“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”
– Harold Wilson
When analyzing the classic mess that the United National Party (UNP), once known as the ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP) finds itself in today, one cannot ignore a serious but latent feature of the proportional representation system that was introduced with the 1978 Constitution. The prime motive behind the Proportional Representation (PR) system was, according to its architect and author J.R. Jayewardene, the perpetuation of the UNP in power. If Members of Parliament are elected according to the PR system, the UNP being the highest vote taker as a single party would qualify for the highest number of seats, if they secure the highest percentage of the total poll as against other individual parties.
Highest number of votes
This argument had its merits in that as a single political party contesting elections since 1947, the UNP has been the one party that attracted the highest number of votes in successive elections barring the 1956 landslide victory of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
However, while the UNP has been fielding candidates as a single political party, all the other left-wing fringe parties have formed a coalition with the next strongest party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Even in 1956, the SLFP joined hands with the next most powerful Party at the time, the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP) led by Phillip Gunawardene. Then in July 1960, they entered into a no-contest pact with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party. Since then the SLFP never contested as a separate single entity. This upset the equation that JRJ had in mind. Nevertheless, once the UNP routed the opposition in an unprecedented landslide in 1977, it managed to win every election, including the infamous referendum, quite comfortably until 1994.
In 1994, it was the People’s Alliance (PA) comprising the SLFP and all other left-wing parties that edged out the UNP narrowly. This happened after the demise of R. Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali preceded by the unsuccessful impeachment motion and the formation of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) headed by Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and G. M. Premachandra.
Winning elections when one is in government seems much less difficult than when one is in the opposition. This was proven by the late Anura Bandaranaike. Up to that time, the Bandaranaikes were the virtual and dominant leaders of the SLFP. The people could not separate the Sri Lanka Freedom Party from the Bandaranaikes. From 1977 until 1994, the people chose not to elect his party to power. Enter Chandrika and the entire opposition was galvanized. And Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was victorious at two successive elections. Whether Anura suffered from the Ranil Wickremesinghe syndrome or vice versa, one can only speculate at this time, nevertheless, that is not the intent of the writer.
Now I come to the latent factor that I mentioned at the very outset of this piece. The 1977 election was the last election battle that was fought on the basis of first-past-the-post. In order to get elected, the candidate had to win the electorate; each electorate had its own dynamics and idiosyncrasies. Caste, creed, religion and social standards peculiar to the narrow confines of geography of the electorate mattered considerably. However, in the context of the PR system, the influence of these factors were diffused and diluted over a larger area such as a district, making this influence less decisive in the overall selection of the candidate by the voter.
Intensity and focus of candidate
The intensity and focus of the candidate were greatly enunciated in every campaign. Furthermore, the Party’s appeal to the electorate was mainly based on its national appeal. If the incumbent Party was on a declining scale, the candidate suffered severely as shown in the ’56 and ’77 landslide victories for the MEP and the UNP, respectively.
In fact, the defeat that the SLFP-led coalition suffered in 1977 was much worse than the one the UNP suffered at the hands of SWRD-led coalition in 1956. Yet, the bottom line is that the gruelling contest that a candidate had to endure during the elections of the first-past-the-post era was much more combative and competitive, although the arena in which such a battle was fought was much smaller in terms of the number of votes and the length and breadth of the physical area that was covered.
To get into Parliament under that system, one had to win votes from the opponent’s camp. If one considers the casualties of landmark elections such as the ones in ’56 and ’77, one gets a fair idea: Good candidates like J. R. Jayewardene in Kelaniya, E. L. Senanayake in Kandy, Paris Perera in Jaela and Abeyratne Ratnayake in Wattegama were unfortunate casualties of the ’56 debacle, while in the ’77 elections, Felix Dias Bandaranaike in Dompe,
Dr. N. M. Perera in Yatiyantota, Pieter Kuenaman in Colombo Central, Bernard Soysa in Colombo East and T. B.Ilangaratne in Kolonnawa fell by the wayside, because the political tide at the national level was overwhelming. These candidates who were, in every aspect of politics and social life, national figures of high esteem and integrity, could not withstand the oncoming onslaught on the party that they respectively represented.
How many such survivors are left in the UNP today? Only Jayawickrama Perera from Katugampola, Joseph Michael Perera from Jaela, John Amaratunga from Wattala and Ranil Wickremesinghe from Biyagama have that unique experience of ‘winning’ an electorate in the pre-PR era.
Niether Karu Jayasuriya nor Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Rosy Senanayake, Ravi Karunanayake, Sujeewa Senasinghe nor Buddhika Pathirana have that experience and the PR system has lulled them into a very complacent mode of electioneering. Whether the majority of the district or electorate had voted for their party or not, their focus had been on securing a winnable percentage from the UNP segment of the vote.
The ultimate result of this process has been the declining focus on the Party and a deliberate and an ever-increasing push towards obtaining as many preferential votes from their own Party’s bank of votes as possible; the bottom line being the sacrifice of party politics for personal appeal. They got bogged down in a mindset that is extremely harmful for meaningful electioneering. On the other hand, the financial commitment to a well-run campaign is far too short on the part of the UNP at present in comparison to the massively funded campaigns run by the government candidates. While the UNP candidates were engaged in conducting election campaigns, the government candidates were running election factories, so to say, with hundreds of paid girls and boys doing a variety of jobs such as mailing, manning phone-banks, house-to-house canvassing, and so on and so forth.
Declining focus on party
Against such a backdrop, the task of the UNP will be overwhelming, bordering on the impossible.
In 1867, Otto Von Bismarck remarked that “politics is the art of the possible.” For the current crop of UNPers, it’s fast becoming the art of the impossible. What is critical at present is a change in the mindset of the UNP Members of Parliament. If any serious-thinking UNP politician honestly desires a change in the party leadership and its direction, he needs to address this ‘mindset’ issue sooner rather than later.
The onus on the Party when selecting candidates and organizers for electorates is fairly high and utmost care and diligence must be paid to that very process. A brutally honest and almost fool-proof selection process must be put in place instead of handing nominations to selected favourites. A radical change in the thinking, and a thinking that needs to re-focus on winning an electorate and thereby securing an electoral victory for the party is the most pressing need today. If that is tackled in a meaningful way, then the rest will follow as day after night. Is the United National Party as it is constituted today, capable of this fundamental change? Is it capable of being reborn? If so, there is a glimmer of hope. If not, who could save the UNP, not from Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cronies but from itself, is a very difficult question to answer.