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A reader’s response to DM editorial on August 9 Choosing the right candidate for UNP

15 August 2019 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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I write to you regarding the editorial that was published in your newspaper on August 9, 2019, titled Populist waves and political fortune. I wish to respond to the comments made by the author of this editorial with some key facts about Presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa. I will be grateful if you publish my response in full, as I believe it is important that your readers are provided with the facts about Premadasa.

The United National Party’s power struggle is once again making headlines with Sajith Premadasa, backed by a faction of UNPers, demanding that he be made the 
Presidential candidate.

With the unveiling of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s Presidential aspirant, the UNPers attention is once again on the Ranil Wickrernesinghe-Premadasa tussle.
This is not the first time that Premadasa has laid a claim to the leadership, in the aftermath of the North-Western and Central Provincial Council election defeats suffered by the UNP in 2013, Sajith was looked upon as the future leader of the party.

The blame for these defeats has been laid on UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and the formula for victory is simple “Replace Ranil Wickremesinghe - Appoint Karu Jayasuriya or Sajith Premadasa and all will be well - the UNP will be back in power”.

Once again, following the apparent loss of confidence in the government, sections of the UNP, backed by powerful businessmen, are once again promoting Premadasa as their Presidential candidate.

To many urban middle-class voters, disgruntled with what they perceive as inefficiency on the part of the government, this proposal appears powerful. From independence to the universal franchise and free education, we have got accustomed to sorting out problems without too much struggle. Anyone offering a simple solution to a chronic problem is considered a messiah. How opportunistic our people are? 

What speaks of victory and defeat at an election is the number of votes received assuming that the elections are free and fair 

So, we hear an increasing number of people sitting in clubs, beer in hand, advocating “change of leadership and amending the UNP Constitution” as the only solution to the UNP problems.

It looks as if such a change is imminent. But before the UNP jumps in eyes closed into a ‘Sajith Victory’, well it would be wise for the party hierarchy, their supporters and voters to take a step back and ensure that the solution will not be worse than the problem they seek to resolve.

Sajith is the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, a former President of Sri Lanka. Ranasinghe Premadasa entered politics as a Municipal Councillor and rose within the party to be President in 1988. Sajith received his education at S. Thomas’ Prep School and Royal College before being enrolled in the Mill Hill School, a private school in Britain for his O’ Levels. He joined the London School of Economics for undergraduate studies thus spending the greater part of his teens and twenties rubbing shoulders with elite British youth as opposed to the rural and urban youth of government schools and universities of Sri Lanka. 

A wildlife enthusiast, on his return, he chose the Hambantota District as his base and contested the General Elections of 2001 and became an MP. Since 2004 he has been an MP in the Opposition. He is the UNP’s Harnbantota District leader.

Thus his claim to party leadership is based less on any great personal achievement or service to the party and more on a birthright as the son of a former leader, who would carry forward the family heritage by implementing Premadasa policies designed to uplift ‘the downtrodden masses thus making the UNP a people’s party able to reach out to the grassroots.

There is a strong conviction among the Ranil-Bashing English speaking folk sitting in Golf, Rowing, Swimming, Eighty and Sinhalese Sports Clubs that Ranil is not acceptable to the rural masses whereas Sajith with his movements - Tharuna Saviya, Jana Suwaya, Sasunata Aruna is in touch with the people and can assure victory. 

But how correct are these assumptions? Have Sajith’s claims been validated against available facts and figures and is the party just groping around like a blind man in a dark room unable to distinguish between fact and fiction.

What speaks of victory and defeat at an election is the number of votes received assuming that the elections are free and fair. Much has been said of the computer jilmart and vote-rigging, but Sajith has never questioned these and based his claim on electoral losses of the UNP. We would, therefore, analyse the results of the elections to check the validity of his claims. The Hambantota District has been chosen for this exercise for it is in this district that Sajith’s popularity as a leader has been assessed by the voters.

