Colombo Telegraph

The UNP Presidential Hopeful & The Middle-Class Hopeful

By Sankalpa Marasinghe

Dr. Sankalpa Marasinghe

With a presidential election looming in the vicinity of six months and the two main political streams undecided on their champion who would lead them to an ultimate victory, the political environment in Sri Lanka is full of space, opportunity and choice.

Even before the clarification by the Chairman of the Elections Commission Mr Mahinda Deshapriya that the Presidential election will be held between 15th November and 7th December 2019 there were few individuals who apparently are not representing the two main streams of politics that announced their willingness to “take the country to prosperity” if given the chance to sit at the helm of the government. However, for completely different reasons unique to their own, the two main parties are still contemplating who in their ranks holds the best chance to take their respective camps to victory if fielded as the presidential candidate.

For the Rajapaksa camp, which could be a combination of the SLFP and the SLPP it has almost narrowed down to a tussle between the family members to decide which Rajapaksa would be the next President. However, President Sirisena scoring at the last moment and yet again becoming a “surprise candidate” could still not be ruled out completely.

For the other camp, which is mainly the UNP and the supporting minority parties the field is wide open. Battered with continued losses as a party and failing to produce a national leader who could effectively lead the country for almost three decades, the members of United National Party are yearning for a candidate who could provide them not only a decisive victory but also effectively retain power for at least till the end of his tenure. 

In a stark contrast to the two main political camps who are still undecided, the public it seems, is nicely grouping in to few very clear clusters with definitive common aspirations. The obvious two groups are the traditional UNPers and the traditional SLFP+SLPPer contingent. However, the size and the depth of these camps have changed considerably over the past decade mainly due to the emergence of the “Rajapaksa factor” as a single strong vote puller and the erosion of the base UNP vote due to continued losses and poor leadership.

In my opinion the UNP vote base may have dwindled down as far below as 25% of the total votes. Contrary to the over expectation even the combined Rajapaksa camp does not have a vote base exceeding 40% of the total valid votes. It is estimated that approximately 13 million will be the total number of votes in the next presidential election. To secure a clean victory a single candidate must collect at least 6,500,000 votes. For any candidate representing the two rival camps, it would be a huge task to achieve this number. The UNP camp being the more favored among the minorities and their representative parties both camps sit in a tie well below the cutoff mark. 

So, what comprises the rest of the votes? It is the block of votes traditionally named as the floating votes which hold the key to victory for any party. Over the years this floating vote has become larger and larger due to the fact that more and more young and energitic voters move away from the traditional thinking pattern and the emergence of the middle class as the deciding social stratum in the political sphere.

Educated, striving to achieve prosperity and free thinking without the traditional bonds to parties or leaders, the individuals of this new, powerful social stratum have unique aspirations which casts them apart from the rest. They are well versed in the current economic crisis the country is in. They are vigilant about the international trends in trade and politics. They are connected and alert. They have a dream. An aspiration with a hope that this country could be revived and made a prosperous country without corruption and injustice.

Consequently the “middle-class” is on the lookout for a leader who is educated, mature and visionary. A leader who share the same aspirations and is compassionate and committed to challenge the odds and take the country forward.

The UNP camp has few candidates for the presidency. Among them are Karu Jayasuriya, Sajith Premadasa and Patali Champika Ranawaka. Reading the trends and directions of social media and propaganda, one could clearly identify that the “message” has been heard loud and clear. Past two weeks saw that Sajith Premadasa taking great pains to publish his academic qualifications even to the extent of publishing his results sheets. The emergence of the “middle-class” as the decider in the race, has forced politicians to think differently. While it is very clear that Patali Champika Ranawaka is clearly the leader in fulfilling the criteria of a leader the middle class is looking for, it is only a matter of aligning the thinking of the rest of the contingent in the traditional block to think beyond the boundaries of the petty party politics and reach out to grab the opportunity to lead the nation to greatness.

On the other hand, the strong desire of the traditional UNPer to field one of their own candidates makes a case for Sajith Premadasa. But, how good a chance Sajith Premadasa would have if selected as a presidential candidate? 

Judging by the tone of his campaign so far it is too obvious that he himself has realized that the appeal for the “middle-class” is the key to his victory. And that unfortunately cannot be achieved by hoodwinking the well informed and smart voter of “middle-class”. The attempt to portrait Sajith Premadasa as an educated intellectual by means of publishing his “various academic qualifications” was not received well on social media. In fact it created a little bit of backlash and made a mockery.

In comparison, Patali Champika Ranawaka has been successful in establishing his status as a modern leader with a vision and a matching academic and political background. His ability to address the young and educated professionals at a higher level of intellectual capacity has given him the edge to attract the ever-increasing block of “floating vote”. This attraction spans across the boundaries of race, religion and cast which binds a large group of voters in to one common group. While Sajith may be the choice of the traditional UNPer, to reach beyond the limits of the party and unify a clear majority and become victorious, UNP should decide wisely and select the candidate who has the best chance of winning.

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