Colombo Telegraph

UNF Would Have Done Better

By Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya

In his latest book on political marketing, a timely release during the electioneering process, Dr Sunil Jayantha Navaratna argues that a vote by person to a particular political party or to a candidate is a temporary loan based on a package presented through propaganda and promotion during the campaign. That package consists of seven Ps – Person (candidate), [Party and Logo], [Policies & Plans], Promises, Performances, [Perceptions & Predictions] and Payback.

When analyses the August 17 polls according to the above argument, it seems UNF has succeeded in packaging its seven Ps – or at least most of them – but still did not managed to secure the required simple majority (113 seats) as a single party.

In fact the battle was not a direct competition between two persons as it happened on January 8. It was battle between a person and a set of policies in which the majority trusted the latter than an individual.

Going by Dr Navaratna’s logic, the UPFA had only two strong Ps within its camp. The first was the Person in Mahinda Rajapakse. The entire UPFA campaign was designed around his personal Charisma and all the candidates magnetized around it. The other P that worked for him was his Performances – not on governance or economic development of the country – but purely on war. One could argue that the votes UPFA bagged were still payback or gratitude for winning the war – mainly from his strong Sinhala-Buddhist vote base. Other than those two reasons, I don’t think his voters trusted his Policies & Plans, Promises or even Perceptions.

On the other hand Goebbel’s theory (repeating a lie until it becomes a virtual truth) would have worked well for Mahinda camp. Its repeated claims on nationalism and patriotism rooted deep into his Sinhala Buddhist audience and it was well depicted by the polling pattern around the country.

Mind you, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s achievement of 95 seats was amidst massive claims on corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and severe murder and other alleged criminal charges against his family and other team members. Also his campaign continued get affected by a major split within his camp, mainly President Sirisena throwing two powerful bombs – at the beginning through a speech and at the end through a hard-hitting letter, and removing the two most powerful party secretaries. Still he managed to give a tough chase to his main opponent. In that context, Rajapakse performed well, though he lost the battle.

In contrary, UNF did not make many mistakes during its seven month regime except for the infamous bond issue which was the only major weapon that both UPFA and JVP used against their major contender. A closer study would reveal that there had not been a wrong-doing in the bond issue except for a non-declaration of a conflict of interest case – but when compared to the amount of corruption cases by former leadership of the Central Bank during the previous regime, this was totally a non-event. But whether the UNF was successful in countering this allegation of a scam – which is highly a technical matter – is a pertinent question. No average voter (or even UNF’s own candidates) would understand UNF’s technical clarification on the bond issue, but they would hear echoing allegations of a massive scam both on UPFA and JVP platforms. The comments by President Maithreepala Sirisena (I doubt even he himself understood the technical clarifications) on the issue made the situation worse.

With all these benefits and challenges Mahinda Rajapakse has managed to retain his vote base of 2010 (4.8 million votes) with a slight decrease of 2.35%. In contrast the UNF has managed to increase its popularity by 116% – attracting 2.7 million new votes to its 2.3 million votes in 2010. It gives an indication that UNF has managed to secure the floating vote to a greater degree. The sad story is the JVP, which was expected to perform better with at least 10 seats.

What is the secret behind this success of the UNF? I we analyse its success according to Dr Navaratna’s arguments, those were [Policies & Plans], Promises, Performances and [Perceptions & Predictions].

The campaign to ‘Clean up the House’ worked well, at least with the UNF camp. Though people generally don’t trust manifestos, at least the UNP five-fold development strategy has managed to win confidence of its vote base, it seems.

In fact, to my mind, when analyzing the political environment for the past few months, securing a direct simple majority by UNF would not have been a major challenge, as Chandrika did in 1994. But for her advantage she was a new face to the political landscape that provided fresh blood to the ailing SLFP and its coalition. But this time, though we did not have fresh faces within the main race, at least UNF had many trump cards against its contender which would have easily brought a comfortable simple majority.

Absence of powerful speakers on main platform was noticed during the entire UNF campaign. It was only party leader Wickremesinghe who took all the election rallies on his shoulders along with Imthiaz Bakeer Markar while Karu Jayasuriya operating from Sirikotha on national level. All the others were busy collecting their ‘manape’ in their respective districts. Especially the party was not benefitted from the grass root popularity of Sajith Premadasa who confined himself to Hambantota with less results. In contrast UPFA had a full team travelling around the country along with Rajapaksa that included powerful speakers like Weerawansa. UNF is still missing speakers like Dayasiri Jayasekera on political stage to counter them.

But it seems that there is a powerful second tier leadership of UNP emerging from grass root and elsewhere – such as Harin Fernando, Ruwan Wijewardene and Ajith Perera. These young blood should be well groomed and protected to ensure the sustainability and well-being of the party.

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge of the UNF is meeting the expectations of its five million odd voters and others. A new country in sixty months through a five-fold strategy is not a path of roses but could be the biggest challenge ever in the post conflict Sri Lanka.

On the other hand maintaining a clean track record within the governance system is among the high expectations of the voters who are fed of piles of corruption stories for the past ten years. No country can totally eliminate corruption, but it is a matter of scale. The effort should be to rise up in the international lists of anti-corruption barometers.

But the biggest encounter to the Maithri – Ranil led new government would be to maintain its strong hold within the House for the next sixty months. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who created history by stepping down to the position of Parliamentarian from Executive Presidency, has claimed that he would continue in politics in Parliament. Rajapaksa has already proved the fact that he is person who never gives up. Thus, no sensible person would believe that he will remain silent and neutral in and outside Parliament but continue to create headaches both to Maithree and Ranil using all available opportunities. To my mind, Maithri should get his acts together in securing his power base within the party as the first step in countering Rajapaksa. That would be the point of departure and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to ensure the deliverables as he has promised on political platform.

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