Were the United National Party (UNP) and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe really rejected by the people at the August 5 parliamentary election to the extent that the party was wiped out from all districts it contested?
Had the two factions of the party led by Mr. Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa faced the election together, would not the UNP managed to win a few more seats than what the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Premadasa had secured? Would not Mr. Wickremesinghe have fared better than Mr. Premadasa in terms of preferential votes, had both of them contested in the Colombo District under a united UNP?
Then, what has happened? Is it that the UNP and Mr. Wickremesinghe been rejected, by the people, as has been indicated by the election results? It is strange. The UNPers seem to like him more than they like Mr. Premadasa, but they believe Mr. Wickremesinghe cannot win elections and therefore rallied round Mr. Premadasa.
This is similar to the one with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). More people than those who had voted for them adore them, but majority of them do not vote for party, as they presume that it would never come to power. People like them so much that the party bagged 41 parliamentary seats when it contested under a coalition with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 2004, with its candidates outshining the coalition candidates, in almost all districts, in terms of preferential votes. But they have never been able to secure more than 16 parliamentary seats alone. Now it has come down to three.
The boastful statement by the SJB leaders that they had secured 54 seats in parliament within a few months of forming the party is wrong. In fact the SJB has been in the making for more than a decade, first in the form of an anti-Ranil trend and then since 2014 as a pro-Sajith faction. Finally, the UNP’s rank and file drifted towards Sajith, leaving only the shell behind or in other words, the UNP was physically transformed into the SJB, leaving the signboard with Mr. Wickremesinghe and few of his loyalists.
The case with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is also the same. The SLPP leaders sing their own praises claiming that the party had captured power within three years after its formation. However, the SLPP is the same group of people who had been under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa since 2005. They gradually abandoned the signboard of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and were re-incarnated as the SLPP in 2016.
As we have pointed out in these columns, the main reason for the split in the UNP was not any policy differences but the notion that the party cannot win elections under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership, which had been instilled in the minds of the party supporters and the second rung leaders by outsiders. In fact this was a wrong perception as the SLFP had been in the Opposition for 17 long years since 1977, losing even the provincial and local government elections whereas the UNP had won a parliamentary election seven years after it lost power in 1994. By the way, Mr. Wickremesinghe would have been the President in 2005, if not for the election boycott engineered by the LTTE in the North and at the presidential election in 2015, the UNP was successful in defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then considered by many as invincible.
It is not clear yet whether Sajith is a better leader than Ranil, in terms of intellectual capacity and organisational talent. However, Mr. Wickremesinghe is apparently far behind in public relations when compared with many political leaders in the country. Confirming a suggestion by journalists on the matter, Ranjan Ramanayake once publicly said, “Nayakathuma” rarely smiled with them. Mahinda Rajapaksa is far ahead of all others, except for most of the leaders of the JVP, in that sense. Besides, Mr. Wickremesinghe seems to have lost his credibility among the party men, because of trickery and the Colombo 7 mindset, during the occasional leadership crises.
However, as far as his performances are concerned, a considerable degree of credit for the war victory must go to Mr. Wickremesinghe. The ceasefire agreement that he signed with the LTTE covered only the land area and this enabled the navy to destroy Tamil Tigers’ fleet of ships. Karuna Amman changed his mind subsequent to him being answerable to the outside world on their activities during the peace process under the premiership of Mr. Wickremesinghe. The involvement of the international community including the world powers in the peace process which Mr. Wickremesinghe himself called the “International safety net” exposed the unreliability of the LTTE, finally leading to the proscription of the outfit in 25 European countries and Canada, in 2006.
Despite these being the fruits of the ceasefire agreement, the question still remains whether Mr. Wickremesinghe consciously planned these moves, as his government and his peace delegation led by Professor G.L. Peiris had been prepared in 2003 even to discuss the LTTE’s proposal for an “Interim Self Governing Authority” (ISGA) which was in fact a blueprint for a separate State. Besides, the UNP and Mr. Wickremesinghe had also failed to market the achievements of the ceasefire agreement and the peace process.
Finally, Mr. Wickremesinghe and his loyalists failed to realise that the whole party had slid gradually towards Sajith, leaving the shell and the signboard with them, following the local government election defeat in 2018, owing to their lack of the common touch. Even the leaders of the minority parties had realised this and sided with Sajith, despite him being less considerate than Mr. Wickremesinghe on minority issues, which was very evident in the sharing of national list slots among the parties contesting under the SJB’s telephone symbol this time.
UNP’s defeat at last year’s presidential election and that of the UNP and the SJB at the recently concluded general election are a trending effect of the results of the 2018 local government election. Hence, the leaders of both parties have to find the reasons for the present humiliation in their two and a half year administration during which one third of their vote bank had eroded.
The reasons may be related to policy and tactical failures. They gave many high hopes to the people on eradication of corruption and development. However, in practice they seemed to have had deals with fraudsters apart from themselves being involved in high profile corruption such as the Central Bank bond scandal. In addition the absence of any visible developmental activities might have dashed the hopes of the youth.
Reviving the UNP does not seem an easy task. It apparently depends mainly on the ability of the leaders of the UNP and the SJB to grasp realities and casting away their egos and to take advantage of the failures of the SLPP government.