UNP should defend the President from Rajapaksa cronies
ow, that the UNP is in the government, it is easy to forget the existential problems the Green Party had barely few months ago.
During those not so distant days, the UNP made headlines not for Opposition political activism, but for an inner-party power struggle. Ranil Wickremesinghe faced with a leadership challenge, clung miserably to the leadership.
The main opposition party had been relegated to political irrelevance by the Rajapaksa juggernaut. And if Mahinda Rajapaksa won the January 8 presidential election, that would have meant the last nail on Wickremesinghe’s party leadership.
Mr Wickremesinghe’s overbearing sense of entitlement to the UNP leadership was, of course, a problem.
However, equally disturbing was that there had been no desirable alternative, perhaps sans Karu Jayasuriya, who challenged and lost in a leadership vote. The other contender Sajith Premadasa was more or less a Rajapaksa impresario.
Sri Lanka already had enough of one Rajapaksa and whether we need another at the helm of the main Opposition is a moot point. And Premadasa relied too much on cheap populism, and his support emanated chiefly from the most politically regressive category of the UNP’s traditional vote base: the green blooded rural and urban poor, whose allegiance to the party is no different from that of medieval serfs to the feudal knight.
They are political zombies in their current existence, as much as their counterparts who mournfully yearn for the return of ex- president Mahinda Rajapaksa are. However, the traditional UNP leadership has, for long, been able to balance competing interests of various layers of its vote base and run the party as a moderately liberal and economically progressive one.
Such a balancing was made possible, because the top leadership of the party, since the very outset, came from a certain intellectual tradition.
In a country, where personal political gains that can be obtained by playing into dominant majoritarian tendencies outweigh benefits of toeing a moderate line, such a leadership tradition is hard to survive. And since many prospective leaders of the UNP perished in terrorist attacks in the past, the party suffers from a leadership deficit.
In that sense, Mr. Wickremesinghe could have felt he is the only one left in that leadership tradition. He could even have been right since running the largest political party in the country on its moderate liberal platform requires much more than delivering speeches in temples.
Finally, it was Maithripala Sirisena, the new President, who saved the United National Party and its identity from being hijacked.
That feat is dwarfed by his larger achievement in the form of saving democracy in the country from Rajapaksa autocracy.
So, we hardly acknowledge what Mr Sirisena’s election victory meant for the stability of the UNP. It is, nonetheless, self evident.
However, if Rajapaksa had won the election, it would have been a different story. And if Wickremesinghe contested for the presidential election, there is little disagreement that Rajapaksa would have won big time. And by now, Mr. Wickremesinghe could have resigned to the prospect of being the Opposition leader for eternity.
Rajapaksa too has fancied the idea of having a ‘kept’ Opposition leader, so that his autocratic rule has a veneer of sham legitimacy. But, it would not have been easy for Mr Wickremesinghe to cling to the UNP leadership and by now the UNP would have descended into chaos. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s smart political manoeuvring by getting Mr. Sirisena to contest, saved his political fate, and the fate of the country.
Now, President Sirisena is faced with a political challenge from the Rajapaksa acolytes. His challengers are primarily driven by vested personal and political interests. They represent the worst of the abusers of public trust of the Rajapaksa regime and want Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister so that he would save them from legal action currently being launched against their past abuses.
With Rajapaksa, they will turn a new page of crony capitalism.
It is in the interest of the UNP to defend the President who has been targeted by the Rajapaksa cronies because much of the new found legitimacy of the UNP emanates from the President and his election victory.
Thus by defending the President, UNP defends itself and fosters goodwill to govern the country, hopefully, after the forthcoming general elections. However, the UNP seems to have different calculations. Its actions have made it hard for President Sirisena to consolidate his leadership in the SLFP.
The UNP cherishes the prospects of a weaker SLFP, and a possible split along the line of Rajapaksa loyalists and the loyalists of the President.
By trying to foster that split through various insidious means, the UNP is weakening the moderate progressive faction of the SLFP, and by extension, the president’s writ within his own party.
That is dangerous and self injurious stuff.
And the UNP’s inability to adequately engage the SLFP Ministers and the SLFP leaders in what is meant to be the current national government, of which the ruling party itself is the minority partner, has now led to a partial anarchy in governance.
This failure in bipartisan governance is also responsible for the current legislative deadlock and resulted in two no-confidence motions, against the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister.
That has also seriously eroded the promise of a future national government, which the UNP leadership is proposing to set up after the elections.
The stalemate on the 20th Amendment is also denting the allure of the democratic reforms. The delay is partially caused by the UNP’s lack of enthusiasm in passing the electoral reforms, which it believes would be a disadvantage to the party in short term. It has insisted that the general elections be held under the existing PR system, which however is likely to be the case since the Elections Commissioner has also stated that it would take a year for voter education and delimitation.
On the positive side of its balance sheet, the UNP, after an initial dilly-dallying, has launched investigations into corruption and abuse of power during the former regime.
The degree of independence in those legal procedures, which are underwritten by the 19th Amendment, is new to the Sri Lankan context. Hence they give little reason to believe Rajapaksa’s hypocritical cants about a witch-hunt.
However, the UNP can do better. Why it is to be blamed for the failure in bipartisan governance during the last four months? Is it the party, which is in a position of strength vis a vis the SLFP.
"Mr. Wickremesinghe could have felt he is the only one left in that leadership tradition. He could even have been right since running the largest political party in the country on its moderate liberal platform requires much more than delivering speeches in temples."
Hence it is in a better position to give and take, than its counterpart, which has to worry about saving its face (At least that of the moderates of the SLFP, who opted for the national government) and to defend themselves against marauding Rajapaksa cronies.
By its failure, the UNP has strengthened the very forces that seek to weaken the new President. (Some of the local cronies of Basil Rajapaksa in Gampaha have passed a resolution demanding the removal of the President.)
The UNP’s mishandling is bound to back fire, both on the party, and worse still, on the country. It weakens the President and empowers the Rajapaksa cronies at the expense of the SLFP moderates.
The UNP should help the President to consolidate himself in the SLFP. It can do so by engaging in consensus driven politics with the SLFP, acknowledging the SLFP’s numerical strength in the House and keeping the SLFP leadership updated on the progress on corruption investigations.
It should help the moderate SLFPers to out-manoeuvre Rajapaksa cronies. To do that it should treat the SLFP with respect. Sadly though, the UNP is not doing any of that.
Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on twitter.