By Dayan Jayatilleka –
It was one of the most irrational, illogical ideas I had heard or read in quite a while. I refer to the suggestion that Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) the main Opposition party, the newest party in Sri Lankan politics, which is also the fastest-growing according to its election results, should unite for common cause on a common platform with the United National Party (UNP) while Ranil Wickremesinghe remains its leader.
My objection is not to the idea of getting the UNP on a common platform. That would be just fine provided that Ruwan Wijewardene has become the leader, but not a day before that. Even if Ruwan becomes the leader, the role of the UNP should be clearly as a junior partner, similar to the UK Liberals in relation to the two major British parties.
To suggest or agree to a common platform with the UNP even while Ranil Wickremesinghe is the leader, is to remove the pressure on him and the UNP to change its leader and appoint Ruwan the leader, which would enable the Opposition to bring the UNP on board without committing electoral hara-kiri. Indeed, the change of the UNP leadership should be a precondition for any discussion on a broad platform which includes the UNP.
The problem with entering any arrangement with the UNP while Ranil remains the leader is that he brings nothing to the table while taking away something from the table. Therefore, the move is not merely illogical it is counter-productive.
A leader whose party could not win a single seat in Parliament—a fate that befell only the LSSP and CPSL in 1977—brings nothing to the table. This is all the more so in the case of a leader who lost even in his hometown, Colombo.
Any number into zero is zero. That is what the SJB risks if it seeks to multiply itself by drawing in the UNP under Ranil’s leadership.
How then to draw in the residual UNP voters and middle rung activists? It is by reaching out to them at the grassroots level, acting as a magnet or vacuum cleaner, not by dialoguing with a thoroughly discredited leadership.
As I said earlier, Ranil Wickremesinghe brings nothing to the table, he only takes something away from it. Or to put it differently, the only thing that Ranil, and the UNP still led by him, bring to the table is the huge liability that they represent electorally.
This is self-evident both from the statistics and the most recent experience. The UNP which was once the country’s largest single party, dropped to below 30% under Ranil’s leadership. It has been a long-term secular trend of shrinkage to the point that what was the UNP’s base-vote became its ceiling—and a ceiling it rarely could reach. The UNP either fielded Ranil as President and lost or fielded proxies and lost or ran into serious trouble afterwards even when it was part of a winning coalition.
Over fifteen years ago, closer twenty, the UNP appointed a one-man commission headed by NGP Panditharathne to inquire into why the party kept on losing elections. He travelled to the four corners of the island, met UNP-ers at all levels, and produced a report which concluded that the problem was the unelectability of the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ranil buried the report.
Fast forward to November 2019. Any chance that Sajith Premadasa could have done a Ranasinghe Premadasa 1988 was utterly wrecked by the facts that (a) he wasn’t given nomination in time while Gotabaya Rajapaksa had begun campaigning (b) he wasn’t given the party leadership and (c) Ranil Wickremesinghe appeared on stage.
The question is this: how anyone can logically consider Ranil Wickremesinghe a member of a common platform for democracy against the regime, when he damaged democracy and helped the regime by giving Gotabaya Rajapaksa a handicap in the presidential race and holding back nomination for Sajith Premadasa?
So, the idea of bringing in the UNP headed by Ranil onto a common democratic platform to resist the regime as a partner of the SJB is like bringing Kryptonite into the room to help Superman. More voters will move away because of his presence rather than join or remain on board.
Even if every single UNP vote comes over to the SJB or if the SJB and UNP together can assemble every single UNP vote, that still amounts to the percentage that a quarter-century of Ranil reduced the UNP, which is very much less than the percentage needed to win the Presidential election or a Referendum on a new constitution.
The SJB needs to breakthrough to the new voters, the swing voters and the SLPP voters, just as Ranasinghe Premadasa managed to breakthrough to his opponent’s social base. That requires repositioning the SJB, not re-aligning it with Ranil’s UNP or keeping it within the reduced, stagnant UNP vote-base.
