I’ve spotted the personality who can save the UNP, either as Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition or Presidential candidate, in whichever order, but most certainly as a viable leader of the United National Party, be in in Government or Opposition. I had made this observation in passing on television many months ago, but after his most recent, courageous and principled parliamentary speech last week, I am almost certain that he is the man for the job.
The UNP is the country’s largest single party and is vital to Sri Lanka’s future as a democracy and a market economy. Therefore the fate of the UNP is of concern to all of us, including those like myself, who are from and are on, the other side of the politico-ideological divide (in my case, with the crucial exception of the Premadasa Presidency).
The present leadership of the UNP is highly likely to take the party down to its lowest strength ever, at the next set of Presidential and Parliamentary elections (in that order) in late 2019-2020. A dreadful practice which we witnessed in 1970 is almost certain, namely post-election violence against the deposed regime.
Every passing day the UNP is storing up anger against itself by dint of political victimization of opponents, polarizing economic policies and practices (Hambantota, the bond scam) and servility towards foreigners, tilting towards the minorities while alienating the vast majority. This has happened before, and it is not for nothing that the change in both 1956 and 1970 were dubbed “Silent Revolutions”. Next time around, the Revolution may not be quite so silent—and it wasn’t in August 1953 and 1986-’89, abortive though that vicious latter uprising mercifully was.In his recent Habaraduwa speech Mahinda Rajapaksa predicted an explosion (“pipireemak”).
If a “crash landing” is the price to be paid to put an end to the dismantling of the Sri Lankan state that the UNP is engaging in, then so be it, but such a convulsive endgame is not the best possible outcome for the country and its people. If a “hard landing”is avoidable while rescuing the country from the present policies and polarizing personalities, then it is all the better for all concerned.
A soft landing with limited damage can be effected in two ways, both of which have one thing in common. One way is for the President to recompose the government, changing the PM and a few key ministers, shuffling off CBK the Aquamarine Queen, and bringing together the official SLFP, the patriotic UNP and the JO, in a broad centrist coalition. A variant would be to officially recognize the JO for what it is, the legitimate parliamentary Opposition, but go ahead with a recomposed, post-Ranil/CBK, centrist UNP-SLFP coalition. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the country’s most senior Leftist politician and perhaps the most senior Opposition parliamentarian, has already signaled that this would be an acceptable transitional outcome for the JO parliamentary group.
If this outcome does not take place, the country requires a Plan B, which gives the system a “soft landing”. This requires a UNP candidate who can give the party a fighting chance at an election and can either pull off an upset victory as did Premadasa in 1988 or keep the UNP afloat as a strong democratic opposition. In either case, the party needs a new leader; one who can re-position and re-profile it.
In both scenarios I have outlined, namely a top down re-composition effected by President Sirisena or a bottom-up rebuilding of the UNP which would give the democratic system a safety net, there is a single common factor. That is a new leadership for the UNP.
Such a leader can be a viable partner for President Sirisena in a recomposed bipartisan coalition government which can manage the economic crisis without generating instability and conflict. Such a leader can also be a valuable partner if President Sirisena seeks re-election.
Even if both these efforts fail to get off the ground, or simply fail, a new leadership for the UNP will provide a Plan B for the country. In fact the country and democracy can have a Plan Bonly if the UNP gets rid of its current Plan A, which is to transfer still more of President Sirisena’s power to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe by means of Constitutional change and run for another national election, including the Presidential election, under Mr.Wickremesinghe’s leadership. If the UNP remains under Ranil’s leadership and the Ranil-CBK driven coalition government remains intact, he will drag down not only President Sirisena and the Government, but the UNP and the System. The UNP cannot afford to run at any future national election with Ranil at the helm. If it tosses him overboard, then President Sirisena, the coalition and certainly the UNP have a fighting chance of survival. If not, all three will be swept away by the perfect electoral storm -- and this time it will be a tsunami -- that almost always closes out a UNP administration.
What the UNP needs is someone who can fill the space that Ranasinghe Premadasa occupied within the UNP from 1956 to 1993. He was virtually an SLFPer within the UNP; a pluralist nationalist, populist and social democrat.R. Premadasa strove to fill in the gap that SWRD Bandaranaike, with his Sinhala Maha Sabha background,left when exiting the UNP. In 1956, with the anti-UNP wave in the rise, it with Premadasa who was pitted against the giant, Dr. NM Perera. Though defeated, no one could have done as remotely well as young Premadasa did. With each backlash, in 1956 and 1970, Premadasa became more prominent as the UNP needed him more and more. When the great plebian-xenophobic backlash of 1987-’88 came, Premadasa was ready and surfed the giant wave.
After his important, lengthy parliamentary speech of March 23rd 2017, I am more convinced than ever, that the figure we are looking for – and looking at-- is Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa.
If President Sirisena can recompose the present government with a Wijedasa-led UNP component, a Susil Premajayanth-led official SLFP, and a Dinesh–led JO component or official Opposition, the country may have a viable Third Way. It may not reach the great heights it can, but it can manage a policy pivot, emerging from this crisis avoiding a drastic polarization, a radical nationalist backlash and a volcanic social eruption. Even if there’s no such mid-term re-composition and policy pivot, a Wijedasa Rajapaksa leadership can do what Ranasinghe Premadasa did for the UNP in the past; helping it survive, return to electoral viability and success. Premadasa took over a delegitimized, pro-West, elitist UNP, repositioned, rebranded and re-launched it as a progressive, populist, patriotic party, thereby saving it, the democratic system and the country.
Wijedasa Rajapaksa, educated,intelligent and a formidable TV debater, has shown guts as a dissenter in the Rajapaksa government (as COPE chair) as well as the Wickremesinghe one. In Parliament last week (March 23rd) he displayed “the Right Stuff”, standing up (a la R. Premadasa) for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty against external pressures and encroachment and focusing like a laser on the irreconcilable contradiction between postwar reconciliation and war crimes accountability. He is tuned into the global tectonic shift towards sovereignty and populist-nationalism, but can he construct a broad platform with strong grassroots appeal?
Any permutation and combination of MR-MS-GR-Dinesh has the credentials to do more and better for the country than the UNP, but whichever way it goes, with Wijedasa winding up either the Leader of the Opposition or the unlikely winner of the election, what’s the downside? If in the next round of island-wide political and policy-programmatic choices, we can draw from a “national pool” of patriotic “players”,then this island nation will be safe, secure and successful.