By Rajan Philips –
The response of the UNP leadership to the results of the Uva election has curiously ended in anticlimax. Even though the UNP lost the election, there was enough in it for the Party to seize the political headlines for weeks on end, energize its supporters, and announce to the country that after two decades of serial losing the UNP is back in business as the only serious contender to the still powerful but increasingly decadent Rajapaksa regime. In Harin Fernando, who became a preferential phenomenon in Badulla, the UNP had the perfect commodity for sustained political marketing. Alas, the Party of the Market has become a workshop of political zombies after the Uva election. But for a single post-election statement spuriously linking the 2014 provincial victory to the 1817 Uva rebellion, the UNP leadership was back in the underwhelming business of internal party bickering.
Party Secretary Tissa Attanayake let it be known that he was resigning from the Party’s Leadership Council. If people did not quite get that, it was clarified that Mr. Attanayake was not quitting the Secretary post. Never mind that being Secretary made him a de facto member of the Leadership Council. The resignation move was seen as a ruse to unravel the UNP Leadership Council set up about one year ago with ecclesiastical blessings, and make way for Sajith Premadasa to be anointed as the UNP Deputy Leader. And he was duly anointed – a reward more for his whining, or singing, than his politics. Never in Sri Lanka, has so much been made for long about a political scion with so little leadership potential. Not everyone is pleased, especially Ravi Karunanayake who is in turn disliked by Attanayake. There was a show of selfless camaraderie on the Party’s second tier – with Ruwan Wijewardane, Gampaha District MP and Chairman of the UNP National Youth Front, gifting his Chairmanship to Harin Fernando, and the latter graciously declining the gift and returning it to sender.
The riveting news of all, although not made hugely public, was that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be leaving for the re-United Kingdom to attend – of all things – the annual conference of the British Conservative Party starting today in Birmingham. What politics is this? Reverse celebration of the Uva rebellion? The Uva voters who lost the election even before voting, have now been defeated again – betrayed, that is, by the UNP leadership. We are left to wonder if President Rajapaksa, in one of his more meditative moments, might be thinking: “what more can I do for these (UNP) fellows to put me out of my karmic presidential misery?”
While his supporters are busy imagining that the presidency is Ranil’s for the taking, Mr. Wickremesinghe is still having trouble differentiating between a national constituency and non-national affiliations. Instead of storming the country after Uva, he has taken flight to sit as a guest backbencher at what would mostly be a soul-searching rather than an inspirational conference of the British Conservative Party. The Tories will be infighting to stave off defeat at the next elections, hardly the place for the UNP leader to go to learn about winning. A meeting with Modi next door could be more rewarding. But serious leaders stay home and do the hard work and do not depend on diplomatic endorsements and overseas recognitions. If at all such testimonials will be burnt by the electorate. Uva gave Ranil Wickremasinghe yet another chance to affirm his self-belief and project his confidence to the country. But he seems bent on blowing his moment rather than seizing the initiative.
The open question and Chandrika’s stinger
In Uva, the UNP got closer than anywhere else in ten years but did not win. In politics, as in sports, what matters in the end is winning and not how close one gets to winning only to end up losing. The government lost votes hugely from its 2009 total, but still won, its internal estimates were apparently right on the mark: 58% in Moneragala, 48% in Badula. Dirty tricks were not unexpected, but plenty of new dirty tricks were deployed. Winning against the UPFA, means winning against all of its tricks and against all odds. Anything less is not a win. The diminishing vote tallies of the government are a strong trend and a powerful indicator of its declining support. But trends and indicators – do not an election win. It would be naïve to expect these trends to automatically extend to the next presidential or parliamentary election. They need a political agency to convert them into real votes and real victory. Who will provide the agency for the opposition? That is the question, and it remains open in spite of Uva.
What Uva has shown is that the political contest in the south is still a two-party contest, everyone else is an also-ran. There is no third force worthy of electoral mention. The JVP can give zest to a political campaign, but in Uva it JVP could not reach its own target of 10%. There is nothing new about the two-party-vote-split in Sri Lankan politics. Doric de Souza made that abstraction after the LSSP’s electoral debacle in March, 1960. LSSP, the then bearer of the Left banner, was not targeting a piffling 10% in the 1960 election but ran on a sweepstake “NM for PM” slogan. It is a whole new electoral world out there now, and the old UNP-SLFP-Left categories are not only meaningless but are also non-existent in the way they used to exist.
Of the three, remarkably, it is still the UNP that still has its old brand name intact, albeit without the old brand of leadership. The SLFP is a different family party now, and it requires nothing less than mathematical genius to see the current SLFP as the old vehicle of Sinhalese nationalism under the political leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the strategic leadership of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Not necessarily speaking for the founding family of the SLFP, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has spoken her mind about the creeping militarization of Sri Lanka: “I have strong fears over this. Today, even the roads are being swept by the military. Even the drains in front of my house are being cleaned by them. My greatest fear is whether they will commit a massive destruction by discarding their brooms for weapons at a crucial time when the people attempt to bring about a change.” Well said, and better by someone than no one. But wouldn’t it be politically more consequential for Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe to stay home and do such frontline lambasting in Sri Lanka, rather than flying away to sit as a silent spectator at the Tory conference in Birmingham?
Mrs. Kumaratunga’s stinging words may not find a positive resonance in Ranil Wickremesinghe, but they have provoked an angry response from the Defense Ministry: “… the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi-led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Mrs. Kumaratunga appeared to have taken a common stand against the military. … The TNA is pushing the government to withdraw the Army from the Jaffna peninsula. The TNA also wants the government to reduce the strength of the Army in the Vanni region. In Colombo, Mrs. Kumaratunga is propagating falsehood as regards the intentions of the Army.” Tying the former President to the TNA is a new version of the oldest communal trick in Sri Lankan politics. Not to mention that the Ministry officials have no business responding to political criticisms, which ought to the responsibility of government ministers, if not leaders of the UPFA.
President Kumaratunga is now limited to making occasional comments from the sidelines. Her latest stinger on the military is not a reflection on the men and women of the armed forces but an overdue public criticism of the process of militarization under the Rajapaksa government. The voters of Uva issued a stinger of their own indicating the growing disaffection of the people with the UPFA government. But neither public criticism nor voter disaffection can have electoral consequences without the agency of a strong opposition party and determined opposition leadership. The UNP came ‘close’ in Uva more by default than any design by its leaders. Post-Uva, the Party has failed to seize the initiative. Instead of rising to the occasion, its leader seems determined to be missing in action.