By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The attack on the anti-Ranil march and the resultant punch-up in the South over the weekend brought home a fourfold political truth:
- The UNP which was haemorrhaging votes and MPs is now spilling blood in fratricidal political strife. (What next? A grenade attack on an anti-Ranil rally?)
- The UNP is two parties masquerading as one: the Reactionaries who insist that Ranil remain leader and the Reformists who realize that unless Ranil goes now, the party may not be salvageable before the next round of national level elections.
- Unless Mr Wickremesinghe is immediately replaced by a unifying and healing figure, the UNP will die of voter defections, organizational deadlock, disintegration in street-fights and sheer debilitation of morale.
- The resultant political disequilibrium will result in the slow death of democracy in the South.
The UNP is dying of multiple causes. It is losing votes; its own as well as those new votes it should have attracted as an Opposition party. It is losing parliamentarians, the latest and most visible being Dayasiri Jayasekara. It is losing activists and representatives through absurd disciplinary inquiries– ‘purges’—of which two young lawyers Shiral Laktilleke and Maithri Gunaratne are examples. It is losing numbers in parliament and at every level of the political system, through loss of votes and elected representatives. Now it is losing blood, morale and public sympathy by attacking its dissidents in the streets in full view of TV cameras.
Mr Mangala Samaraweera’s march which crashed headlong into the anti-Ranil demonstration, and the attacks which followed that initial disruption, has suicide-bombed and pre-emptively wrecked the UNP’s election campaign for the Southern Provincial Council and perhaps the West and Uva too.
Demonstrators in Mangala’s ranks were heard on TV to shout “we want a Government with Ranil in it!” (Apita Oney Aaanduwak! Ranil Ekka Aanduwak!”). The reality is that they already have such a government. (I owe my wife the wisecrack that Mr Wickremesinghe is the Government’s Minister of Opposition Affairs).
No one seems ready to accept the reality that there are two parties struggling under the tattered and perforated green tent. The Leadership Council proposal by the respected Ven Girambe Ananda was a last ditch attempt at unity. It was hopelessly utopian because it counted on Mr. Wickremesinghe’s good will and good sense. He is, however, as unready to leave the stage as the most obdurate and recalcitrant ancien regime. Therefore, the UNP can be saved only by two procedures. Firstly, the party must be rebuilt under the leadership of a personality who can re-unite the party’s factions, provide a healing touch. I can only think of the benign father figure within the UNP, Karu Jayasuriya. Secondly the UNP must recharge its batteries, renovate, re-brand and re-launch with a candidate who can energise an electoral ‘ground game’. I can only think of Sajith Premadasa.
Both these steps presuppose an immediate recognition that Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the cause or larger part of the problem, cannot be any part of the solution. The UNP needs to make a gesture which shows the national electorate that it has cut away from the dark era of appeasement of the Tigers. It must also show its own members that it has turned a page and that the old face of failure is gone; a new look is in place which will enable to the party to revive. These two moves require the replacement of Ranil as leader and a new optics that keep him out of public view.
If the UNP retains Ranil as leader, the process of shredding through internecine strife will continue, and out of sheer dismay, the party will lose its voters and activists well before it crashes at the next election.
The UNP’s Communications and Media chief Mr Samaraweera accused a large private media organization and its chief of playing a role against Ranil Wickremesinghe. If true, he should have asked himself what the reason was. He should then ask himself before he attacks a player in the private media space, how he expects to win an election with both the state media and an influential segment of the private media ranged against his leader and candidate.
Those who support Ranil should realise that as the UNP votes shrink their chances of re-election to parliament begin to vaporise and that they will be subject to a further penalty by the UNP voters themselves who will probably display their revulsion by not casting a preference vote for those who stood by the most disastrous leader a democratic party has ever had.
If democracy dies in the Southern two thirds of the island it will not be because it was murdered by Mahinda Rajapaksa but because the main Opposition, the UNP, committed suicide on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s watch, retaining him as leader.