“If you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same faith under another mask?” ~Graham Greene
Many arguments have been submitted for the inability of the United National Party (UNP) to displace the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led coalition from power. Most of them are valid, but almost all those arguments merely touch upon the surface without going deep into the inner workings of a political dynamic that has been set in motion for quite some time.
An electorate does not always choose to replace an incumbent on merits alone. Various socio-economic forces that are at play at the time not only influence the mind of the voter, but sometimes they shape and guide the very social process while at the same time being its very by-product.
The socio-economic forces that many pundits and analysts give more-than-deserved-credence to, are more often than not, the cause as much as the effect of their own creation. Nevertheless, a country’s contemporary history is dictated mostly by its own inner dynamic, which is the net outcome of its centuries-old traditions, psychological make-up, external influences, its leaders and subject people, their superstitions and practices, religion, the influence of their language and modern scientific advances – all these factors work separately or collectively towards the make-up of the mind of an electorate.
A serious and clever politician whose ultimate aim and objective is to come to power as opposed to be rotting away on the opposition benches, would have to pay heed to what preceded his entry into politics and its current flow in terms of voter propensities, voter preferences and above all, voters’ moods. Voter mood is most important as it is the most difficult to gauge. A newcomer would take one whole term to understand the voter mood while a seasoned politician would know which way the wind blows by rightly measuring the voter mood. Some promising politicians have met with drastically devastating results when they repeatedly failed to identify and judge the voter mood. They had fallen by the wayside while some seemingly unimpressive ones have survived the uneven tides of politics and eventually attained their goals.
What any politician, budding or seasoned, must realize is that his or her advance or decline in the political arena is not taking place in a vacuum. On the contrary, it is happening in an extremely dynamic and moving set of circumstances which again were created by or arose as a result, of a preceding set of circumstances which may or may not be directly related to the current state of affairs. In an ever-changing environment of social, political, economic, cultural and material conditions, the politician has to make up his or her mind or arrive at judgments in a fairly short time. And once these decisions are taken, he has to act swiftly, yet taking painstaking care so as not to look impatient and hurried. When people judge politicians, they apply a very simplistic measure. They would invariably look to the politician who articulates his or her policies and positions in relation to the actual event and real lifetime situations.
The politicians, who could tell a tale, relate a story or explain an erroneous policy of the opposing party and an advantageous position of his own policy, in relation to an actual, real life situation and tangible circumstances in an easily-understandable language and relatable rhetoric will carry the day. One prime example of this politician was President Premadasa. During the 1977 General Election campaign, Premadasa narrated only one story – the case of ‘the Kataragama Premawathie Manamperi murder’ by the army personnel in the midst of the abortive ’71 April insurrection. Around that simple tale, Premadasa built a whole story of government-sponsored State-terrorism, brutality of the army, destitution of village life under the regime, how an educated and beautiful village girl could be attracted to a revolutionary thinking of radical left-wing politics, depths of despair one can fall into an unfriendly environment and so forth. Grown men and women fainted while listening to Premadasa’s narration and the people immediately realized that they could elect a person whom they could relate to and vice versa.
In this field of public speaking, Premadasa had no match, with the exception of, perhaps, Rohana Wijeweera. Premadasa’s speech alone was not a reason why the SLFP-led coalition was brought down at the elections. But, it helped to a very great extent in the people seeing the UNP, led by politicians like Premadasa, as a viable and acceptable alternative. In other words, in 1977, the UNP led by politicians of the calibre of J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Ronnie de Mel and others offered themselves as a visibly acceptable ‘alternative’, as opposed to a ‘substitute’.
Today, most unfortunately, the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe and his immediate cohorts are not seen in that light. The very nature in which the current leader is meting out justice to his own party-men and women, is blatantly unfair and unjust. His treatment of the Party Constitution, his decrees banning all parliamentarians from engaging in their own public-relation ventures, gathering enormous powers unto himself in cases of appointment and dismissal of electorate organizers, open favouritism extended to members of his own ‘club’, listening to a coterie of advisers made up of non-representative officials, naked violations of fair-play when allotting time for speeches in Parliament, letting go of golden opportunities to attack the government and its policies are just a few of these facets that Ranil presents to the voter.
However, these traits and characteristics could be ascribed to the present regime and its leaders too. But when confronted with this kind of a choice, the voter invariably chooses the one he could trust more fully and readily. Ranil is offering himself as a ‘substitute’ and not as an ‘alternative’. The alternative choice a leader could offer the public, is one with contrasting values and governing principles. Such a choice must lend itself as a clearly different vision, a distinctly identifiable contrast and a totally dissimilar policy from the current regime’s policy and vision. The personal demeanor of the leader and his strong and close loyalists matter a lot and when the voter uses his yardstick of preference, he does ever so carefully and yet intuitively.
It is in this context that Wickremesinghe fades into near-oblivion when contrasted against a giant like Mahinda Rajapaksa. Eighteen years is a long period of time and space for the electorate to forget the ‘good’ policies of the past UNP governments. And the other decisive factor is that, when the electorate compares and contrasts between the two parties, it is Wickremesinghe’s 18 years against Rajapaksa’s seven years. The sheer stagnation of the UNP during these painful years in the opposition has worsened the image of the party and its leader. Mistreatment of Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya and holding May Day celebration in Jaffna when internal politics were working in total contravention of such ‘pacification’ stances are only secondary issues when compared to the fundamental difference in ‘alternative and substitute package’.
In such an adverse scenario in which the electorate does not see the UNP and its leader as an acceptable and viable alternative, the window is open for a person or a group of persons who could claim ownership and stake of the UNP of the past and at the same time, lend their image, vision and policies as a clear ‘alternative’ to the present set of rulers. That group might stand a fighting chance in future elections. However, for this scenario to materialize, a whole lot of preparatory work, sacrifice, money, labour, projecting the right ‘stuff’ as opposed to ‘wrong’ stuff, patience and hard work have to be in place. It is no easy task. Power is not easy to get nor is it cheap. But given the patent corruption coupled with increasing family-rule and failure of the next strongest ‘substitute’ to make any headway, the chances for a third force, a real ‘alternative’, is certainly better than slim.COURTESY:CEYLON TODAY