By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A great liberal of the Kennedy era and the top intellectual of the JFK administration, Arthur Schlesinger famously wrote that the US was doomed to fail in Vietnam because US policy in Vietnam was trapped in an eight sided box. Similarly UNP is trapped in a many sided box and has trapped the Yahapalana government in there with it.
(1) Its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has not led it to victory for almost 25 years.
(2) He will not leave the leadership.
(3) A Leadership Council under him will only devolve defeat on select others and discredit them by having them share the blame for the inevitable defeats at the PC and Presidential polls.
(4) Ranil cannot be ousted because of the UNP Constitution introduced by him in 1994, which overturned the much more democratic one and concentrated decision-making in an entity largely packed with his nominees.
(5) The UNP reformists have been unable to restore the older, democratic and broad-based party Constitution.
(6) The most obvious successors to Wickremesinghe prefer to wait until his total crash in 2020 rather than imitate the great Ranasinghe Premadasa who accepted the UNP leadership in 1988 even while describing his legacy rightly as a “torch burning at both ends”, and had planned to launch a breakaway presidential candidacy (as Sirisena Cooray confirms) had he not been nominated by the party.
(7) UNP front rankers are unable or unwilling to form a “Pohottuwa” equivalent, following in the footsteps of DS Senanayake who formed the UNP, leaving behind the iconic Ceylon National Congress, R. Premadasa who formed the Puravesi Peramuna when the UNP had lost the election of 1970 and the party was deadlocked, Rukman Senanayake who formed the ELJP, and Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamani Dissanayake who formed the DUNF in 1991.
(8) By blocking the only meaningful, moderate reform IN the Yahapalana model that is possible, the UNP has made the radical nationalist replacement OF the Yahapalana government inevitable.
The motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister will reveal important secrets.
First, it will reveal to the whole country, the political stances, moral values and ethical standards, i.e. the true character, of those who vote one way or another.
Second, it will provide an accurate indication of the political future and electoral fortunes of these parliamentarians. The way they vote on April 4th will be a crucial determinant in how people will vote for them at all elections up to 2020.
Third, it will reveal the direction in which the country will go for many years to come. If the no-confidence motion wins, the country will have a government consisting of the moderate SLFP and liberal nationalist or pragmatic populist UNP dissidents, backed by the Joint Opposition’s formidable phalanx of MPs critically supporting it through a policy dubbed “responsive cooperation” while not holding office. This is the best possible formula for stability and the containment of extremism.
If however, the numbers fall short and the motion is not carried, it will be either the JO and most of the SLFP constituting an enlarged opposition confronting a diminished government, probably of the UNP and TNA, or a JO remaining in opposition while the SLFP is stuck in a political limbo, a never-never land, in which it withers away into electoral marginality rather like the LSSP in 1977. Right now, the SLFP still has a bargaining chip, but the longer it remains with Ranil’s UNP, that bargaining chip dissolves like a lozenge. Right now, the JO-SLPP cannot get more than 102 seats in parliament and the SLFP will get 30, were the results of the local government election be translated into parliamentary terms, but at the very next election that is likely to change, with the JO-SLPP growing as the SLFP and UNP shrink.
If the moderate SLFP does not ally with it on April 4th and beyond, the JO-SLPP will have no choice but to go it alone, until it is able to launch its own Presidential candidate later next year. Though the JO-SLPP may, on current form, require SLFP support to form a government, it must be remembered that the next parliamentary election is to be held AFTER, not before the Presidential election, and once the government loses as it is likely to, the parliamentary election will take place with a JO-SLPP backed candidate having won the Presidential election, compensating for the possible loss of minority votes by generating a Pan-Sinhala tectonic shift of UNP/urban middle class voters.
The UNP is about to fall into a classic trap. Nobody is pushing them into it. They are themselves ready to take a running leap right into the trap.
