By Kath Noble –
Everybody knows about the crisis in the UNP. Of the many elections there have been in Sri Lanka in the last two decades, it has lost all but one. This includes four presidential elections and four out of five parliamentary elections. And it will have the opportunity to lose a few more in September, as the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces go to the polls.
In the last general election, it could secure only 29% of the popular vote, worse than either of the two major parties have fared in a very long time.
The main reason for its failure was identified last year in a survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives. It found that less than 20% of Sinhalese support the UNP. And although the party does rather better than the SLFP with minorities, it has to compete with ITAK, which is backed by more than 50% of Tamils, the CWC with about 30% of Up Country Tamils and the SLMC and NUA, which together have the backing of some 35% of Muslims. Meanwhile, the SLFP is the preferred party of nearly 75% of Sinhalese – Sinhalese being nearly 75% of the population, this alone gives it a good shot at 55% of the popular vote.
To have any hope of ending its losing streak, the UNP needs to rebuild its base among Sinhalese.
Some analysts argue that the SLFP’s popularity is due to the war victory, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the number or scale of its electoral successes, which have given Mahinda Rajapaksa amongst other things a two thirds majority in Parliament – a feat that was supposedly impossible with proportional representation. That a more balanced distribution of power would be good for the country is widely accepted. They suggest that things will get back to ‘normal’ in a while, even if no action is taken. In other words, there is no cause for concern. However, such confidence in the automatic revival of the Opposition is misplaced. Voters are more discerning than they think. Having ended a war is no guarantee of support, as Winston Churchill found out within months of Hitler’s death – the British public acknowledged his brilliant wartime leadership and were grateful, but many of them preferred to have somebody else in charge of the recovery. Sri Lankans would have done the same if the UNP had presented them with an attractive alternative.
The fact that in the most recent local election – more than two and a half years after the end of the war – the UNP lost strongholds like Kandy that it had held for over five decades demonstrates that there is every reason to worry.
The problem, which I find it hard to believe anybody can fail to see, is Ranil Wickremasinghe.
Ranil really is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s best friend. He is irreversibly associated with two policies that much of the Sri Lankan public – certainly the vast majority of Sinhalese – regard as anathema. Also, Ranil doesn’t seem to have changed his mind about them. These are his enthusiasm for appeasement and his commitment to neo-liberal economics. And Ranil isn’t just keen on these policies. He is a radical adherent. His Regaining Sri Lanka programme envisaged a sharp reduction in the role of the state in pretty much every sector, no matter how cherished. And he wasn’t just willing to do whatever it took to do a deal with the LTTE, he went so far as to ridicule the Government’s military campaign almost until it reached the banks of Nanthikadal.
He has not admitted that he was wrong. Indeed, he often sounds as though he would do it all again if he had the chance.
In addition to being a liability with voters, Ranil is not even able to hang onto the few members his party does manage to get elected. Dozens of his MPs have crossed over to the Government, especially in the last seven years. Of course this is the result of the smart manoeuvring of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the Opposition too has to be smart. There’s nothing wrong with the Government making use of MPs’ interest in ministerial positions to boost its numbers – this is politics. (Of course it would be good to set a constitutional limit to the number of ministers an administration can appoint.) But Ranil should be able to take advantage too. He should be capitalising on the growing dissatisfaction within the SLFP at the dominance of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family and their plans for his succession.
I can’t think of many other democratic countries in which the same person has been in charge of a major party for as long as Ranil Wickremasinghe. In the UK, Tony Blair took over as party leader just a couple of months before Ranil became leader of the UNP. Even though he won three successive terms for the British Labour Party, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, he was still compelled to hand over power to a successor after ten years as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the British Conservative Party changed its leader four times until it found David Cameron, who finally defeated Labour in 2010. Imagine their fate if they had stuck with John Major! It is standard practice to bring in new faces – and hopefully also new ideas and new energy – from time to time, even when things are going well. Ranil has been party leader for 18 years, almost all of which have been spent out of office, yet still nobody has been able to replace him.
In the circumstances, it is quite ridiculous for the UNP to accuse Mahinda Rajapaksa of clinging onto power, when he has only been in charge for seven years. The worst dictatorship in Sri Lanka is to be found in the UNP.
This is exactly the argument made by those who have crossed over.
The struggle to eject Ranil has been going on for most of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in office. And it has occasionally looked pretty serious – recall the awful death of Rienzie Algama, who set himself on fire outside Sirikotha in July 2010.
Ranil’s eventual agreement to initiate an annual secret ballot to select the party’s key office-bearers seemed to offer some hope of change. However, the constituency was only the Working Committee, and Ranil easily won the first round in December 2011 – he beat Karu Jayasuriya by 72 votes to 24. (Polling all party members would obviously give a much better idea of the mood in the country than asking a group of people who are either directly appointed by Ranil or indirectly depend on him.) That there were many in the party who were desperately unhappy with the result was made clear by the violence that engulfed Sirikotha soon after it was declared.
Now this violence is being used as a pretext to undo even this very small reform, with the Working Committee announcing last week that the party leader will henceforth be chosen for terms of not one but six years. They say this is essential for party unity.
Frankly, why does the party need to be united in defeat?
In any case, party unity is overrated. Plenty of leaders, from Margaret Thatcher to Mahinda Rajapaksa, and even leaders of the UNP in its more dynamic era, have won elections despite vicious infighting – it can even bring out the best in them.
Six year terms will enable Ranil to stay on until 2018. That is until after the next general election.
This must be music to the ears of Mahinda Rajapaksa. His strategy is clear – he intends to make the UNP face one election after another in the next few years, to keep its members obsessed with party unity. They will think twice about agitating against their leader if they are constantly in campaign mode. And they won’t have the spirit to resist Ranil when they are continually reminded of what bad shape the party is in, courtesy their regular election defeats. Because Mahinda Rajapaksa would love nothing better than to compete with Ranil for the presidency again – his unprecedented third term. He wants to ensure that the UNP never recovers from its crisis.
The UNP can’t play somebody else’s game. It must forget about the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, which are not very important in comparison with what is at stake in Colombo, and instead refocus its efforts on choosing the most suitable leader and working out a new and more appealing programme for the next general election.
* Kath Noble is a British journalist working in South Asia. Email- firstname.lastname@example.org