The United National Party is suffering from an existential identity crisis. While symptoms had been there during much of the past two decades, the current bout is a manifestation of acute conditions.
Over the decades, the Grand Old Party has withered away, it’s grassroots members have shrunk in numbers and their enthusiasm, its leadership has drifted away from the average folks. They have failed to communicate with the masses in a language that is readily understood by the public.
Four years and eight months of the Maithripala Presidency that the UNP championed and the four years of the UNP- led -Yahapalanaya are not the best examples of go-getter governance.
The momentum and a sense of urgency in infrastructure development have withered away. Chinese investment bonanza was mishandled. Finally, Islamic terrorists attacked, killing 250 Easter worshippers and tourists, and reigniting the memories and fear psychosis of a little more than a decade ago. Numerous intelligence failures that led to the Easter attacks questioned the competency of the government.
Nor has the UNP managed to respond to numerous conspiracy theories hatched by its opponents. Once- hyped investigations into allegations of corruption blamed on the Rajapaksa regime ended being another proof of the incompetence of the government.
To make matters worse, there is a glaring absence of a practical economic policy. That is another proof of hollowness of its populism. Many of the tactics of the Premadasa campaign are also poorly concocted imitations of the Rajapaksa camp
There is a sense of disillusionment among even the most hard-core of the UNP supporters.
To make matters worse, The UNP has also struggled to get the message across of some of its fundamental achievements such as institutional building and democracy.
The UNP has been administered as poorly as the rest of the country was run. In a twist of things, for the first time in the recent political history, the political opposition directly or by a network of wheeler-dealer businessmen, control more media institutions than the party in the government does. Those institutions have proved to be effective instruments in promoting the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) and its presidential candidate. Meanwhile, those that are loyal to the UNP are perpetuating a division within the party.
Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is isolated. A coterie of party seniors who have now put up a common defence against the deputy leader Sajith Premadasa’s bid to usurp the presidential candidacy has done so not so much because of they like Mr Wickremesinghe, but because they detest untested Mr. Premadasa.
These problems are anything but new. The UNP suffered from a crippling crisis of crossovers in the mid-2000s, as a group led by Karu Jayasuriya joined the Rajapaksa regime ostensibly to help the fight against terrorism. It fielded Sarath Fonseka as the common candidate for the presidential election in 2010 in an admission that the party is short of an individual of the nationwide mass support.
It suffered another period of internecine fighting between Mr. Wickremesinghe and the party MPs and activists who had enough of long years of a winless political career. Finally, in a successful ploy, but yet another confession of its dwindling popular support, the UNP fielded the general secretary of the SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena as the presidential candidate. That gamble paid off, but the UNP leadership failed to cultivate that momentary triumph to lead the party into a new chapter. Instead, all opportunities were squandered.
The serial failure of the UNP over the four years have made the public feel nostalgic about the Rajapaksa’s high handed, but high growth years. A sizeable portion of the Southern electorate has already jumped the Rajapaksa bandwagon. And a much larger group is still undecided and harbour concerns about all the ugliness of a family package that would come with the Gotabaya Presidency.
Myriad problems within the UNP has left it pondering over its identity. However, in searching answers, the UNP seems to be acting in the hallucination.
Some of the UNP’s most vocal members, many of whom also canvass for Mr. Sajith Premadasa’s candidacy for the presidency, wishfully think that the UNP could beat the SLPP by imitating the SLPP itself. They think that Mr Premadasa can attract the Sinhala nationalist vote which is destined to Mr Rajapaksa by visiting temples, and flaunting his Sinhala ‘Buddhistness’. They think the minority voters, who played the main role in shifting the previous election would fall in line with the UNP since they loath Gotabaya.
They also mistakenly believe that the Sri Lankan voter still live hand to mouth from Janasaviya and Samurdhi. That culture of despondency and dependency which late president R. Premadasa successfully exploited is now a marginal phenomenon. However President Premadasa, during his short span of power, did more than any of his predecessors to alleviate economic depredation. He took industrialization to the village by encouraging private investors to build garment factories.
Instead, Mr. Premadasa Junior and his cohort rely on the last remnants of the UNP’s feudal vote bank, the lowest of the low of the local voter. They are a marginal entity and though they may be loud in election campaigning, they have only one vote just like the rest of the Sri Lankan voters.
To make matters worse, there is a glaring absence of a practical economic policy. That is another proof of hollowness of its populism.
Many of the tactics of the Premadasa campaign are also poorly concocted imitations of the Rajapaksa camp.
However, the difference is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is offering a lot more than jingoistic nationalism. His track record in city development is less ambiguous than the economic track record of most of the UNP stalwarts.
For the first time in the recent political history, the political opposition directly or by a network of wheeler-dealer businessmen, control more media institutions than the party in the government does
The UNP cannot win the presidential election by becoming a photocopy of the SLPP, because whatever its deficiencies and strength, SLPP campaign is built on a long-cultivated identity of persons in it.
The UNP cannot replicate it. Even if it does so, even half-heartedly, the potential UNP voters are more likely to be disappointed and distance themselves. If you want the Rajapaksa model, why not vote for the real one?
The UNP should reinvent itself as the political entity that it was envisaged to be. It should offer a comprehensive plan that tackles multiple problem areas that beset the country. Like JR’s open market, free trade zone and Premadasa’s Janasaviya and garment factories, the new UNP should offer something original, ambitious and economically viable and beneficial.
That plan should be communicated to the public in the language they easily understand.
Given its abysmal failure during the past four years, the UNP should also outline how it would avoid a repetition of old habits. Setting yearly benchmarks would be a good idea.
Finally, It should field a candidate who is much more than a ‘punchi Rajapaksa’. A candidate who could galvanize the widest possible spectrum of the people, not just because they fear Gota, but because they believe in that the UNP can turn around and deliver prosperity to the country and its people.
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