The UNP has made the same fatal error that Prabhakaran and the LTTE did. Instead of bunching up in 2008-9, the LTTE could have decentralized and dispersed into the jungles as guerrilla columns to fight an unconventional war. They chose, for reasons of pride, to remain as large units and fight a semi-conventional war, defending territory and their ‘Maximum Leader’ Prabhakaran. Eventually they trapped themselves in Nandikadal and provided a “target rich environment”. The UNP is doing the same and operating as an electorally diminishing separate state. The UNP MPs are concentrating themselves in static defense of a nationally unpopular leader and a socially illegitimate cause.
The more the UNP MPs identify themselves with the most unpopular, unelectable leader the UNP has ever produced, and the more the numbers of UNP MPs who identify themselves with him, the easier a target they make at an election. The masses will not vote for them because they supported their leader. That would happen if their leader were popular at the grassroots—as President Premadasa was during the impeachment. The masses will punish them for standing with a leader who is ruining the country and the UNP itself. Their political war has already begun to be lost, with the Local Government elections, and Nandikadal will come either with the Provincial Council elections or the Presidential election of next year.
The electorate will not reward UNP MPs who stand with the PM on this issue, the bond scam. The UNP voters will punish them for not dumping him and liberating the UNP from this deadweight. In fact any UNP MP who votes for Ranil at the no-confidence motion is going to be tainted in the public imagination as someone who has benefited from the bond scam money!
What of the SLFP? Remember the joke about the hen and the pig who passed a café with a board which advertised ham and eggs? The hen said I’m hungry and I’ll bet you are too, so let’s go in and have some breakfast. To which the pig replied, no you go ahead, and I’ll stay back because in my case it would involve a total commitment. The same goes for the no-confidence motion, the UNP and the SLFP.
If the UNP stays loyal to Ranil, nothing changes for the UNP except that it will sink to 20% at the upcoming elections, be crushingly defeated and make a slow recovery under a new leader who will in all probability be Sajith Premadasa. It faces collapse, not extinction.
On the other hand, everything is at stake for the SLFP. The economy has recorded its lowest growth in 16 years. The SLFP is down to its lowest vote ever. If the SLFP stays with Ranil’s UNP, its vote base will shift almost entirely to Mahinda Rajapaksa and its remaining vote will almost certainly drop below double digits. So for the SLFP it is a crisis of survival with the price of remaining with Ranil’s UNP being electoral extinction.
The SLFP is not suicidal except for a handful of Chandrikaistas whose political careers are coming to an end and those who think they can secure UNP nomination and win—which may not prove a safe bet as they will not be the first choice of either the UNP voters or the UNP’s incoming leadership.
The SLFP has to choose in full public view, between supporting the PM’s conduct in the bond scam and opposing it. And it has to do this before its prime audience—the SLFP voters.
If the SLFP doesn’t rebel conspicuously against Ranil on April 4th, who will come for its celebration next month, on May 1st, or rather, who will remain there without melting away to join Mahinda’s crowd on that day?
The secret of the SLFP’s present decline, is that it has pandered to Chandrika while the SLFP voters including in Attanagalla, regard Mahinda’s politics as closer to those of SWRD and Sirimavo Bandaranaike than Chandrika’s openly pro-Ranil, pro-UNP line is. The Rajapaksa policies are felt to be on far more of a continuum with Bandaranaike policies, than Chandrika’s are. She has lost the battle for her parents’ ideological heritage and political space, to Mahinda. The SLFP voters like their blue a dark one, the one that they recall, not the pale blue, turquoise or aquamarine that adorns the SLFP platforms today.
The greater the Ranil-led UNP’s dependence on the TNA at the no confidence vote, the greater the social and electoral backlash against the UNP-TNA bloc (as in 1955-56 and 1965-1970) and the greater the likelihood of a majoritarian nationalist agenda driving the Mahinda Rajapaksa succession for the presidential candidacy, and the inevitable post-Yahapalana successor administration late next year. In Sri Lanka’s endless political karmic cycle, minoritarianism gives birth to majoritarianism and majoritarianism follows minoritarianism “like the wheel, the oxcart”.