10 June, 2023


Crisis In The UNP: Implications For Democracy

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Crisis in the UNP was amply demonstrated first leading up to the three provincial council elections by the crossover of Dayasiri Jayasekera, one of the ablest young politicians in my opinion, and then the dismal electoral results of the party, particularly in the Central and the North Western Provinces. The results of the PC elections were not surprising at all considering the long list of election defeats that the UNP had inflicted on itself during the last decade or so, largely due to its weak and ineffective leadership.

Weak and ineffective are the two key words. When I say the leadership, I mean not only the leader but also the leadership group, having also noted that some of the best were killed by the LTTE and others crossed over. But the question is whether it should be allowed to continue with drastic implications on democracy and the country, apart from the party. Aren’t there more effective people in the party who could come to the leading positions? After all, the UNP is the main opposition party within our present democratic framework.

Role of Opposition

Amartya Sen et al described the role of an opposition in a democratic society as follows in a Commonwealth study report in 2011 (Peace and Democratic Society, p. 84). There were 10 others in the study commission.

“Different perceptions co-exist about the role of opposition parties. Whilst some act primarily as though they are the party in waiting, and therefore spend time consolidating their power base, others focus on the real job of opposition. This is to hold the government of the day to account by listening to the experience of their constituents and being sufficiently well-informed by evidence and argument to support or question the impact of current or planned public policies. Again, the latter approach will make people feel represented and included; the former, typically, will not. The representative duties of parliamentarians are obviously of great importance for the functioning of a civil approach and the avoidance of extremism.”

After Sri Lanka entered into an operational multiparty system with the independence in 1948, the first natural task was to form viable opposition parties against the ruling UNP in addition to what existed as the Left parties. It was this task which was fulfilled by the formation of the SLFP and the Federal Party. In 1956, for the first time, the SLFP as ‘the party in waiting’ managed to win over power from the ruling UNP. Since then the UNP and the SLFP have been playing the same role, alternatively, for the preservation of democracy in the country while also deforming democracy in the process for the reasons of expediency and power. A major reason for this defect or deformation was the absence of proper ‘civil approach’ by the opposition or by the elected representatives that Sen talked about. This was the same in the case of the Federal Party which succumbed to the temptations of extremism, not to speak of the JVP or the LTTE later.

Except the period between 1978 and 1988, when the democratic process was curtailed directly, there were no major obstacles for the ‘party in waiting’ to consolidate power or perform the ‘job of a real opposition.’ This is the same today, except that there are restrictions for or deformities in the overall democratic system. But the ‘party in waiting’ is still waiting since 2004 with an abysmal electoral record and disunity and crisis within it.


The first symptoms of weaknesses of Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe as a political leader became revealed in my observation during his tenure as the Prime Minister in 2001-2004. I am not at all questioning his integrity, intellectual capacity or apparent gentlemanly character. His success was short lived. The economic policy was extremely neo-liberal and the particular peace initiatives were quite detrimental to the national interests or democracy. It was due to these weaknesses that his tenure as the PM was short. Since then he has continued to be the leader of the opposition and it was during this period that the party has experienced a steady decline, over 40 key elected MPs crossing over to the government at different times. Of course there is an obvious opportunism in many crossing overs, but a promising opposition party could have consolidated its membership if there was a promising leader. Many have accused him for ‘internal dictatorship,’ disruption of party unity or favouritism, perhaps indulged in inadvertently.

If a party, particularly a ‘party in waiting,’ does not have internal democracy, then it has major implications for the country. There is no much difference between the incumbent President initiating the 18th Amendment, thereby allowing him to hold office beyond the conventional two terms and RW holding the leadership of the UNP, what may come, since 1994 for almost two decades. This is quite unprecedented in a functioning democracy. When Kevin Rudd, the leader of the Australian Labour Party (ALP), lost the elections on 21 September, just two weeks after the provincial council elections in Sri Lanka, he gracefully resigned and now electing a new leader for the party is open for the elected MPs and the party members.

It is a prevalent practice in many democratic countries that the party leader is elected at least by the elected members of the party in Parliament. It is them who matter most in consolidating an effective opposition in the country, if the party happens to be in the opposition. Some countries also involve the ordinary party members. The practice in the UNP, as far as I understand, is for the working committee to select the leader, where the leader has enormous power to select himself or herself.


There are two tasks for the UNP as the main opposition: (1) to consolidate its power bases and (2) to play the real job of an opposition. It is believed, although there are no confirmed opinion polls, that the primary vote of the UNP and that means the ‘faithfuls’ (kapuwath UNP) were quite high even when they were defeated in elections in the past. That is how it could bounce back quickly. This ‘bounce back’ quality of the UNP was quite high in the past compared to the SLFP for some reasons. If this power bases have now eroded, that means the weakening of the grass roots organizations and local committees for the lack of enthusiasm, funds or leadership. The power bases also mean the trade union organizations and also the faithfuls in the business sector.

