The United National Party is in the throes of an existential crisis. The Grand Old Party in its present self is no stranger to crisis. But the current one is threatening not just its electoral prospects at the general election on August 5, but also its whole existence as a viable political force after the election.
During the last 25 years, the UNP had ruled barely seven; on both occasions, in cohabitation arrangements with a SLFP President, with Chandrika Kumaratunga during Dec 2001- 2004, and with Maithripala Sirisena during the Yahapalanaya. Both turned sour. When they ended, the UNP emerged worse off than it started.
Now a fratricidal split that came right after another legendary defeat at the presidential election has made matters worse. Stalwarts of both the UNP and its breakaway group, Samagi Jathika Balawegaya (SJB) have pondered over the misfortunes of the party. They have reached the rather obvious conclusion that the sustained decline of the Sinhala Buddhist vote was at the heart of problem. However, when seeking a remedy, both have resorted to quacks, who claim that the UNP is not Sinhala Buddhist enough to win the Sinhalese Buddhist vote. That by extension is the same propaganda its political opponents have masterfully disseminated. Both the UNP and the SJB have deluded themselves with this misplaced diagnosis to the extent that Sajith Premadasa hesitated too long to thank the Tamils and Muslims who voted him in en masse. Mangala Samaraweera was castigated for a twitter post, and later was made to go on an early retirement.
That is however an over simplistic explanation. It was not the lack of Sinhala Buddhist-ness that cost the UNP’s electoral fortune. It was the UNP’s ability to deliver on the aspirations of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. These two things are not synonymous. The primary conceptual failure that most observers make is to view a sameness in these two properties.
To understand what these aspirations are, one should inquire into the outsized role of Sinhalese Buddhists or the broader category of Sinhalese in the Sri Lankan state.
To begin with, they have the demographic preponderance. Sinhalese Buddhists account for 70 per cent and Sinhalese as a whole for 75 per cent of the Sri Lankan population. And within that broader umbrella of Sinhaleseness, there is greater symmetry in aspirations and assimilation than differences. You do not need to listen to Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith to realize that.
This demographic preponderance gives Sinhalese or by extension Sinhalese Buddhist the most decisive stake in the Sri Lankan state. This is no different from any other republic. Whether it is explicitly stated or not, each society, from Trump’s America to Brexit Britain have been impacted by the similar impulses. The bone of contention of the nationalist Tamil politics was their proponents’ reluctance to accept that demographic reality. One of the earliest manifestations of that reluctance is in the essence of G.G. Ponnambalam’s 50:50 demand.
The demographic preponderance of the Sinhalese also expose them disproportionately to the rough and tumble of the Sri Lankan state. That would mean, when the Islamist terrorists blow up churches or India armed and trained separatist militants, it is the Sinhalese, being the demographic majority, that take the brunt of long term consequences.
This out-sized demographic reality also means that when electing governments, Sinhalese or Sinhalese Buddhists are influenced by a diverse set of considerations, than simply the desire to burnish their Sinhala Buddhist-ness or the Sinhala Buddhist-ness of the Sri Lankan state.
Sinhalese Buddhists have not voted driven by a single issue agenda of Sinhala Buddhist-ness. That may explain why a succession of Sinhala Buddhist ethno-religious parties, most successful of them being Sihala Urumaya and Jathika Hela Urumaya, have failed converting their message into votes. Alt Right and Neo Nazis in Europe have won more seats in parliamentary election than the once in the life time modest electoral success of the JHU in 2004.
The UNP itself campaigned on the traditional anxieties of the Sinhalese voter in 1994 when it was pitted against liberal-leaning CBK and the People’s Alliance. The UNP was routed in both parliamentary and presidential election, but in the former, it managed to win the Sinhalese vote in the Ampara and Trincomalee districts, while the PA carried with it much of the Southern electorate. At that time, the South voted for democracy and to end 17 -years of the UNP rule, tainted with excesses and abuses. The same happened when Mahinda Rajapaksa ran for a third term, which he lost. In the subsequent general election, the UNP defeated the UPFA by 360,000 votes, those were the majority Sinhalese votes from the southern electorate.
Sinhalese vote as a collective is influenced by a host of practical considerations. When the democracy was under threat they have voted to save it. When the territorial integrity of the state is under threat, they have voted to defeat terrorism.
These considerations are practical and of a sense of immediacy for the voter. That means they may not echo the NGO text book of solutions for Sri Lanka. The latter wants to reconfigure the Sri Lankan state. Whereas the Sinhalese Buddhists do not consider it as a solution, but think it as the beginning of an end, the disintegration of the state itself.
In contrast to the diversity of factors guiding the Southern voter, the Northern electorate votes in a narrow set of ethnic interests, and so is increasingly the Muslim vote in the East. Those voting habits in return reinforce the Sinhalese Buddhist emphasis on their ownership of the state. Where the UNP went wrong was it failed to dissect that complex set of aspirations. Probably, its increasing independence with the NGO expertise blindsided it. It was right to assume that the Sri Lankans wanted greater institutional independence, hence the 18th amendment to the constitution.
Most who voted to oust the Rajapaksa regime in 2015, also wanted it to be brought to justice for excesses and corruption. But, the UNP leadership maintained a transactional relationship with the former regime that it never cared to take the full course of action. Nor did its leadership have the decisiveness and single mindedness that would have needed. Most successful nation builders are also dispassionate political operators. Dr. Mahathir Mohamad or Lee Kuan Yew might have spotted an opening for long term political consolidation. Ranil Wickremesinghe was pussy footed and lacked the decisiveness. However, governing a country of Sri Lanka’s economic and social conditions requires a dispassionate single mindedness. Sinhalese Buddhist ethnography condones such a leadership and the UNP failed to provide it.
The Yahapalanaya was beset with a distinctive sense of vacillation and policy paralysis, which spilled into the economic front which generated five years of sub- par economic growth.
To cap it all, Maithripala Sirisena, the president who was elected on the UNP vote became a liability. Petty mindedness of the presidency and UNP’s own misplaced priorities left the national security unattended and the Easter Sunday terrorists exploited the vacuum, unleashing a bloodbath. The UNP’s fate was sealed.
The UNP did not lose the presidential election because it was not Sinhala Buddhist enough. But because it failed in each and every task it was assigned by the Sinhalese electorate that voted Yahapalanaya to power. If it managed to clock a 6 per cent economic growth rate and stop the massacre on the Easter Sunday, it would still be in power. Economic growth is a major factor of political legitimacy. Had it managed to deliver on that, the UNP could even have addressed some of the Tamil aspirations.
Supporters and opponents of Gotabaya Rajapaksa claim his mission is to consolidate the Sinhala Buddhist state. Given the political realities of post- Easter Sunday attack, Sinhalese Buddhists may be amenable to the idea. However, prerequisite for President Rajapaksa’s success or the failure is not different from the UNP. It’s the economy, stupid. No matter how many task forces he appoints to restore Sinhala Buddhist legacy, and to prop up his own, if he fails to address the concerns of a weak economy, Mr. Rajapaksa will find it hard to market his patriotism.
For the UNP, however, it would be a bumpy right ahead. But, things can change faster than one might believe. While the Rajapaksa’s are riding atop a wave of popular approval, the honeymoon would be much shorter than the average. A weaker economy, amidst a global economic slump would spoil the party.
If the UNP, the SJB included, to have a fighting chance, it should first come to terms with its mistakes in Yahapalanaya. It is not the Sinhala Buddhist-ness. It is the economy. It is the decisive, single minded leadership that needed to guide the nation to prosperity- and to keep terrorists at bay.
Follow @RangaJayasuriya on twitter