By Uditha Devapriya –
The tragedy with the UNP isn’t that they are divided; the tragedy is that they seem to be in denial of the fact that they are divided. With the same breath with which he sends despatches and holds press conferences consoling the minds of UNP voters and reassuring them of unity, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam refers to the Sajith Premadasa faction’s Samagi Jana Balavegaya as a constitutionally separate party. The irony of Akila reflecting on Gamini Dissanayake’s exit from the UNP, – he was, like Sajith, Deputy Leader of the UNP at the time – and the travails of separate parties gaining a victory for themselves at the expense of the support of the party leaders, wouldn’t have been lost on party members and supporters even if Gamini’s own son wasn’t right there, beside Akila, but it was made all the more evident when Naveen himself stated that they didn’t want to gamble their political future on a party that’s still not legally recognised. It’s the equivalent of Sirisena Cooray denying the legality of Naveen’s father’s alliance at a press conference during Sajith’s father’s presidency.
The farce doesn’t stop there. After reassuring voters that they have Premadasa as their prime ministerial candidate, the Ranil faction desperately seeks Karu Jayasuriya and offers him the post instead. Karu, being saner than most of those who have membership in the UNP, refuses but hints that he’d consider it if the two factions reconcile. In other words, he hasn’t given up either. Meanwhile, Sajith Premadasa – still referring to himself in the third person – claims that the government is stalling the opposition. This, of course, is a more polite way of saying that the Ranil faction have struck a deal with Gotabaya, a point that gained traction in the lead up to the presidential polls and is now being revived, one can only assume, to try and jettison the likes of Akila Viraj, Naveen, and the much reviled Ravi Karunanayake, the latter of whom holds on to that swan symbol without permitting its use by the Premadasa faction like a baby holds on to his toys. Vajira Abeywardena, meanwhile, hints that he hopes Premadasa will “look after him” once the elections are done, while Harsha de Silva is contemplating on leaving the party and politics. Only Eran Wickremaratne has the courage to stand up and defy the government, but all he can muster is a series of accusations against CID officials that, as Malinda Seneviratne has noted, is a case of pots calling kettles black.
It’s too late for the factions to reconcile. Elections are just weeks away. The SLPP has handed over its party symbol and logo and the UNP is fighting over whether they ought to go with an elephant, a swan, or a heart. If they go with the elephant, they have to play second fiddle to Ranil’s faction; if they go with the swan, they will have to play pandu with Karunanayake; if they go with the heart, they can say they are free of both Ranil and Karunanayake, but they will be without any significant support from the party elders. I see Kariyawasam has pointed out that those going with the Premadasa faction risk losing their nomination. If one considers how the Pohottuwa, facing a similar imbroglio with the SLFP years ago, showed the latter the finger and went ahead anyway without even a by your leave, and still won it at the polls, one would realise how different the destinies of the parties are: the Pohottuwa ripping the SLFP to shreds, and the SJV playing hard to get with the UNP.
No one seems to be asking the only question that matters as of now: why is the Ranil faction, faced with the possibility of electoral extinction, still outlawing the Premadasa faction? What is there in their faction that is not there in the Premadasa faction? Are they afraid they’ll lose their base – the Colombo middle and upper middle class, who by default are transfixed on the enduring myth that is Ranil Wickremesinghe’s charisma and charm – and if so do they think they can avert that by alienating a faction of the party which still commands a sizeable chunk of voters from elsewhere? Do they think Colombo is Sri Lanka, so they can’t afford to go on and with a person who is summoning the spectre of populist nationalism the UNP unleashed, once upon a time, in that person’s father’s presidency?
If the Ranil faction threaten an internal purge – and the removal of key Sajith allies from the Working Committee shows that they are not unwilling to do so – they will find that they are left with parliamentarians whose support among the people is diminishing. This is not to say or to suggest that the Premadasa faction gets off the hook here – by not just defying the authority of Ranil Wickremesinghe but also hurling insults at him, and spreading fake news about the Working Committee and their faction being officially accepted by the party, they are as guilty of disrupting unity as their rivals – but there’s a larger stake here, larger certainly than the future of a party or a faction, and that’s the future of a viable opposition which is not only critical of the government but also responsive to the call of the people outside what the irrepressible Razeen Sally calls “Colombo’s chattering classes.”
Sitting beside Kariyawasam were Naveen Dissanayake and Daya Gamage. It’s surprising that both Palitha Rangebandara and Palitha Thewarapperuma – especially the latter, given his anti-establishment antics – have decided as of now to side with Ranil Wickremesinghe. If all these people are put in together, and if we are to account for snide references to dealmakers and wheeler dealers among them made by, who else, the Premadasa faction, all you get is one sorry mess of a party establishment. Sajith Premadasa may have inflated his own popularity, and his cohorts may be clinging for dear life on him, yet this does not and should not deny the point that the fury of the people is directed less at the Premadasists than at the Ranilistas. Middle class professionals, government workers, the suburban youth: these are the segments Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Viyath Maga Eliya troupe targeted and got, while both Ranil and Sajith were busy courting the minority and the Colombo vote, and these are the segments that Sajith, with his unenviable blend of frenzied onstage populism and eloquent if not loquacious conference hall decorum, is best equipped to grabbing from Gotabaya.
Just as Gotabaya cannot match Sajith for the fleeting frenzied sensation he is, Sajith cannot match Gotabaya for the charismatic imposing figure he is. The two are different, but they can very well target the same milieus: something that those in Ranil’s faction will not be able to do. You may argue, as most pro-Ranil commentators do, that Sajith failed to drum up enough support for the UNP at the presidential polls and he was more concerned with distancing his troupe from Sirikotha, but the hurdles he was up against – hurdles which he is up against yet again now – were so insurmountable; to appreciate the magnitude of the obstacles he had to cross and couldn’t, consider that they were much higher than what Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Joint Opposition, and the Pohottuwa had to face from the SLFP. Sirisena, who now compares himself to an eagle – is he toying with the idea of an eagle as the symbol of his next political misadventure? – tripped Mahinda just once, and that was at the August 2015 polls. After that, though he was very much against the SLPP calling the shots in the party, he realised that he and his party would be reduced to rubble unless they tied up with the monolithic Pohottuwa. By contrast, the UNP still has enough firepower to quell the aspirations of the Sajith faction, even with Rauf Hakeem, Rishad Bathiudeen, and Patali Champika Ranawaka standing side by side and singing hosannas with Sajith Premadasa.
So the UNP will continue to do what it has always done. Bully the rival and his supporters. My guess is that this will accelerate if not sharpen the attempts of the Premadasa faction at emulating Gotabaya’s pandering to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and populism. With the elders continually dragging Sajith’s away from an alliance between the two rivals, what more can you expect? It’s true they haven’t parted officially from one another, and yet, to the world at large, they have. It’s like a divorce without the settlement: you have only an inkling of a hope that they’ll get together again. By alienating the majority who are with Sajith, the elders will only drum up popular support for their rivals. This will in itself certainly not be enough to upend the popularity the current government enjoys – my prediction is that the UNP will fall down to a position not dissimilar to that of the SLFP in the February 2018 polls, even if the Ranil-Sajith rift is resolved – but it will be enough to dissipate what little support the Reid Avenue Brigade in Ranil Wickremesinghe’s faction has. It’s a different kind of Big Match we’re seeing here: one faction of a College versus another.