More importantly, has the UNP been playing the role of a real opposition? This is a public interest issue beyond the party interests. This means, has the UNP been making the government accountable for what they were doing in terms of corruption, cost of living, mismanagement, deviation from democratic norms, violation of human rights, blunders in foreign policy, injustices to the minority communities etc. Have they gone to town on these issues except on some cost of living matters? This requires a team, if not a shadow cabinet, and the task of consolidating such a solid team is the tasks of the leader. Of course there are some spokes persons and undoubtedly some are effective like Dr Harsha de Silva on economic matters.

It is true that during the period of the war, or immediately thereafter, it was difficult to replace the incumbent government. During the war, the UNP blundered with their cynical statements. Its role should have been to warn against any atrocities but not against the war. In 2010, at the presidential elections, RW decided to hide behind General Sarath Fonseka who was at least bold enough to challenge the incumbent. It was not a policy of consolidation. Then at the general elections, the UNP terribly lost and that was good enough for the RW to resign as a graceful leader.

If we take two key recent most issues, the role of the UNP has been extremely ineffective or even pathetic. On the impeachment issue, the UNP’s role was quite conciliatory and some of the statements were even erroneous. Considering that the issue was about the independence of the judiciary, the betrayal was almost unforgivable. The most recent was Weliweriya. Just imagine if MR was the leader of the opposition how he would have reacted? The UNP allowed the issue to be dissipated having organized a meekly protest in Colombo only after two weeks.

If a leader of the opposition challenges and exposes a government’s mismanagement in Parliament in a professional, effective and a convincing manner and supplies an alternative vision and a policy, based on facts and research, people like Dayasiri Jayasekera will be shy to crossover.


The challenge for the UNP as the main opposition in Sri Lanka is no longer normal. The role cannot be learnt, if at all, only from what I quoted from Amartya Sen, or even Robert Dhal (Political Opposition in Western Democracies). Whether you like it or not for an ‘outsider’ to say it, Sri Lanka is “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” These terms are used quite loosely though, nevertheless to highlight some serious challenges and dangers.

The UNP as the main opposition has to be more dynamic than usual and more democratic than the authoritarian UPFA government. It should be a wrong assumption to consider that the opposition also should be ‘authoritarian’ to be effective against authoritarianism – a kind of ‘tit for tat’ logic.

The specific kind of ‘authoritarianism’ in Sri Lanka is not political dictatorship, but ‘consensual totalitarianism’ in politics and dictatorial handling of security and law and order matters with subtle curtailment of democratic rights. It still keeps a façade of democracy that the UNP as the main opposition should seize upon. It has taken or taking the form of one-party dominant state nevertheless polarized on ethnic grounds in the North and the South. This is the most dangerous challenge for the opposition in general but so far the main opposition, the UNP, has also been culpable for this development by not being a strong and an effective opposition.

The UNP as the main opposition should have the most enlightened policy on the ethnic issue or otherwise it would blunder the future of the country badly even more than the present government. ‘Arab Spring’ is not the correct model for the opposition in Sri Lanka. Something like that would completely destroy the already weak democratic fabric of the country. The UNP could consolidate its power bases by reorganization of the party particularly at the grass roots level and should play the role of a ‘civil opposition’ by making the government accountable for its every act and word. The UNP should be ‘tit for tat’ in this sense. However, the cheap propaganda, character assassination or distorted information just to ridicule the government leaders is not the way to go about.

There is much literature to creatively learn about how the democratic oppositions countered authoritarian or even more direct dictatorial and/or military regimes in Latin America. There is also growing literature on how the democratic oppositions work in post-communist countries including Russia, countering more fierce authoritarian rulers.

As the central issue of the crisis in the UNP is the weak and ineffective leadership, it should best be resolved as soon as possible for the sake of democracy and the country. A good leader might be able to consolidate a good team. What is equally important are a vision, strategy, policy program and an action plan with clear cut responsibilities to utilize the best out of what is available in the party. This is not only a task to save the UNP, but also democracy in the country.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0

    Laksiri, we are confused that you say that Ranil is honest, when he is utterly sly and disingenuous and virtual dictator of the UNP! Ranil lied, manipulated and acted in BAD FAITH to get rid of the best and brightest in the party in order to hang onto the leadership of the party which he obviously thinks belongs to him!
    A good leader MENTORS and GROOMS younger folk to take over leadership. But this type of leader is singularly absent in Lanka today – whether in Govt, opposition or Civil Society NGOs – particularly the dead Leftist NGOS run by geriatrics! The pattern is to pass the position from father to son or uncle to nephew. This pattern should be broken and a woman and outsider who is capable and charismatic like Rosy Senanayake should be made UNP leader.
    “Damn with faint praise assent with civil leer and without sneering teach the rest to sneer.. this is Ranil the awful two faced supporter of Rajapassa who is as responsible for the ROTTEN POLITICAL CULTURE and the gross corruption in politics in Lanka today. There are NO ETHICS or PRINCIPLES in politics because both the Govt and opposition leaders are corrupt and DISHONEST – this is the sad fact!
    It is astonishing that the Sinhala intelligensia continues to pretend that Ranil is honest when he is patently not! Civil society by supporting Ranil all this time and pretending that there is no one else in the party has also done a great dis-service to democracy in Lanka.

