Almost one year after the last general election, Ranil Wickremesinghe has been appointed by the United National Party (UNP) as Nationalist List Member of Parliament. The UNP was relegated to just 2% of the valid votes in the last general election, confining itself to only one (1) seat in Parliament. The unusual delay in naming a person for this single position in the National List may have been due to the stalemate and crisis within the UNP. Now with this decision, that stalemate, not the crisis, may seem to be over. Yet, the leadership did not change, neither a new face was appointed to represent the UNP in parliament. Wickremesinghe himself will be the only MP and the permanent leader of the UNP.
The practice of usurping the National List to nominate MPs from among the defeated candidates in elections is common in the party-political system of Sri Lanka. The normative beliefs that should prevail in naming (rather than electing) a person to Parliament are generally known, but hardly respected. Nevertheless, Wickremasinghe is well experienced, and his presence in parliament may be essential for the UNP at the current juncture to make a comeback. Still, should he be so desperate to use the National List for entering the Parliament?
Ethics and popular sovereignty
Perhaps, one can explore the ethical dimension concerning the idea of representation in democracy, particularly regarding the case of nominating an already defeated candidate to parliament through the National List. Some may argue that even when a candidate has been defeated by voters that should not prevent him/her to represent the very people who defeated him/her if the system allows for it. Yet, seemingly there is an ethical dilemma here, particularly when the idea of representation is based on the principle of popular sovereignty.
Nevertheless, what are the possible insinuations of Wickremasinghe’s return to parliament? Particularly, on Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), or the strength and unity of the democratic opposition in general? Would Wickremasinghe’s ‘much calculated’ return be a turning point, as the current social media campaign launched in his favour, seems to suggest of it? Or is just ‘another ploy’ as his opponents argue against him?
Leadership or democracy
The current polarization of political forces in Sri Lankan may be very broadly identified in terms of two major ideologies, i.e., nationalistic chauvinism, and democratic socialism. The ruling party, Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), came to power by appealing to nationalistic sentiments amidst violent anti-minority hatred, and hugely exploiting the majoritarian mentality in Sinhalese. And, today, it remains antithetical to governance through decentralization while the entire civil administrative apparatus is being transformed into a military-bureaucracy. It’s true that, unlike the SLPP, the UNP under Wickremesinghe was more committed to governance through a decentralized mechanism.
However, it is also true that the UNP continued to receive defeats after defeats in elections; mostly due to the leadership’s lack of ‘touch with common masses.’ Notwithstanding Wickremesinghe remained the leader of the party, by fielding other candidates in three consecutive presidential elections. It must be, therefore acknowledged that the organizational strength of the democratic camp deteriorated as Wickremesinghe continued uncompromisingly to defend his leadership for nearly about three decades.
While recognizing the positive contributions Wickremasinghe made for national reconciliation, and decentralization of governance, and largely remaining unsupportive of nationalist jingoism, we also need to accept that his leadership style, ‘lack of intra-party democracy’ etc. led to the ultimate collapse of the UNP and, thereby, weakening the power of the democratic camp against the nationalist in general.
SJB as Alternative
The UNP’s dwindling capacity and unresponsive leadership which could not mobilize the masses paved the way, structurally, for the rise of the SJB, which is the major opposition party in parliament now. Its leader, Sajith Premadasa, former Deputy Leader of the UNP, has now become the Leader of the Opposition, the post previously held by Wickremasinghe for a long period. The SJB appears to go beyond the traditional confinement of bourgeoise elitism of the UNP and appeal to common people with its leader’s populist politics of welfarism and democratic socialism against neo-liberalism.
The rise of the SJB has severely weakened the UNP, and except for a very few, majority of the UNP’s organizers now work for the new party. Most obviously, the grassroot, and the urban poor and lower middle classes have become the major base for the SJB. The UNP has a 2%-3% of votes, while the SJB has started with 24% of the votes and displays the ability of expanding more, particularly in the context of declining popularity of the government.
However, the power struggle between the UNP and the SJB is far from being over. The UNP attempts to relaunch its campaign among the old membership, now the members of the SJB; it will try to refresh those old affection and relations, using all sort of tactics to upset the opposition camp under the SJB. Though the SJB is establishing its niche, the UNP and its leaders seem to retort back and attack the SJB and does not seem to be ready to create a mechanism that can unite the democratic camp in near future.
