By Malinda Seneviratne –
The United National Party (UNP) has not won a Presidential Election since 1988. That’s 26 years. In a could which saw frequent baton-changes between the two major parties, i.e. the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or at least coalitions led by one or the other, this is a serious state of affairs.
Now it can be argued that Ranil Wickremesinghe was robbed, so to speak, both in 1999 and 2005. In 1999 a close election went the incumbent’s way when she lost an eye in a terrorist attack, the resulting sympathy translating into a vote-sway. Moreover, S.B. Dissanayake once claimed that he had ensured that 400,000 හොර ඡන්ද (illegal votes) were cast in her favor. The claimant of course late switched sides and was the UNP’s National Organizer for a while before crossing party lines again. It is also claimed, frequently enough, that Ranil would have won in 2005 had the LTTE not stopped Tamils in the North and East from voting.
It seems to have gone downhill thereafter. The brief UNP-led Government with Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister was roundly defeated in 2004. The UNP suffered another major defeat in 2010 when the UPFA retained power in a Parliamentary Election. Between 1994 and 2014, except for a brief high in local government elections in 2002/3, Ranil’s UNP has lost so dozens of elections. It must be said, however, that the provincial and local government elections generally go to the party holding power at the centre and thus Ranil was always handicapped, not to mention the fact that the ruling party used the staggered-elections policy so that state resources could be more effectively (and illegally of course and as has been done by all ruling parties, the UNP included) employed to secure victory.
For all this, the UNP’s manifest inability to field a credible candidate at presidential elections is a serious indictment on that party. In 2010, as the ‘Common Opposition Candidate’ Maithripala Sirisena observed, it was a tough ask for anyone. He said he was surprised that the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka polled the numbers he ended up with. This was, as he said, just after the country was rid of the terrorist menace after three long decades of bombs, bullets, suicide attacks and bloodshed. Naturally, credit accrued to the man under whose leadership the battle was won. No one who says ‘all power resides with the president’ courtesy the constitution can really argue that credit should go elsewhere.
The 2010 election was therefore going Mahinda Rajapaksa’s way anyway, whoever the UNP fielded. And yet, even in unfavorable conditions, those in the weaker camps have not twiddled thumbs, either in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. Hector Kobbekaduwa in 1988 and Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1988 fought the good fight. Left candidates always showed spirit. They all lost, but their respective parties gained, at least to the extent that they managed to periodically re-energize their ground-level networks.
The UNP on the other hand threw in the towel almost immediately after the bell was rung for the first round. In 2010, Sarath Fonseka was not a proxy but a sacrificial lamb. The support was lukewarm, the outcome was a foregone conclusion and the only consolation that the UNP got was the right to say ‘we didn’t contest, so we didn’t lose!’ That’s as weak a brag as you can find. If the UNP wounds of 2004 and 2005 were close to getting healed, the January 2010 victory of Mahinda opened them up. In April, the UNP bled and continued to bleed to the point that the regime was able to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
One would have expected the UNP to learn some hard lessons, but this time around too the party was unable to put forward a credible candidate. Instead, it now supports a renegade of the party’s principal political enemy, expecting to get some tidbits should he succeed in defeating the formidable incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
For all the talk of the Prime Minister for Ranil (for services rendered) in the event Maithripala Sirisena wins, for all the calculations about Maithripala needing the UNP’s Parliamentary group after January 8, 2015 (if he wins, again), the UNP has shown abysmal understanding of political realities. On Day 1 of a Maithripala Presidency, he would not just be the all powerful Executive President, he can count on the entire SLFP to turn its back on Mahinda and back him instead. The political future of all SLFP MPs, after all, would thereafter be tied to the fortunes of Maithripala and not Mahinda. It is not impossible to think that he could even get the support of two-thirds of the MPs and institute constitutional reform without any support of the UNP!
Where would that leave the UNP? Where would that leave Ranil Wickremesinghe? In short, in the event of a Maithripala victory, Ranil and the UNP will be totally dependent on Maithripala’s generosity. To place one’s political eggs in a basket of a man who still claims to be the Secretary General of a rival party is utterly naïve.
‘In the larger interest of the country,’ Ranil and the UNP can claim. ‘If only politics was a fairy tale!’ someone would respond.
Is it a personality issue? Something wrong with Ranil and not necessarily the party? Perhaps. The fact remains though that the party hasn’t been able to fix the problem if indeed this was the problem. So, as things stand, this side of the ‘national interest’ thesis, the party doesn’t stand to gain in the event Maithripala wins. Is this the explanation for the lethargy of the UNP’s electioneering machine on the ground? After all, there seemed to be a lot more enthusiasm in Badulla during the Uva elections, with Harin Fernando leading the way.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com