In 1982, J.R. Jayewardene polled 45.9%. In 1988, Ranasinghe Premadasa polled 49% at the Presidential Election. Thus until the election of Ranasinghe Premadasa, the UNP had a comfortable voter base in what was considered a district home to the Sinhala Buddhist political leaders such as the Rajapaksas. In 1988 the Hambantota District ranked low in the poverty index and was a backward rural district with a high rate of unemployment. It was the stronghold of the JVP.

Premadasa policies which were targeted to addressing these needs, i.e. the Janasaviya programme, 200 garment factories and Gam Udawa programmes, were implemented in this area to offer relief to the people; However, despite Premadasa’s poverty alleviation policies, the UNP in the 1994 Presidential Election received only 35% of the votes - a drop of 14%. This is a clear drop which shows that the Premadasa policies are not the vote-getter that they were anticipated to be. 

One should recall that the UNP lost its hold on power in the election that followed the implementation of the Premadasa Policies and ask whether the Premadasa name has the ‘magic’ it claims to have.

The tag line Dooshana-Beesshana which formed the main theme of the campaign by the SLFP against the UNP) Government in 1994 highlighted the corruption of the Premadasa regime and the fear psychosis of the counter-terrorism movement in the South.

The fact that Premadasa does not a...have a solid plan ...highlights his lack of experience as a leader

What then is the basis of Sajith’s claim that he possesses the magic formula to win elections when figures show exactly the opposite?

In 2001, when Ranil became Prime Minister, the UNP received 40% of the votes. Sajith entered Parliament in this election. Since then the Hambantota District has been led for the UNP by Sajith. At the 2005 Presidential Election, Ranil contesting against Mahinda Rajapaksa whose home base was Hambantota and who was backed by the JVP received 35% of the votes.

This was more than the 31% received in 2010 by Sarath Fonseka the Army Commander who was supported by the JVP.

This too clearly indicates the fallacy that Ranil is the least acceptable leader to Sinhala masses. The year 2010, almost ten years after Sajith became an MP for the District implementing his programmes, he managed to obtain only 29% of the votes for the party and himself at the General Elections - a drop of 6% from what Ranil had in 2005.

In 2015 at the Presidential election, which the UNP backed Maithripala Sirisena won, the Hambantota district which was headed by Premadasa only saw 138,708 votes (35.93%) cast in favour of their candidate. This performance weakened at the General Elections which was held in August that year when the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) was able to only secure 130,433 votes (35.65%) of the total votes cast at the election. Sajith’s performance that year was a telling sign when he was able to only muster 112,645 votes, seeing him defeated by Namal Rajapaksa.

The fall of Sajith has continued when he was able to only win 101,702 votes (25.52%) at the 2018 Local Government Elections.

In contrast, Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to secure a record 500,566 votes in Colombo at the 2015 General Elections, comfortably surpassing his tally of 232,957 at the 2010 General Elections.

The figures clearly indicate the following:

  1. Premadasa policies alone have not been an election winner. The corruption of the Premadasa regime, its inability to establish a just and people-friendly government was the reason for the electoral defeat of 1994.
  2. Sajith has been unable to even retain for the UNP the votes collected by Ranil in the 2005 election, clearly indicating his lack of appeal to the masses.

Sajith’s claim for leadership is based on the assumption that he has received 90% of the preferential vote. At the General Elections, preferential votes do not win elections for the party. If Sajith is unable to even retain the 35% votes received by Ranil, of what use is his preferential vote to the party to return to power? There may be excuses for these figures given by Sajith’s supporters but since they give no quarter to Ranil and blame him as the leader, Sajith should also not hide behind excuses. 

From the foregoing, it is clear that Sajith cannot claim the right to leadership based on any personal contribution to the party or electoral successes scored by him.

Then comes the question of whether he has the requisite qualities to become a leader.

The first would be a commitment to the cause. In this case the UNP. But Sajith has displayed a remarkable lack of commitment to the party. He has worked as a loner promoting the family heritage - the Premadasa policies. His goal is not stated as developing a nation or building a party but implementing or restoring the Premadasa era.

