By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The steep decline of the United National Party (UNP), which failed to score even an average of 30% of the votes in the two provinces outside the North shows that the main democratic alternative is in the grip of a potentially terminal crisis. This has a very severe consequence for the equilibrium of the polity and the future of democracy.
In the North-Western and the Central Provinces, the incumbent administration has been able to secure an average of over 60% votes, which is a considerable achievement for any government, especially at a time of economic hardship. Since the campaign was led by President Rajapaksa, it is a personal victory and evidence of his continuing appeal among the Sinhala voters.
An impressive individual victory has also been scored by Dayasiri Jayasekara, who has seized the imagination of the public as a rising star in national politics.
The election has been a relative victory for General Sarath Fonseka, who even without his full civic rights and well-known names on his ticket has been able to emerge the third force, knocking the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) into the fourth place.
The biggest losers are the UNP and its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as the JVP. In both cases, the issue is the leadership. Neither party has a personality as a national leader, who is capable of retaining, let alone attracting, votes.
The matter is more serious with the UNP because it is the main democratic alternative. The UNP used to be the largest single party in the country. Even when it lost power in 1994 after 17 years in power, and its candidate was the newly widowed Mrs Srima Dissanayake, who faced a formidable opponent in Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the UNP succeeded in scoring 43% of the voter base. Today, after 19 years of UPFA rule, the UNP can score only in the mid 20% range. What used to be the base vote of the UNP, namely 40%, is now the size of the gap between the UNP and the government!
There are around one and a half times as many ex-UNPers in the government as those remaining with the UNP in the opposition.
If the UNP were to face a Presidential Election with its present leadership, it will score even less than the 26% average it scored in the two provinces in this election. The reason I say this with some degree of confidence, is that at the provincial elections the candidates themselves and their supporters participated in the campaign. But in a Presidential Election, who will campaign actively at the grassroots level for Ranil?
If the UNP collapses in the Provincial Council elections it will go into subsequent Parliamentary Elections with a huge disadvantage of a catastrophic loss of morale. Today’s parliamentary strength of 43 Members of Parliament would then drop at the next parliamentary elections to 20-25, and of them several will defect to the government not long afterwards.
Therefore, the UNP is facing nothing less than a crisis of electoral existence and political relevance, if it fails to replace its leader within this year, the UNP will have no political future to face national elections.
Kurunegala and Kandy used to be strongholds of the UNP, but this time they lost both, winning only the electoral district of Kandy, that is the Kandy town.
The UNP’s failure to retain Dayasiri Jayasekara is an excellent example of what is wrong with the Party. On the other hand, we have President Rajapaksa, who just like his predecessor President Kumaratunga, has high personal appeal and pulling power, a measure of magnetism. People like him, as one can see in television footage, the responses of the young and old when he mingles with them. A sharp contrast is provided by UNP Leader Wickremesinghe, who has the opposite of the power of attraction. He has zero appeal and seems to have infinite capacity to alienate and repel. Had Jayasekara been the leader of the UNP, the Party may have been back to its 40% base vote. He could have headed the campaign in the North-Western Province and the UNP would have done significantly better.
This election has disproven a number of myths. One is that it is impossible to defeat the government unless independent commissions are installed as per the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. There was no 17th Amendment when J.R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga took their parties to sweeping victories against the incumbent administrations. The TNA won the Northern Province, without the 17th Amendment in effect and despite a heavy military presence. So, an effective opposition can beat a powerful government.
Over the past 19 years, so much has changed in this country. Prabhakaran and the Tigers are no more, we have had two terms under one President and we are into the second term into another President. The Northern PC has been reactivated. Only two things remain unchanged over the past 19 years and these are: Ranil Wickremesinghe’s position as the leader of the UNP and the opposition and the decline in the electoral performance of the UNP.
The logical conclusion is that the two are inextricably related. To me the question of who can replace Wickremesinghe is a silly one. The UNP today is like a swimmer competing against an Olympic Champion as it is opponent, while having a cement block tied to its ankle. It is not swimming, it is drowning. Removing the present leader will be like removing the cement block. Anyone else will give the UNP a fresh start and enable it to stop sinking and start swimming again.
Of course the performance of General Fonseka’s party as well as the impressive victory of President Rajapaksa shows that what the citizenry wants are patriotic leaders. So, given the national mood, the UNP should logically pick a personality with a patriotic profile and the proven ability to appeal to the grassroots of the Party and the country.
This profile would seem to fit two individual at the moment. One is Sajith Premadasa and the other Karu Jayasuriya. I also read a newspaper report that of the voter turnout at the recent elections, 65% were youth. Therefore, it will be logical to pick a leader who can appeal to the youth.
If the UNP fails to do this, the political system will become less and less competitive and without competition the government will by sheer default enjoy a monopolistic grip on power. This is a dangerous outcome for society.
If Ranil has any feeling for the UNP and for the democracy of the country he should immediately step down. If he has any sense of honour, sense of shame or any residual sense of responsibility, he should do so quickly giving the UNP time to recover, so that it will have the power to fight future presidential and parliamentary elections. And even if Ranil is unwilling to resign, it is both responsible and shameful that the Executive Committee, Working Committee and the Parliament Group of the UNP do not immediately remove him. If the argument is that there is no way to do that under the UNP constitution, then it is hypocritical for the UNP to protest against the authoritarianism of the President or the government.
As for the argument that has been advanced at a press conference following the electoral debacle of the UNP that the results show that a joint opposition can score 40% of the vote, I find it quite silly. Given the present mood of the electorate, if the TNA and the UNP join hands, then there will be more than compensatory swing of the Sinhala votes to the government and especially to President Rajapaksa.
The other nonsensical idea is that the effort to abolish the Executive Presidency will somehow become a successful mass movement. Anyone who thinks that in the face of the challenges posed by a TNA-led Council and the threat posed by the Tamil Nadu and the elements of the Tamil Diaspora, that the Sinhala people would agree to the weakening of the centre by the abolition of the strong Executive Presidency, is living in a cloud cuckoo land rather than Sri Lanka.
As for the JVP, the parliamentarians perform well in Parliament and in the national media. It has simply failed to put forward a leader, someone who can appeal to the youth.
It is not that the people approve of what the government is doing. There is high degree of dissatisfaction. This is why Sri Lanka is 20th from the bottom on a list of 157 countries in the index of happiness, compiled by a United Nations study on sustainable development. However, the citizenry is unhappier with the UNP leadership than it is with the government! The citizenry at large also seem to like President Rajapaksa and identify him as a leader who they can relate to, unlike his main opponent. Though the people are deeply dissatisfied with the economic hardships, corruption, abuse of power, nepotism all round them and their instincts tell them that President Rajapaksa, unlike the available alternative, cares about the sovereignty and security of the country and the nation.
The people would vote differently if they were presented with an alternative who has some of those positives of President Rajapaksa without his negatives, or someone who supplements his patriotism with a social economic programme for the improvement of the living standards of the masses and the middle classes. They will vote for someone who is better than President Mahinda Rajapaksa, not someone far worse or weaker. That is a realistic and reasonable stance on the part of the vast majority of citizens-voters.
Frankly, even if the statue of D.S. Senanayake came to life and rejoined the UNP today, it would not win in an election, so long as Ranil Wickremesinghe remains the leader.