined in their home turfs, by challengers supported by the party leadership. Senior politicians realise that there is a certain glass ceiling which exists within the SLPP if you’re not a member of the clan. It would be unwise for President Sirisena, running down the period of his single term presidency, to blindly support the political forces against whom he led the charge and ousted nearly five years ago. President Kumaratunga did not actively campaign for Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 but let him campaign on his own for the narrowest of all wins, aided by the LTTE enforced poll boycott in Jaffna. Perhaps, President Sirisena should and could lead the SLFP, to remain neutral at the presidential poll, save its resources and energy for the subsequent general elections and be a dynamic third force in Sri Lankan politics and arguably king makers in the post 2020 Government.

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Gota clinches the SLPP nomination

Posted by harimpeiris on August 16, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 15th August 2019)

Ending months of speculation, last weekend witnessed the crowning of Gotabaya Rajapakse as the presidential candidate of the main opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), essentially the political vehicle of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is a political credit to the Rajapaksas or a reflection of the divided leadership of the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe Administration, which has enabled the Rajapaksas to bounce back from their twin electoral defeats of 2015 and win last year’s local government elections and thereby plausibly lay claim to their candidate being the front runner in the constitutionally mandated year end presidential election.

There were several Rajapaksas in the fray for the essential role of political heir to term limit bared Mahinda Rajapaksa, each with his own unique claim to the prize. There was the outside chance for Chamal as the consensus builder, Basil as the architect and operator of the SLPP party machinery but the passion, energy and drive of pro Rajapaksa activists was always Gota, almost from 2015, when a comeback path was being chartered. Gotabaya Rajapaksa also left nothing to chance. Eschewing existing and potential political parties, he mobilised through several civil society organisations established for that very purpose. As Mahinda conceded in his nomination speech last week, when election time came, Gota had already sewed up the nomination by dominating the political imagination of pro-Rajapaksa activists and political allies. There were significant naysayers, the most prominent of whom was former Minister and SLFP and SLPP stalwart and district leader from Kalutara, Kumara Welgama, the scion of an old political family. He questioned why only a Rajapaksa could aspire to be the presidential candidate and strongly opposed the Gotabaya candidacy. His views may influence the swing Kalutara District in a closely contested election.

Another feature of the impending 2019/20 elections is the more overt role played by organisations led by Buddhist monks. Now, the presence of Buddhist monks in active politics is not new to Sri Lanka. Late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated by a monk and the first accused in the case was a monk. Members of the Buddhist clergy sit in Parliament, the first ever MP elected to Parliament being Ven. Baddegama Samitha from the old left, the LSSP. However, the new organisations and the monks that lead it, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), are essentially engaged in the task of changing the contours of Sinhala nationalism from an ethnic nationalism to an ethno-religious nationalism. In so doing, they are making the identity politics, which form the essential core of Sri Lankan politics, potentially more divisive, emotive and in the contestation for political power, much more toxic. It also makes it much more difficult for Sri Lankan democracy to mature, for our politics to move from being about identity to being policy and ideas based and discourse in a civil and reasoned manner, with give and take. Instead our identity politics will be emotive, the discourse virulent and intolerant violence against the “other” never far from the surface. From 2010 onwards, this has been evident in the violence against Muslims at Durga town, Ampara and more recently in Digana. Now, the BBS contested the 2015 August parliamentary elections as irrelevant also-rans, who lost their deposits, but it has been in their perceived and claimed relationship to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that their real role in current and future politics lies.

Gotabaya is clearly a champion of the Sinhala nationalists and the Rajapaksas have always had a game plan of winning elections with a preponderance of the Sinhala vote with little or no minority support. It barely worked for them in 2005, worked handsomely in the unique political environment of the post-war 2010 election and failed them in 2015. As Finance Minister and UNP heavy weight Mangala Samaraweera observed in his Face Book statement right after Gota’s nomination, though there is a new Rajapaksa candidate in the 2019/20 election, the game plan and governance will be the same. There is really no message or attraction to anybody else other than Sinhala Buddhists, not when the political allies and ideologues are the likes of the leadership of the BBS and their fellow travellers, who seemingly inspire hate against the “other” in their followers and rather obviously create fear and loathing among the objects of their hate, the ethnic and religious minorities in the country, who collectively make up a not inconsiderable 30% of the population or almost one in every three Sri Lankans.

Fortune favours the bold as the saying goes and Sri Lanka’s justice system has indeed been kind and fortunate for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Facing potential legal jeopardy and accused in a variety of cases and issues, in the superior courts and courts of first instance, the legal proceedings against Rajapaksa went nowhere. The only real pending legal challenge is the civil suit in the United States brought by the daughter of slain Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, who this week wrote a scathing public letter to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, copied to UNP MPs and their Working Committee, alleging the Attorney General (AG)’s Department and government’s acquiescence in stonewalling legal proceedings and investigations.

The dynamics of the 2019 presidential election is much more likely to be similar to and along the lines of the 2005 presidential elections. A resurgent and independent Elections Commission will, like President CBK did in 2005, ensure a reasonably free and fair poll, albeit somewhat more violent. The real decider is likely to be the minority vote. It was so in 2015, when President Sirisena’s victory margin in the Northern and Eastern Provinces overturned his narrow losses elsewhere. In 2005, a very close election resulted in the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa over current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, due to the LTTE inspired Tamil voter boycott of the presidential poll. There are rumblings among Tamil elites along those lines. Tamil nationalists have never objected to a mono ethno religious Sinhala state, believing that it makes their case for a Tamil Eelam, more logical and an easier sell.

It is the idea of a democratic, pluralistic and multi ethnic Sri Lankan state, which has been the really elusive ideal to pursue, whether by CBK, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Sambanthan, Sumanthiran or Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Post war, the rainbow coalition of 2015 preached it, promised it and started down that road, with the 19th amendment, the RTI, Independent Commissions, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and land releases, housing and rehabilitation programmes in the North and East, but at best faltered or stalled. Whether the UNP led government, whose as yet unannounced candidate can marshal these diverse political forces, to ensure that the Rajapaksa verses the rest, political formula will prevail the December election will tell. Either way the SLPP candidate is now announced. In February last year, the party secured 40% of the popular vote and needs to make up another 10%. The events of April 2019 have clearly helped their cause. A hard-fought campaign and a potentially close election seem likely, at least at this point in time.

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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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