The Ranil era in the UNP was supported by a few Colombo elites who continually poured money into the UNP machinery. These elites failed to understand the grassroot realities in Sri Lanka. For them, Ranil was the ideal candidate. Most UNP supporters due to lack of other prominent UNP front figures initially supported Ranil. They ignored several early forewarning signs stemming from his early leadership.
One of the major statistical indications of Ranil’s inability to bring the UNP to a path of triumph was how he fared against the relatively weak political regime of President Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaratunga. The regime was rampant with corruption, and economic and war failures. Despite the weak appeal of Chandrika Kumaratunga at the grassroots, Ranil could not consolidate a durable movement to defeat Chandrika for seven years.
Ranil did not allow real UNP grassroot leaders to ascend to power in the UNP. Instead, he brought a group of non-UNP-grassroot politicians to the forefront of the UNP’s secondary leadership. Most of these whom were sponsored by Ranil as UNP front runners have already defected from the UNP. Due to Ranil’s restructuring of the UNP combined with his disregarding of the potential grassroots leadership, many senior grass roots UNP leaders left the party and politics altogether. They were essential pillars at the UNP grassroot. Ranil elected organisers who had diminutive sense on grassroots political realities.
Ranil Wikramasinghe’s victory in 2001 was not fueled by his aptitude but was due to the colossal blunders of the Chandrika regime that combined with several political defections. Ranil Wickramasinghe is not a leader who is in touch with the grassroots. He is unreachable to many in the grassroots. He lacks the talent to market his policies at the village level. His inability as a public speaker is to a point of bizarre for any national leader. Armed with undemocratic powers conferred on him by the UNP’s constitution, Ranil weakened the party by griping onto the party leadership by all means available. In many ways, he has no credibility to be a spokesman for democracy as he misused powers in the UNP constitution and executive committee to maintain his leadership.
Finally, the death knell of the UNP under Ranil came with the end of the war in 2009. The UNP’s stance on the war against terrorism in Sri Lanka led to an effective political suicide for the UNP. This was at the hands of the Sinhalese masses both in the villages and in the suburbs. Ranil and his Colombo elites just did not support the ‘popular’ war but also belittled the war effort. The Pamankada versus Alimankada (Elephant-Pass) comment is a perfect example for this reality. This is in addition to Ranil’s rather imprudent politically suicidal comments that belittled the battle of Thoppigala. Due to these blunders, Ranil Wickramasinghe lost his appeal in the eyes of the Snhalese masses, marking the final nail on the coffin of the UNP’s Ranil’s era.
Many contrast the current state of UNP with the state of UNP in 1970. What many overlook is that the fact UNP won higher national votes in comparison to the SLFP in 1970 despite the electoral defeat. (Sri Lanka Freedom Party 1,839,979 versus United National Party 1,892,525.) The UNP then had a steady village level voter base and a considerable popularity. However, during the last several years under Wickramasinghe, the UNP’s voter base decreased significantly. The party decisions were not made based on grass-root realities but on Colombo based elitistic perspective. UNPers in the villages and suburbs boycotted the elections in 2010 due to leadership failures leading to the current predicament.
In conclusion, the UNP needs to change the leadership to a grassroots leader to salvage the party from being in virtually permanent opposition for the next twenty years.
Temporary restructuring solutions by creating powerless deputy leaders in the UNP will not resolve the crisis. It will perpetuate the current defeatist state of the UNP. The UNP needs a transform of face not a mere facelift to appeal to the masses.
The party needs a young leader who could address all Sri Lankans across the various divides not just the political liberals but should also include the influential Sinhala nationalists. A changed yet alternative uniting force is the need of the day for United National Party.