If he was loyal to the party, he would have laid aside claim to leadership and worked for the party’s victory. On the contrary, he waits eagerly for a party defeat to show remarkable opportunism to call for the leadership to be given to him. Even a schoolboy knows that unity is the key to victory. For over six years Sajith has caused disunity by keeping this issue on the boil.

Sajith has shown that he is not a team player and is unable to get together a team of supporters who have delivered the goods - as party office bearers or in their electorates. A key example is Thalatha Athukorala who was a chairperson of Lak Vanitha for over three years and did little or nothing for the party’s women’s programmes.

And what of loyalty? To party and leader. Why does he engage in the public display of disunity? Can he accept a vote which made him the deputy leader and rejects the same electoral body electing Ranil as the leader? What of gratitude to Ranil the only elitist MP who did not join Garnini and Lalith in the impeachment against Premadasa? Ranil stood by the party and the leader and fought to save both. It may be time that Sajith took a lesson in basic decency from Ranil.

The question also comes to mind as to what the policies of Sajith Premadasa. are. Non-Cabinet Minister Ajith P. Perera has been quoted as saying that Premadasa need not present his policies until after he has been given the party nomination. 

The fact that Premadasa does not appear to have a solid plan of governance that he wishes to implement highlights his lack of experience as a leader. Following the UNF’s victory in 2015, Premadasa was appointed ‘as the Minister of Housing and Construction, the same Ministry his father held.

The younger Premadasa has bragged to the media, and public, that he would provide a house for every citizen in the country. However, in the four years of holding the office, he has only constructed 6,069 houses around the country. This is just over a 1,000 more houses than the Prime Minister has built and handed over to the public since he assumed his expanded portfolio in January this year. The question that must be asked is what has the Presidential aspirant achieved of note in the past four years?

The empty promises of building over 1,000 temples around the country will certainly alienate the minorities, which do not promise to win the highly sought-after Sinhala-Buddhist vote. With Buddhist monks, and temples, coming under greater criticism from the youth, it would benefit Premadasa to explore new avenues,

Sajith has been conspicuously absent from many major issues that have befallen this government. Following the Easter Sunday Attacks, Premadasa, like many of his fellow Cabinet members, chose to avoid the media and public criticism. 

He instead sat back and allowed the Prime Minister to step forward and lead the country, choosing instead to protect his public persona rather than provide leadership to a country reeling under a terrorist attack.

Premadasa’s lack of policy, coupled with his ability to abandon ship when the tide is turning, is a recipe for disaster for the UNP. 

It should also be noted that there are nearly one million people working abroad unlike in 1988. Sri Lanka is a high-income country today and poor people opt to go abroad to earn a livelihood. The forces also have been an avenue of employment for youth and as statistics show the unemployment and poverty levels are declining. Therefore, Premadasa welfare programmes are obsolete and irrelevant today and will be more deadwood in the coming years.

Sajith in his development programmes has nothing new to offer. The bottom line is that Sajith has nothing unique to offer the people. Premadasa Senior has been dead for 20 years. The youth of 18 and above who form a large portion of the voters would have no recollection or appreciation of him.

If Sajith is to claim the Premadasa heritage he has to accept the positive and the negative. What of the corruptions of his father’s time in which a key figure was one of his chief supporters. What of the rebirth of the LTTE as a result of arms supplied by Premadasa senior. Will the label be stuck on him and alienate him and the party from the masses, Premadasa Senior was also responsible for dividing the party, for party strongmen Gamini and Lalith left the UNP due to Premadasa.

Governance today is not a matter of principle - but marketing. It is about communication wizards creating perceptions in the people’s minds and therein lies the danger, for the UNPers are being told daily that Sajith is the answer to the UNP’s problems. 

Sri Lankans may have literacy but many are poor on analytical skills and this weakness is amply demonstrated in relation to the UNP crisis. It is a sad reflection of our times that no media organization can analyze and present the facts and a stampede in the UNP being initiated by Premadasa would most likely result in a large number of casualties. The UNP would certainly be going from the frying pan to the fire. 

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