Wickremasinghe’s return to parliament may be seen largely as a strategy to appeal to the UNPers who are being settled with the SJB currently. Unless the two sides are able to avert any negative fallout, this campaign is not going to bring positive results for the democratic camp. While the UNP with 2% of votes has nothing much to lose, the SJB need to be realistic enough to strengthen its camp through making alignments and creating common platforms for democracy in civil society. In the meantime, SLPP will welcome Wickremasinghe’s move and can support it as it could help prolong its power in the government.
At the same, time the elite minority (less than 2%, but with more material capability to buy media, bribe organizers, and manipulate social media etc.) who carry Wickremasinghe on their shoulders primarily aim at launching an attack on the populist leader of the SJB, Sajith Premadasa. However, every tactic which is used by both side in offensive or defensive would help legitimize the power of the government facing multiple crisis.
UNP drops to 2%
The Wickremasinghe camp seems to think that a large section of traditional UNP voters did not participate in the 2020 election. And it may want to bring them back to the party. But a study of the election related statistics since 2001 shows it differently; that in 2020, the voter turnout remained higher than in the previous general elections. The trend since 2001 is that between 70% to 75% of the registered voters cast their ballots. That figure is as high as 75.83% in 2020. Despite the large increase in the number of registered voters, the turnout as a percentage remained higher.
Also, about 5 million people did not vote in 2010, but by 2020 that number dropped to 3.9 million. However, the fact that 25% of the registered voters in the country did not cast their ballots, and that number has exceeded the number of votes obtained by the opposition does not mean that the 25% that did not go to the polling centers could be the UNPers. Perhaps, a small section of the UNP voters did not vote but that does not amount to a staggering 20% or so.
What is clearly seen is that the power of the UNP has shifted to the SJB, the average voter has voted for the new party, and the simple truth is that Wickremesinghe has received only 2% of the votes, lesser than even the JVP’s vote bank. The main reason for this is the populist appeal and personality that Sajith Premadasa has built up among the public. But it also shows that people’s perceptions of the electoral system and politics have changed much. Many are disappointed of the current system and do not want to exercise their democratic right to elect representative who would fail to represent them at the end.
Common people not suitable to rule?
Mostly, the bourgeois elite should be held responsible for the great crises facing democracy today. The two main parties, the UNP and the SLPP, have been, since 2005, engaged in a process that prevent the transfer of power into the hands of the common people. The SLPP use power to strengthen Rajapaksa ‘family empire’, while Wickremasinghe kept power in the hands of a few elites, an oligarchy around him.
In 2018 the SLPP and UNP worked parallelly to undermine the leadership of Maithripala Sirisena. The pattern that continued was clear; Rajapaksas held power in the government, and Wickremesinghe held power in the opposition and this balance was seen to be very rigid. But with the great rupture that happened in 2020, with the creation of the SJB, the UNP suffered a crushing blow and dropped to 2%. Wickremasinghe lost power in the opposition and now the SJB holds the leadership of the opposition.
We do not know whether Wickremasinghe, who was helpless in the elite camp when the SJB clearly entered a populist path and came to power is today trying to carry out a kind of revolution in Parliament with only a single seat available. Though, his team may want to regain lost power and status using any means available to them, the real challenge for Wickremesinghe is to win the confidence of the common people while competing against populist Sajith Premadasa and his party.
Unity as Strength in time of crisis
Sri Lanka’s political system is going through a period of greater confusion currently. The tendency among various factions in the opposition serves to weaken the united voice the democratic camp is supposed to generate at a crisis period like today. Traditional political actors such as the UNP are not ready to accept the existing status quo in the opposition in favour of the SJB. The elite groups in the party would want to wrestle for power at whatever the cost for the democratic camp. At this point, Wickremesinghe with his 2% would choose the strategy of survival instead of acting against the government’s agenda. The UNP, if it is not ready to work closely with the SJB, would try to go against it. However, all democratic parties, including the SJB, will have to revive the struggle for democracy, protect the democratic system in the face of the looming challenges to the civil society and democratic norms. The unity in the democratic camp is the only way forward, and the SJB with its greater appeal to the common people should be able to lead that struggle for democracy.
[Note: Slightly different version of this article has already appeared in Sinhala edition of the Colombo Telegraph]