By Dayan Jayatilleka –
From a party that made history, today the UNP is history. The last chance it had, it blew. That was in 2019 when it had the chance to do what it had done in 1988: give the Presidential candidacy and the party’s leadership to the party’s deputy leader Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Instead, Sajith was grudgingly given the candidacy weeks after Gotabaya Rajapaksa had started campaigning, Ranil retained the UNP leadership, put it about publicly that he would be the PM if Sajith won, let it be said that a UNP government would sign the controversial MCC.
Unlike his father who narrated his own manifesto, based on his distinctive ideas as contained in publications dating back to 1957, to Susil Sirivardhana who produced 8 drafts, Sajith Premadasa had to set aside the bulky policy dossier prepared during 2019 by a group comprising 50 PhDs in a process of deliberation chaired by Sajith and convened by Dr Mahim Mendis a committed social-democrat.
Instead, he ran on a UNP manifesto which was not bespoke-tailored to fit the (Sajith) Premadasa candidacy, was asymmetrical with his style and discourse on stage. It was a UNP straitjacket; technocratic and tepid, when it wasn’t tripping-out or frilly.
Ranasinghe Premadasa’s winning UNP manifesto of 1988 represented studied discontinuity, conscious rupture, with the profile and discourse of a discredited UNP administration besieged by Sinhala nationalism. Sajith’s UNP manifesto of 2019 represented its opposite: more continuity than discontinuity with the disastrous discourse and policies of a UNP administration and leadership on the verge of electoral extinction.
Personally, I think Sajith would have clocked 45%-48% as untrammeled UNP candidate and leader, running on his own, robust policy platform.
The UNP establishment probably thought that Sajith’s defeat which it worked towards, was affordable, far more so than his victory. It wasn’t. Sajith didn’t do badly the first time out against a Rajapaksa presidential candidate with a strong nationalist wind in his sails. He got only 105 less than Gotabaya and 8% less than the required 50%. However, without Sajith as UNP leader, the UNP didn’t get a single elected representative into parliament.
SLFP & Yahapālanaya
The SLFP led the country for twenty years or twenty-five, depending on how you count, because President Sirisena was also the former General-Secretary of the party and officially the SLFP leader in 2015-2019. How then did the SLFP in a coalition government and holding the presidency, get beaten by a new party of its own members in February 2018? Why, after a quarter-century, is it now miniaturized?
As Mao originally said and Deng made world-famous, “seek truth from facts”. The fact is that the UNP, an SLFP defector and a faction of his party entered the Yahapalanaya coalition government unofficially backed by the TNA and the JVP. When the experiment was over and elections held, the TNA and JVP had shrunk, the SLFP had shrunk and been crippled, and the UNP evaporated electorally.
Obviously, the Yahapalanaya project was a terrible idea at several levels. A bipartisan pact opened space for a new alternative. That alternative was quick to form and gathered mass and momentum because of the minoritarian charter of the Yahapalanaya agenda. The SLFP was saved, though reduced to a shard, because Maithripala Sirisena distanced himself and the SLFP splinter he led, belatedly but barely sufficiently, from the kryptonite that was the Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Ministership.
The one way the Yahapalanaya project might have worked is if Chandrika Kumaratunga had recalled her dreadful experience of 2000-2004 with Ranil Wickremesinghe and insisted that Karu Jayasuriya either be the candidate in 2015 or Maithripala Sirisena’s Prime Ministerial partner. She didn’t.
Thus, the SLFP founded by her father, defended by her mother, and revitalized by herself, was led into a trap of toxicity from which it barely escaped, dreadfully wounded and minus an arm and a leg.
Hence, the situation of the SLFP at 70. If it is to re-grow (rather than remain like the later Groot), it must break from the Gotabaya government soon, most glaringly obviously over the issue of the suffering peasantry.