By Rasika Jayakody –
The United National Party — the party I am affiliated with — is now grappling with the after-effects of a landslide defeat at the recently concluded Presidential election.
Its candidate, Sajith Premadasa, lost with a resounding margin of 1.4 million votes. Although many assumed the election would be a neck-to-neck fight, the SLPP candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, crossed the finish line with ease, even without any notable support from ethnic minorities.
Sajith Premadasa was — and still is — the UNP’s most popular leader. He received an emotional response from UNP supporters when he visited his campaign office at Vauxhall Street days after his election. Many who gathered at his Vauxhall Street campaign office said it was because of him that the party even managed 5.5 million votes at the election. Had it not been him, the UNP would have faced a far more humiliating defeat.
The people’s verdict was premeditated and not just a knee-jerk reaction to the massive propaganda campaign launched by the SLPP. The people were determined to send the ‘yahapalanaya’ government home, irrespective of the candidate fielded by the UNP-led alliance. It was due to this strong public resentment towards the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was given a natural advantage right from before campaigning even began.
But in my view, what contributed the most to the outcome of the election were the Easter Sunday terror attack. The public held the previous government responsible for the security lapses leading to the chain of explosion that claimed over 260 lives. Although it was former President Maithripala Sirisena, the leader of the SLFP, who functioned as the Commander-in-Chief and the Cabinet Minister of Defence at the time, it is the view of the people that every single member of the former government, including Premadasa, was responsible for the breakdown in the defence apparatus.
Public resentment was also fueled by the alleged anti-Sinhala Buddhist outlook of the UNP — an incorrect portrayal if there ever was one, created by the ultra-nationalist elements supporting the SLPP campaign and by pro-Rajapaksa media. Some myopic and politically incorrect statements by senior members of the Cabinet targeting Buddhist monks made their job much easier.
This led the majority Sinhala-Buddhists to vote en masse against the UNP-led alliance’s candidate Sajith Premadasa, who had relatively moderate policies on minority issues. By doing so, the majority Sinhala-Buddhists have also demonstrated their collective power as a political force.
But the Presidential election is now over. The UNP’s next big challenge is the upcoming Parliamentary election. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made it clear to his allies that the current Parliament would be dissolved during the first week of March. Going by this statement, the UNP will have approximately 100 day before it must begin to make preparations for campaign battle.
I would venture the UNP embark on a 100-day plan for the party’s revival before the Parliamentary election. It is already abundantly clear that the new government is failing to meet the expectations of the urban and suburban middle class, which also voted overwhelmingly for Rajapaksa. The UNP’s prospects at the Parliamentary election will hinge on the party’s ability to channel this general disappointment into the UNP-led campaign.
To do this, the UNP needs a revival plan that enforces drastic internal reforms, reorganizes the party and invests in perception management.
The internal reforms should ensure that the UNP leadership is appealing to voters. Voters have been let down in numerous ways by the UNP-led government over the past four years and there is a strong public outcry for ‘change’ within the party. It is imperative the party appoints a new party leader before the Parliamentary polls— it is critical to reignite the hopes of seemingly dispirited party supporters.
It also became evident during the Presidential election that the UNP’s election machinery had a lot to learn from the SLPP campaign. While the UNP focused heavily on massive election rallies and macro-level campaigning, the SLPP launched a more personalized and data-driven campaign with a strong emphasis on house-to-house campaigning. Going forward, the UNP needs to revitalize their grassroots-level machinery, especially their village-level organizations, in order to be better able to compete with the robust SLPP network at the Parliamentary election.
The most important component of the UNP’s revival plan must be the formulation of a clear strategy for perception management, and area the party was exceedingly weak in while in power. It was due to the absence of a perception management strategy that the SLPP was able to mobilize the support of the Sinhala-Buddhist community, tarring the UNP’s image with an anti-national brush. The UNP-led government never treated effective political communication as a priority and it cost the UNP dearly this Presidential election. Going forward, the UNP must be portrayed correctly in the eyes of all ethnic and religious communities, including the majority Sinhala-Buddhists!
The implementation of the revival plan must take place immediately as the clock is already ticking. It is vital for the UNP to find an amicable solution to the issue of party leadership and ensure the party moves in one direction with the same purpose.