The Local Poll, the UNP and its future: A plea

17 February 2018 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The Local Government Polls have just been concluded. First let us congratulate the present government for having successfully introduced a new electoral system which on the face of it seems fair though the number of elected representatives might be excessive and for having ensured the most free and fair elections in Sri Lanka since perhaps the 1960s. With the polls behind us, the weary citizen is back to his daily routine. They will politically wake up only with another election and wake up they will in full force. At that time the politicians and their political parties need to be ready to face them again. Meanwhile, the political types are busy and preoccupied analysing the local poll result, its consequences and implications for the future.  


Totally out of step is the Victor at the Polls i.e. the “Pohottuwa”. They make the unprecedented call for the dissolution of Parliament and a General Elections. The dissolution of Parliament in any event is not constitutionally possible within four years of the peoples mandate unless with a 2/3rd majority in Parliament. Moreover, such a move would lead to a highly dangerous political precedent. Dangerous for the simple reason that citizens adopt different criteria for voting at different elections and the basis for a vote at a general election and a local government election can widely differ having regard to the primary objective of the election in question. It is important that the purpose and objectives of different elections are not mixed up or confused with one another. Hence the very idea of calling for the removal of a government elected for a five-year term based on a local poll result is preposterous and must be rejected out of hand. Neither can any country afford to have general Elections at the whims and fancies of “political adventurers” with no regard to fundamental principles of democracy.  

 

Totally out of step is the Victor at the Polls i.e. the “Pohottuwa”. They make the unprecedented call for the dissolution of Parliament and a General Elections

 

Yet however, the result conveys a message to the government in the mid-term of its mandate. Though in terms of statistics the “Pohottuwa” falls far short of a simple majority of the national vote and the two parties in government have in fact polled more, it would border on stupidity to conclude that the vote was an endorsement of the “Yahapalana” government. Notwithstanding that negative, the vote can still be justifiably viewed as an endorsement of the policy of a united approach to national reconciliation. In this overall background, it is now up to the government and particularly the senior partner in the government -- the UNP, to introspect and review its course to meet the formidable challenge of a Presidential Election by end 2019 and a general Election in 2020.  


The UNP and its allies cannot be blind to the fact that its share of the national vote declined to 32% in this local poll. It was just 2 1/2 years earlier that the UNP with its allies polled 45.6% of the vote at the General Elections. This decline needless to stress MUST give rise to concerns and follow up remedial strategy. Not just for the party hierarchy but, it also matters much to the rank and file of the party and the millions of men and women who place their trust and faith in the party. The UNP which has earned for itself the sobriquet, “The Grand Old Party” (GOP) has over the years under charismatic leaders built for itself the reputation of being a Political Organisation that can be relied upon for consolidating democracy, liberal values, social and economic freedom and moreover National Unity, cutting across race, creed and regional differences. While consolidating such values, it is the UNP that has also facilitated the most significant of national socio-economic development in the country. This perhaps explains why it is to date the only party that can garner votes in the North, South, West, East and the Central Highlands of the Island. The millions who support the UNP do so in recognition of the values the party stands for and the proud historical achievements of the party. It is also important if not imperative for the UNP to remain a force to reckon with within this dynamic socio-political environment. If not, millions of Sri Lankans may well be deprived of a voice that has hitherto fought and warded off despotic regimes, stood for liberal thinking and social and economic freedom at the worst of times. In other words the UNP as a Political Organisation is a national asset and it would be inimical to national interest to watch it wither away. Many would justifiably add that this is so with all Political Parties that are based on a philosophy as against mushroom adventurist political groups and, that democratic tradition requires the protection of them all. Yes they do. Such protection is necessarily dependent on LEADERSHIP. The question to be answered in this overall context relates to the readiness of the UNP leadership to face the voter again in 20 months from now. The UNP was blessed with charismatic leaders who led the party in good and bad times and understood almost with a sense of intuition the pulse of the people in victory and in defeat. After the party’s first debacle in 1956, Sir John Kotalawela did not cling to Leadership by manoeuvring the party working committee. Dudley Senanayake was invited to retake leadership to revive the party. The party was back in strength by 1960 and in government from 65 to 70. In 1970 the UNP despite having polled the largest share of votes in the country as a single party (37.9%) was trounced at the general election under the “first-past-the-post” system. None needed to twist Dudley’s arm then to hand over the office of Leader of the Opposition to J.R. Jayawardene who though five years older than Dudley, was considered a better tactician to take on the SLFP-led ULF juggernaut that remained in government till 1977, having extended its term by two years in a questionable manner. Dudley retained party leadership and together with JRJ vigorously took the party message to all corners of Sri Lanka till his untimely demise in 1973. By then the UNP was not just on the road to recovery but was a well-oiled machinery that had had convincingly won a few by-elections against a dominant government. In 1977, the UNP had its best ever victory. JRJ even in victory did not fail his responsibilities in ensuring continuity in party Leadership. He appointed R. Premadasa as his 2nd in command. Prior to appointing Mr. Premadasa as Prime Minister in 1978, he gave his parliamentarians and or the Party Working Committee, the right to decide on a party number two by an election in which Mr. Premadasa won convincingly.

