The jury is no longer out on the UNP-led protest rally in Colombo last week and what it revealed about the state of that party. The Sunday Times (Colombo), the newspaper least sympathetic to the government, most hostile to the UNP’s dissidents and the most charitable to the existing opposition leadership carried this definitive assessment in the column by its Political Editor.
“…Barely hours after the Magistrate’s order, a crowd of some 2,000 gathered for the protest…The organisers of the event had expected to muster a crowd of at least 5,000 from Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara areas. The lower turnout to an event led by the country’s main opposition to protest the army killings at Weliweriya on August 1 – a fortnight ago, and other burning issues affecting the people, does not speak well for the grand old party. It perhaps would have made a difference if behind-the-scene moves to rope in both the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and its breakaway Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) succeeded. Both were to turn down covert overtures made. However, former General Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party was not asked.
…Going by the UNP’s own estimate of mustering a 5,000 crowd, not the best for the main opposition, the question that begs answer is whether the Police Department, recently beefed up with all the anti-riot paraphernalia could not have coped with it. Egregious enough, it is even more absurd when it ends up with a turnout of only some 2,000. Senior Police officials, who do not wish to be named, concede that there had been occasions when trade union events outside the Fort Railway Station have drawn crowds much higher than this number.” (‘As Pillay comes, Govt. faces more HR issues’, ST, Aug 18, 2013)
This upcoming week the UNP is supposed to sign an agreement with several Opposition parties. The common program is already in circulation. It is fairly decent one except for the opening point which is the abolition of the presidency and its substitution by an executive Prime Minister responsible to parliament—the very situation in which the most disastrous legislation was passed in 1956 and 1972. But that is not my main point. The entire exercise is politically pathetic.
The UNP was once the country’s single largest party, which is one of the reasons that JR Jayewardene opted for proportional representation. It was the UNP’s practice to form alliances only with parties which had a significant mass base. The paradigmatic alliance was between the UNP and the CWC led by S. Thondaman Sr. The alliance that will be declared on Tuesday is nothing remotely comparable.
The logic underlying any opposition bloc of significance is that it brings together the main tendencies of the opposition, which would otherwise be divided. Thus the Sri Lanka Freedom Party realized decades ago that it could only come into office if it stood at the head of the Centre-Left alliance.
The irony is that the UNP has on its side a man, Mr Samaraweera, who helped forge one of the most effective oppositional alliances in recent Sri Lankan history. That alliance was between the SLFP and JVP.
The opposition alliance that is about to be formed by the UNP is nothing remotely as significant, from the point of view of mass support as the SLFP-JVP bloc that threw out Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The exceedingly modest gathering that the UNP and these smaller entities were able to rally in Colombo last week is evidence of the lack of pulling power that the alliance suffers from. The UNP gains nothing, apart possibly from a fig leaf, by association with these smaller parties. The smaller parties merely discredit themselves by association with a UNP led by Mr Wickremesinghe. The collective profile of this bloc of personalities starting with Mr Wickremesinghe is one of those who opposed or criticised the war and supported the CFA. If they are made to answer the questions (a) “is it a good thing that the Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the LTTE and destroyed its leadership?” (b) “Were you right or wrong when you opposed the war?” one shudders to think of what the answers might be and how they would look and sound to a national television audience.
The only meaningful Opposition alliance would be one that brings together the UNP, JVP and FSP, or at least the UNP and JVP. It is exceedingly doubtful that this would be possible with Mr Wickremesinghe at the helm. However, there are precedents of UNP-JVP interaction. As leader of the Opposition, JR Jayewardene was able to arrive at an understanding with the incarcerated JVP through the mediation of Ronnie and Mallika de Mel. During the first term of the Jayewardene presidency there was a parallelism if not a pincer between the UNP and JVP in attacking the Bandaranaike leadership of the defeated SLFP. This pincer came apart with the UNP’s framing of the JVP for Black July ’83.
The relationship with the UNP wasn’t altogether abandoned though. Through the 1980s, even while the Southern civil war was raging and the JVP was murdering UNP members, there was a tacit understanding between the JVP and Mr Premadasa which broke down thanks to the hardliners within the JVP Politbureau (or the JVP’s inability to rein in its enraged militants) only months after he assumed the Presidency.
When Karu Jayasuriya was elected mayor of Colombo in 1997 he embarked upon a fairly radical program of privatisation in the interests of efficiency, with no obstructionist agitation on the part of the JVP opposition in the Council, led by Wimal Weerawansa (who at the time was at his most radical).
The point is that it takes someone quite considerably different from the economically neo-liberal, LTTE appeasing Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm of the UNP, to return to those days of tacit cooperation. Being seen to have any kind of association with Ranil Wickremesinghe and the oddball Opposition around him would have a devastating effect on the morale of the rank and file cadre of the JVP (and the FSP) and the prestige of the student and worker organizations under their leadership.
Paradoxically, though the UNP has deviated from or simply abandoned many of its traditions, it has revived another. The pity is that while it has dropped its traditional strengths it has revived a traditional vulnerability and weakness. In the decades after Independence, right up to 1973, the UNP was derisively referred to as the Uncle Nephew Party. JR Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa determinedly liberated the UNP from the yoke of familial succession, but not durably it seems. Once again the UNP is becoming an Uncle Nephew Party, with the word on the grapevine being that the uncle will hold on until the nephew can succeed him and that the conservative elitism of the UNP’s top layers is such that they will prefer to await the nephew rather than opt swiftly for an obviously more popular and nationally known personality–even if the party is on the verge of implosive collapse and only a moderate nationalist (young or old) can salvage it from self-destruction.
Ironically, the negative tradition that the UNP is reviving, has, this time around, not even the redeeming features that the original model had. The original uncle and nephew of the Uncle Nephew Party could always attract a large gathering. Sadly as the recent rally in the Fort proved, in Uncle Nephew Party Mark II, neither uncle nor nephew, nor the combination, have anything remotely like an adequate degree of resonance among the people.