By Mangala Samaraweera –
It is indeed a quirk of destiny that the very person who initiated the ‘Ranilta Be’ ( Ranil can’t) poster prior to the Presidential election of 1999 should now be writing this article explaining why I believe that Ranil Wickramesinghe ‘can do it.’ My reasoning, however, behind both these actions remain the same. In 1999, during President Kumaratunge’s re-election bid,we recognised Ranil as a strong and formidable candidate whose credibility needed to be questioned as a part of the strategy to secure the second term: in 2013, he still remains, in my view the only formidable liberal democratic alternative to the chauvinistic, increasingly authoritarian Rajapakse kleptocracy.
The whole country is suffering today for choosing a leader based purely on his populist appeal. Despite being aware of the many inadequacies of Mahinda Rajapaksa to become a national leader and his lacklustre performance as a cabinet minister for nearly twelve years, the SLFP unanimously endorsed Mahinda as the Presidential candidate simply because of his appeal to ‘the gallery’. In the absence of a political track record based on intellectual or governance excellence he was marketed as a genial ‘action man’ and even his moustache had to be projected as a symbol of his leadership qualities during the campaign.
Eight years into the Rajapaksa Presidency, the country is at last waking up from its hypnotic slumber to the stark realities of electing such a inept and inefficient person to lead the country. The economy is in shambles, the rule of law is confined to the pontifications of the President and his secretary brother, the family tree has embraced all branches of the state machinery including the treasury, cheap public relations gimmicks come in the guise of good governance and the regime, recalling Nehru’s famous statement of nationalism being ‘ the last resort of the scoundrel’, is unashamedly fanning the flames of communal and religious disharmony in order to distract the attention away from the increasing hardships the people have to face despite the end of the war four years ago. The country is also facing international isolation and the President seems very keen to form an axis of pariah nations with his newly found friends in Belarus, Uganda, Swaziland, Sudan etc. Sri Lanka is not only moving in an authoritarian direction but it has also become a fully fledged kleptocracy. Under the Rajapaksa regime the President is now not only the commander in chief of the armed forces, he is also the editor in chief of all media in Sri Lanka.
As the Campaign Manager for Mahinda Rajapksa in 2005 (when many of the present vociferous acolytes of the ‘Chintanaya’ were working against or sabotaging the campaign), my conscience says that I too must share the burden of guilt for paving the way for such a disastrous leadership. In fact, I apologised to the nation from the Kalubowila Hospital in January 2009, the day Lasantha Wickrametunge was killed. Four years later, my resolve to undo this great wrong I have done in supporting Mahinda in 2005 is even stronger but I feel I have to be more cautious in my support for the next presidential candidate as the country cannot afford yet another populist autocrat. Once bitten twice shy!
The next person whom we entrust the destiny of our country must have the experience and the vision to boldly change the catastrophic direction in which the country is heading today. We need a leader who has the courage of his convictions to abolish the executive Presidential system: a leader who can establish a meritocracy in place of the nepotism we have today; a leader who is not tainted with corruption and a proven track record in economic and administrative management; a non communal leader who can give leadership to a multi ethnic multi religious Sri Lankan identity: a leader who can rally the international community behind our country’s development. In short the next leader of Sri Lanka should be an effective, efficient and invisible leader a la Lee Kuan Yew ( the man not the system) and not an ubiquitous demagogue smiling down at you from every bill board in the country. The only leader who fits the bill in the present arid political landscape in my view is Ranil Wickramesinghe.
While many people would agree with me that Ranil would make a good if not an excellent leader for our country, some question his ability to win a Presidential elections quoting the umpteen number of mainly staggered elections won by the PA/UPFA since 1994. In a winner takes all electoral system where the odds are heavily stacked against the opposition, especially at provincial and local government elections, the UNP has suffered many setbacks just as the SLFP did prior to 1994. While the party leadership must be held accountable for such defeats,the party electoral organisers are equally if not more accountable for the electoral failure in their respective seats. However, Ranil Wickramesinghe in his personal capacity has proved himself to be the best vote catcher in the UNP during this period. In fact Ranil scored the most amount of votes for the UNP in recent times in the 2005 Presidential elections and he was short of a mere 126,000 votes from outright victory and only short of 23,000 votes from a second count. Just as Ranasinghe Premadasa won the 1989 Presidential elections thanks to the JVP enforced boycott in the south , Mahinda Rajapaksa grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat in 2005, thank to the LTTE enforced boycott in the North.