 

 It is also important if not imperative for the UNP to remain a force to reckon with within this dynamic socio-political environment

 

 Ranil Wickremesighe will be the best available person to clarify this point further if needed. JRJ retired in style after two terms as President and Premadasa succeeded in 1989 but was unfortunately gunned down by LTTE terrorists in 1993. D.B. Wijetunge in his position as the then Prime Minister, succeeded to the Presidency and Ranil Wickremesighe as Leader of the House was appointed Prime Minister. Mr. Premadasa is often faulted by UNPers for not having groomed a successor. In fairness however, he may have done so had he lived to complete his expected two terms as President. In 1994 the UNP lost the General Elections to the UPFA led by Chandrika Kumaratunge. The UNP in opposition required a Leader of the Opposition. The UNP dissidents had come back to the party by then and RW as the former PM was not an automatic choice. DBW in a display of political maturity invited the parliamentary group to elect their group leader through secret ballot. Gamini Dissanayake was elected over RW with the slenderest of majorities. Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated while running for the Presidency in 1994 and Ranil was elected thereafter to lead the UNP.  


Almost a quarter century (24 years) has passed since then. No man or woman has led a major political party in Sri Lanka for this long save under a “family” set up. In fact, 24 years may well be a record in the real democratic world. During this entire period the UNP has not tasted victory in a Presidential Election. RW was unlucky one might say, to have lost the Presidential Elections in 1999 and 2005. In 2010 and 2015 however, a desolate UNP could not field a candidate of its own for the Presidency. In 2015 a “common candidate” was virtually “discovered” to upset the SLFP-led Presidency that prevailed a good 21 years. The “Common candidate” ironically came from the SLFP. Since 1994, the UNP has been in government for a mere five years with RW shakily holding the office of Prime Minister and which he continues to do now. Meanwhile many UNP stalwarts have gone. No, not to the “beyond” but to what they considered greener political pastures. Some of them represent the SLFP in the current government. A majority of those who so left categorically identified RW as the cause for exit.  

 

Notwithstanding that negative, the vote can still be justifiably viewed as an endorsement of the policy of a united approach to national reconciliation

 


With Ranil Wickremesinghe reaching the biblical span of three score years and ten next March, the UNP has yet to name a candidate for the Presidential Election due by the end of next year. This is not because there is a dearth of good men and women in the UNP to take the lead. Ranil Wickremesinghe must facilitate the election of a leader for the greater good in the manner his illustrious predecessors did. RW, please understand and appreciate that the UNP is sacred to millions of ordinary men and women in this country. These millions comprise ordinary rural and urban folk, Farmers, Factory Workers, self-employed and of course the country gentry and even the social elite.

The party needs to embrace them ALL, especially the voiceless. RW you have been a good and faithful servant of the UNP and stood by it in good and bad times. But the Grand Old Party is far more important than an individual or a few others who impose their will on the Leader. Even more important are the millions that STILL place their faith in the UNP. This is an appeal to the UNP. Don’t ignore the “Elephant in the room.” Ask 10 party men on the road, eight will say a change of leadership is necessary for the party to relate to the masses. Don’t act like the proverbial Ostrich and hide your head in the sand, while exposing the rest of your anatomy. Or would the party hierarchy lend credence to the old biblical saying (King James Version) “Hear now this,  foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes and see not; which have ears and hear not.” Act now. Be ready for 2020. Or else it might be all too late.

 

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