- Most party seniors, including those who were once close to Mr Wickremesinghe, have become intriguingly conspiratorial
- Though the UNP has never been a cohesive party under Mr Wickremesinghe, this is the worst time for an internal struggle
The United National Party (UNP) is heading towards a dangerous internal rupture as the jockeying for the party candidacy at the presidential election is fought ugly along the usual fault lines. During the last ten years, internal fighting in the UNP saw a major crossover and an aborted leadership challenge. The party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe survived both, perhaps at the expense of the electability of the Grand Old Party. This time, as the elections are around the corner, a nastier split is looming large. The UNP backbenchers have become riotous. Most party seniors, including those who were once close to Mr Wickremesinghe, have become intriguingly conspiratorial. Many, except a last remaining holdout of the Wickremesinghe loyalists, want to see the back of the incumbent UNP leader. During the last weekend, the UNP MPs shot down a proposed constitution for the new UNP-led electoral alliance. The new alliance, dubbed the Democratic National Front (DNF), was to be signed yesterday at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium, but the ceremony was postponed until the differences were resolved.
Party members who distrust Mr Wickremesinghe think that the proposed new alliance, of which the constitution grants extensive power to its leadership council at the expense of the UNP, is a new ploy by the party leader to promote himself or one of his liking as the presidential candidate. Instead, Sajith Premadasa loyalists have taken the fight to the street, and through the airwaves of a rent-seeking media mogul.
The UNP is clearly in a fix. Though the UNP has never been a cohesive party under Mr Wickremesinghe, this is the worst time for an internal struggle. How could it dig itself out of the hole? What is the way forward if it is to give a decent shot at the presidential election?
Even to have a strategy, the UNP should first take a critical look at the desperate situation of it, not just as a political party, but also as the governing party of the country and the implication of its sorry performances over the last four years.
As a result, the UNP is going to the presidential race, 10 percentile points behind in the Southern vote from Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the likely presidential candidate of the SLPP. That loss of the majority Sinhalese confidence is also the UNP’s, and especially its leader’s own making. Its procrastination in large-scale development projects and the absence of a cohesive economic policy have contributed to sub-par economic growth for four consecutive years. Many Southern voters think that the Rajapaksas would have done more economically even while sleepwalking. Then, much-hyped allegations of corruption levelled against the leaders and cronies of the former regime produced nothing. While few would have believed that the protagonists of the former administration were paragons of virtue, the majority came to the grim realization that a government that is not capable of running rings around its political opponents - even when the evidence of manifold past crimes stare on its face, is singularly incompetent of all other affairs of governance. Finally, the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks hit the nail in the coffin. If its victory over the constitutional coup gave the UNP a fresh start, all that momentum was squandered in less than six months.
All that means that the UNP would be lagging well behind Mr Rajapaksa in the South. No UNP candidate can break this curse. That is also where the rhetoric of the Sajith Premadasa camp that it wants to field the ‘people’s choice candidate’ (Janathawa Illana Nayakaya) is void.
That ‘people’ is narrowed down to a small sub-section of the Sri Lankan electorate. In fact, it refers to a depleting segment of the core-UNP vote, or more likely, a cross-section of those of the urban slums in Colombo. They may be good to go on election canvassing. But they do not represent the aspirational middle class or lower middle class, or the youth who are sickened by the rot in local politics.
Most of them are not going to rally behind an untested ‘people’s candidate’ because they want something a little more tangible.
That would mean, Mr Sajith Premadasa could mobilize the last one of the UNP’s core vote. But, moving beyond that would not be easy. Assuming that the UNP remains as a cohesive unit, and would not undermine his election campaign from within, Mr Premadasa could win a portion of floating votes. But still, a good part of them, a vote swinging aggregate, would be indifferent to him.
The question the Southern voters would ask is why would I vote for Sajith over Gota? That is a tough question to answer even for the loyalists of Mr Premadasa. Only Mr Premadasa can enlighten the public on this. Then the question is who would do better than Mr Premadasa in the South. Probably none. Definitely, not Mr Wickremesinghe. Probably Karu would do better with the floating vote. That may add to the UNP’s vote tally but would do little to eat into Gota’s lead.
That is where the minority vote comes to play. The UNP should win 75-80 percent of the minority vote if it is to win the presidential race. That includes Muslim, Tamil, and upcountry Tamils, which account for 25 percent of registered voters. The real challenge, however, would be to get them to vote. If there is an uninspiring candidate, minority voters would be more likely to stay home on election day.
For instance, during the last local government elections, of which 79 percent of registered voters polled, the voting in Jaffna electoral district was 65 percent. Though Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is unlikely to attract much interest from the minority voters, the UNP will have to field a candidate, acceptable enough for the Tamil and Muslim voters in order get them to go out and vote.
The UNP MPs should ask themselves as to who that candidate could be? In most likelihood, he should be a Sri Lankan nationalist, as opposed to someone burnishing overly Sinhala Buddhist credentials, or an internationalist, which is a lost cause in the current Sri Lankan, and indeed, in world politics.
It should also be someone who could reach out to the minority voters on his own accord, rather than extensively dependent on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), too much reliance on which could become a poisoned chalice. Who would be that candidate? Mr Wickremesinghe may think it is he, hence his desire to give a shot at the presidential election. But, he would be hard-pressed to catch up on his losses in the South. Also, given the overall public reception, even the minority voters would be discouraged to bet on a losing horse. Can that be Mr Premadasa? He indeed has done no harm to the minorities, but nor has he done anything substantial. He might have to do a full makeover before he makes a dent. Karu Jayasuriya could well be a little more palatable in part for his leadership as the Speaker of Parliament during the constitutional coup. But, he too has to be careful as to which bundle of minority interests he would accede to.
There is another prospect that any candidate that wishes to bulldoze his candidature should worry about. They would be undercut by the cliques within the UNP itself. That would be much worse than the sabotage of the Hector Kobbekaduwa presidential campaign of 1982 by the SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her acolytes. Kobbekaduwa lost and Mrs Bandaranaike breathed a sigh of relief. But in no time, JR decimated her party. Mr Wickremesinghe and his loyalists should take heed. Gotabhaya might be much worse.
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