The UNP has over the years been reduced to a Colombo-centric pressure group, run by an elitist cabal whose members usually catch a cold if the Queen happens to sneeze in London. The UNP of yore used to be a vibrant political movement backed by the elite and the masses alike. It will have to regain its lost image and vigour if it is to gain enough political traction let alone, win elections. Ranil has his work cut out because President Rajapaksa is well versed in grassroots politics like the late President Premadasa.” – Last Thursday The Island editorial
However, there is another side to the story that might be hard to swallow. So, Let us start from London!
Margaret Thatcher came to the Conservative party leadership on February 11, 1975. Thatcher was the longest serving prime minister in more than 150 years securing three election victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. In 1990, John Major became the party leader and served as the Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997. So, Conservatives, the UNPs UK counterpart, managed to stay in power for 18 years.
In 1973, J. R. Jayewardena became the UNP leader and was successful at the 1977 elections. He promptly changed the Constitution and became the first Executive President of Sri Lanka. Thereafter, Premadasa and D. B. Wijetunge served as successive presidents until 1994. So, the UNP managed to stay in power for 17 years like the Tories did in the UK.
Both the UNP and the Conservatives shared and practised the same political thinking, that of an open economy. Famed for their tough uncompromising style they privatised state controlled industries and curbed union power.
The UNP lost the 1994 election and the Conservatives lost the 1997 election. What happened next? Leftists came to power in both countries, but with a new political philosophy. Tony Blair came to power preaching “responsible capitalism” and Chandrika Bandaranaike came to power preaching “a human face to an open economy” (vivurththa arthikayata maanusheeya muhunuwarak deema). This was simply to satisfy the left wingers in continuing with an open economy. The collapse of the so-called socialist/Soviet style economic order was complete .
This new phenomenon had brought the left closer to the centre. One cannot see much difference between the opposition and the ruling party on the economic front. Let us see what Basil Rajapaksa said to the US. Rajapaksa said that the government has done all that the IMF has asked. (see colombotelegraph.com for the full US diplomatic cable). What did the Central Bank Governor Cabraal say to the US? He said, “GSL has done all that the IMF has asked, including, for example, introducing new tax measures and altering its monetary policy.”
Once the Conservatives lost in 1997, intra-party leadership struggles emerged as is common the world over. They changed five party leaders ; William Hague 1997 to 2001, Iain Duncan Smith 2001 to 2003, Michael Howard 2003 to 2005 and David Cameron 2005. All of them lost the general elections and were unable to form a government except David Cameron. In 2010 the election ended in a ‘hung’ parliament with the Conservatives having the most seats but being 19 seats short of an overall majority. The Conservatives managed to form a government with the Liberal Democratic Party in a coalition, in a trade off giving them high profile ministries including the deputy premiership.
But, in Sri Lanka it is Ranil Wickremasinghe who stays as the party leader regardless of defeats. I would like to raise a couple of points regarding this issue. Firstly, the Conservative Party changed five leaders since their defeat. Did they manage to win because of leadership changes? Secondly, it is a Sri Lankan tradition that party leaders remain regardless of elections defeats. Look at Sri Lanka’s oldest and perhaps the most democratic party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party; Dr N. M. Perera served as its leader from the inception until he died. Take the Sri Lanka Freedom Party; Sirima Bandaranaike served as the leader until she died. What about the JVP? Wijeweera was the leader until he was killed. If someone proposes to change this tradition, that is another matter. Then one has to admit that losing, is a factor not confined to Ranil.
My point is Ranil is not the losing factor. Ranil is unlucky to be remembered as the author of the peace process which in fact weakened the LTTE (though I am not endorsing his peace strategy, those who are opposed to him in his party as well as other critics, who have the blessings of the Maha Sangha and pretending to be patriots – have to accept it) His achievements in areas such as media freedom and reforms and the economic policy laid part of the foundations for the steady recovery in the economy during the early part of 2000 and like all the better leaders he resisted the temptation to panic in the face of cries from the opposition, the press, and the backbenchers.
When Ranil won the election to be Prime Minister, he was good. Just after the UNP lost the 2004 April election he was subjected to smear campaigns. In May 2004 the US Ambassador to Colombo Jeffrey J. Lunstead wrote to Washington, “after the recent election defeat, UNP leader Wickremesinghe is under fire from within his party.” He wrote “Long-standing UNP members have also criticised Wickremesinghe’s election strategy, though mostly in private.
In a May 10 meeting with the DCM, for example, former Interior and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga said the UNP had lost the election due in part to a lack of charisma on Wickremesinghe’s part.” “ Amaratunga related that one party member had complained to Wickremesinghe’s face that his constituents were unhappy that the former PM never smiles and they wonder why they should vote for the UNP” ( see colombotelegraph.com) If these allegations are correct how did he win the 2001 general election and became prime minister? Did the UNP win because of John’s charisma or John’s smile ?
There will always be discontent, there will always be people who seek to stir trouble in every political party. Even before he faced his first presidential election in 1999, some sections of the UNP, such powerful party figures as Wijepala Mendis and Susil Moonasinhe, started to criticise Ranil publicly. It was in 1997 that I asked Ranil; “what is this all about? Why does this kind of criticism take place in public?” Ranil replied; “I’m not a Premadasa, let them criticise, President Premadasa never let others criticise him, and always suppressed critics, at the end he faced the consequences”. In another occasion I asked Ranil, why don’t you support Chandrika’s political proposals (Package)? He replied; “the issue is the parliamentary group and the working committee. They were nominated and appointed by Gamini Disanayake.” The answer was clear, though he was the leader of the party, the decision making body wasn’t under his control. It was his opponent the late Gamini Dissanayake who appointed them. Any leader likes to make some changes at some time, and if Ranil chooses to do that, that is entirely his prerogative as the leader of the party. The party leader has to have authority to make decisions. That is the UNP tradition.( The bad version is Sri Lanka’s oldest democratic party’s leader Minister Tissa Vitarana. He has manipulated the party annual general meeting and membership lists in order to get favourable decisions.) If the UNP dissidents need to change this tradition, there must be another way. But it should not be on the basis of Ranil being a loser, so-called sexual orientation allegations, or his smile.
What was President Rajapaksa’s motive behind introducing the18th amendment before taking oaths into his second term? He knew in the second term even though he is the president, struggles to be the next leader will start from within the party and he will not be able to control it. JR Jayewardena and Chandrika Kumaratunga both faced leadership struggles in their second terms.
Ironically, London has had struggles for leadership from grass root levels in political parties. Iain Duncan Smith was the first Conservative leader to be elected by grassroot level members rather than MPs. It was not a happy experience, however, and the self-confessed “quiet man” fell to a vote of no confidence from MPs never getting to fight an election as party leader.
Some argue that the UNP need a leader like Mahinda or Premadasa. Ranil of course is not like them. On the one hand, I don’t think the country needs another Rajapaksa or Premadasa or even a son like Premadasa. People who preach this, forget how undemocratic leaders they are and were. On the other hand if the UNP found a leader like Rajapaksa, voters will say, oh, we already have a Rajapaksa in power, so why do we need another ? He can do this better than the UNP one, because he has already served two terms and he is better than an amateur. If one needs to change the UNP leader, they should find someone who is different to both Ranil and Mahinda!
Part 2 – The UNP’s Leadership Struggle; Ranil,Sinhala-Buddhist Racism and Rosy By Uvindu Kurukulasuriya