Not only has Ranil continuously scored the highest preferential votes in the Colombo district but during the last round of Muncipal and local government election Ranil as the District leader along with Ravi Karunanayake spearheaded the Colombo Muncipal Council election campaign resoundingly defeating the government campaign led by the President,Namal and even Gothabaya who campaigned shamelessly in violation of not only the election laws but also the Establishment Code for civil servants. In many of the electorates led by party dissidents who want to oust the leader for not winning elections, the UNP vote fell below 25%, most notably Tissmaharama where the UNP got a mere 20%.
A united party with a well oiled election machinery which can deliver the UNP block vote to the ballot box is a sine qua non for victory. In order to do so we urgently need is a genuine commitment for victory by our leadership as a whole. We first need to energise the party rank and file at grassroots level as the UNP still has, despite the mass scale defections, the largest single party base. In order to do so, the leaders at the second and third levels must not only want to share the spoils of victory but also to share the pain of successive defeats and energetically implement the reorganisation programme of the UNP leader in their respective electorates. Fifth columnists both within and outside the party must be exposed and a disciplined party is yet another prerequisite for victory. The UNP has also an added advantage in Ranil Wickramesinghe’s leadership: he has the most astute media sense and is one of the best political campaign coordinators I have met since working with Chandrika Kumaratunge in 1993.
The next Presidential candidate must also be able to win the trust and confidence of the Tamil and Muslim communities who are feeling increasingly marginalised under the present regime. The minority vote base will be a key deciding factor at the national level and as such we should not take the minorities for granted. We must reposition the UNP on the founding principles of the late D.S. Senanayake based on his vision for a multi ethnic society. In this context too, I believe that Ranil Wickramesinghe will be much more acceptable to the minority communities than many of the other Presidential aspirants both within and outside the party.
The recent provincial council elections have also given two strong messages to the rest of the country. The people of the North have proven beyond any doubt that the Rajapaka regime is not invincible. Despite the blatant violations of election laws and the use of the full might of the military to disrupt the elections, the northerners proved wrong those who say voting is futile believing that the government knows to win elections at any cost (computer ‘jilmart’ etc.): the people came out in numbers to vote and the government suffered a resounding defeat. In the South, where many UNP supporters refrained from voting on flimsiest of excuses from the weather to the capacity of its leaders, the northerners in some places walked miles in the absence of any public transport in the scorching sun to register their protest against the government.
The silver lining of the results of the Central and North Western province is that it clearly shows that the government is not as strong as they would like people to believe in the face of a combined opposition onslaught. For example, the combined opposition vote in Puttalam is 40.9%, Matale 40%, Kandy 44.2% which shows thar victory is within reach at a Presidential / General election in these districts. There is distinct need for wide opposition platform going beyond ideological and other personal differences and the common candidate must be able to command the UNP block vote, the minority vote and the increasingly disgruntled SLFP vote base. The JVP and the Sarath Fonseka factor must be also made to understand the importance of coming together if they are genuine about wanting to defeat this evil regime. A third candidate at the next Presidential election will certainly be a mere appendage of the Rajapaksa campaign to split the opposition vote and as such, would surely be considered a ‘fifth column’. Ranil Wickramesinghe already has created a space for such a common platform in ‘Samagi’ based on 10 points where all those who oppose the authoritarian direction of this government can come together. Although, the question of a common candidate for the next Presidential Election has not even been discussed, the leader most of these vastly differing parties will be most comfortable with is Ranil Wickramesinghe from all the possible contenders in the horizon.
It is also imperative that the UNP be reorganised as a non violent ‘resistance movement’ if we are to democratically challenge this regime. The Rajapaksa regime have introduced informants and fifth columnists to all opposition parties and networks and even certain media institutions who appear to be sympathetic to the opposition are manipulated by the defence secretary. As Ahmed Salah,a key activist in Egypt and one of the key architects of the Arab spring says, early attempts to challenge the regime did not succeed because of the regime’s infiltrator’s within. The only way to fight infiltration was to run the activities like a resistance movement.
As William J. Dobson writes in ‘The dictators learning curve – Inside the global battle for democracy’ ( essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what is happening in our country in a global context), ‘the model for a successful democratic movement wasn’t a democracy; it was a military operation.’ As Gene Sharp, a leading thinker on the strategy of nonviolent conflict observes in ‘From dictatorship to democracy’, democratic movements, even if non violent, need to be as strategic as a military unit might be.
In this context too, I believe that Ranil Wickramesinghe is the only person in the UNP at present, who has the resilience and the strategic presence of mind to face the ruthless onslaught against the next Presidential candidate who will dare to challenge the dynastic dreams of the ruling family.
Despite all the views to the contrary , these are the reasons why I believe Ranil can lead this country out of this quagmire of hopelessness.Ranil can do it and Ranil will do it but all of us must stop being armchair critics and extend a helping hand.