    • 0

      Kapila – looks like you hit the nail squarely on the head! One wonders at the naivete (or is it stupidity?) of RW’s supporters…

    • 0

      Quite true! Ranil is responsible for the erosion of ethics, values and principles and for the culture of dictatorship that exists in Lanka today.
      UNP members should start fast unto death outside Ranil Wickramasighe’s home at 5th lane and petition his wife who says she in feminist to ask hubby to resign.
      Baby doll Maitree knows that political is personal so if Ranil is so stubborn and not willing to listen then she should stop pretending to hear no evil, speak no evil etc. and do the needful – tell Ranil to stop being a shameless loser and dictator in the party..
      No one will work with Ranil and rats are deserting sinking ship. At least Attanakyake, Ranil’s unelected blue eyed boy resigned but Ranil has not got the message that he must resign too. No one should work with Ranil and the whole UNP working committee of his cronies should resign and a new committee be appointed democratically..

    • 0

      There is no fool like an educatd fool, the wise have said!

  • 0

    Do not waste your time as long as Ranil has his henchman in the working committee all apointed by him nothing will materialize from any party meetings.

  • 0

    RW and his coterie of class mates have virtually stifled the growth of the UNP by keeping down the younger and promising politicians. Anyone who shows promise is cut down to size. After this defeat he has not even issued a statement to his supporters. He seems to be in hiding.

    UNP has failed to take up the issues threatening democracy and hitting the minorities. Previously UNP was a secular party with a good following among the minorities. We now observe RW running from temple to temple to solve the leadership problem in the UNP. Nuts!!

  • 0

    The UNP has no chance of capturing power again as long as Ranil remains its leader. Why he is hanging on despite losing election after election is a mystery. Any other party would have got rid of him many moons ago.

    As we have seen lately the TNA, especially MR Sumanthiran, has proved to be a more effective opposition to the government that the rest of the opposition parties put together.

    It is a shame that the Sinhala electorate is unable or unwilling to find and rally behind a charismatic, educated, intelligent and honest man. Maybe I am being a little silly here asking for the impossible – there is no such person among the Sinhalese!!

  • 0

    To look at the leader for the UNP debacle is to look at the wrong place.
    OK if you remove Ranil who can take his place? Can we think of one person who might do a better job? Karu is trying to be a campaigner for the improvement of the party but he is the guy who ruined it in the first place. It is funny that he wants to set it right now. Sajith is a bum.
    Maybe something that may happen in the future is that Dayasiri, who has proven capability and charisma, may come up as Presidential candidate and garner both SLFP and UNP votes. Brilliant idea as Dayasiri can inspire. Let us all work for that rather than waste time attacking Ranil, who after all kept the party together when all the COPE rogues left it to save their skins from Rajapakse wrath

  • 0

    The important question is if all these UNPers are in disagreement with Ranil, why have they not formed a separate party and advocated a progressive agenda? In my opinion, the senior members of the UNP are beneficiaries of the status quo and anyone else does not have the capacity or influence to make a difference.

    How is it for all the talking and writing on the subject of Sri Lankan politics and its state of affairs we are still to hear of a political group coming out as saying… They will upon taking power :

    1. Change the proportional representation system and return to the Westminster model.

    2. Change the constitution to wipe of the Provincial Councils.

    3. De centralize the budget by provinces or district through District secretariats.
    4. Civil administration through the provincial structure with SLAS staffing at executive level.
    5. Complete civilian administration of security services.
    6.Constitutional amendment to permanently seal cabinet portfolios to 10 apex ministries, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Home, Health and Human Resources, Industries and Technology, Environment and National Resources, Education and Labor, Transport and Allied services, Defense , Justice and Law.

    I think it is because no one will want to back a group that will reduce their benefits and politics is about making money not serving, anymore!

    Maybe I am being a fool. I would rather be an honest fool than a gullible one!

  • 0

    Just imagine the plight of UNP if PC elections are declared for western & southern provinces now. I have spoken to the neighbors in my community in western province, most of them were UNP supporters now claiming that they will support the Democratic party especially if Anoma Fonseka canvass for the chief ministers slot. It appears UNP is too late to have a show in western province too? God bless UNP with Ranil.

  • 0

    Why don’t we get Dr Mervyn to cross over and lead the UNP? He is a descendent of King Dutugemunu

  • 0

    mr ranil wikramasingha is good experienced in international affairs but the problem is he lacks to influence the voters mind always talking price hike of bread and butter pessimistic talk leader must have charismatic talk first of all so very soon leadership change is needed to boost unp

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.