There are two problems with those who propose an alliance or partnership with Ranil’s UNP. Firstly they have been under Ranil’s stagnant, unsuccessful leadership for a quarter-century and cannot rid themselves of his mentality, political line and even his ghost. They remain ideologically, strategically and psychologically captive. This may be understandable in the case of an iconic leader, but Ranil? Secondly, they have never experienced having been members of a party that led the country. By contrast, the JO, later the SLPP broke away from a party that had led the country under successive leaders for a quarter-century and had done so because it had changed its leaders several times to suit the social dynamics.
Neither the UNP nor the SJB (with the exception of those who served under President Premadasa) know what it is to win; what it takes to win; what it means and it takes to be a winning party.
The elements who propose a partnership with Ranil’s UNP to resist the regime are blind to the fact that Ranil’s UNP/the UNP’s Ranil is a burden to be liberated from; a ghost to be exorcised. It is a deadweight around the neck of the opposition, a burden that should not be dragged around. It is part of the problem and therefore by definition, cannot be part of the solution.
Does this mean the SJB should go it alone? Not necessarily, even though the strongest Opposition Sri Lanka has ever seen, the UNP in 1973-1977 under the leadership of JR Jayewardene with R. Premadasa as Deputy, reformed, rectified, renovated and revolutionized itself as a party and did not form any alliance until almost the eve of the 1977 election and that too with the CWC of Mr. Thondaman.
If any members of the SJB want to form a common platform and fight the regime, they shouldn’t look to the moribund UNP. Logically, they should instead look to those, not in government but in the oppositional space, who have just recently proved themselves to be ready, willing and able to resist the regime. I refer to the Left, namely the JVP and the FLSP.
For the SJB to occupy the progressive center, it must look left, whether in partnership with those two parties or by itself.
Any logically-thinking SJB member should figure that having failed to lead the country for 25 years, the party should look back to that time when it last led the country. That was the Premadasa presidency. Before President Premadasa, the UNP policies had caused the country to be come “a torch burning at both ends” and the party could not even hold a funeral let alone an election campaign. Premadasa saved the party, democracy and the country. After Premadasa, the party never led the country.
To any rational mind, the picture is clear. When you’ve taken a wrong path for 25 years you have to retrace your steps to the last place and time you were successful and then move forward. When at an earlier time in history, your party had taken a path which led the country to two civil wars and foreign intervention, and then miraculously it was saved and actually won the country’s leadership, you have to go back to the policies of the leader who performed that miracle.
The UNP initially thrived on the memory of the Father of Independence and the ‘father of free rice’ (“Bath Dun Piya”), DS Senanayake. The SLFP followed Bandaranaike Policies and later Mahinda Chinthana. The SJB has to base itself on the Premadasa Paradigm of growth with equity and patriotism with pluralism. Anyone who wastes time talking about Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP rather than rediscovering the formula of the last success party had —the Premadasa presidency—and moving forward from there, on that axis, using that roadmap, and updating that model, isn’t doing the regime any harm.
The regime did everything possible to retain Ranil as leader and still tries to rehabilitate him politically saying he would be the best Opposition Leader, because it remembers that the “heroic Mother of the Nation’ (“Jathiye Veera Maathawa”) the formidable Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was beaten by Ranasinghe Premadasa. The regime knows that only a Premadasa-ist developmentalist populist program can beat an ultranationalist ruling party. And who better than Ranasinghe Premadasa’s only son, to do so?
The SJB’s strongest point is Sajith Premadasa’s leadership. He has made many presentations, on public platforms during his two election campaigns (2019-2020) and more recently, to the Buddhi Mandapaya and on a Sirasa interview, that spell out a new vision, modern, progressive and social democratic. When personalities of his party mention Ranil Wickremesinghe in interviews, more times than they speak of Sajith Premadasa’s appealing new vision and project, I wonder whether they have forgotten the Presidential election of 2024.
I also wonder why they are trying to politically rehabilitate Ranil Wickremesinghe and throw him a lifeline.
And those aren’t the only things I wonder about.