What happens when the protracted crisis of a political party which is in government, coincides with a dramatically mounting economic crisis? The UNP is the country’s second oldest political party. Never in its 70 year history has it been away from the apex of power and the top post in the country for as long as it has been during this stretch: a quarter century. The other main contender for power, the SLFP has never been out of the top spot for that long.
The UNP has had lean stretches before in its long history, but even in defeat it has been led by personalities who were popular. This is manifestly not the case today. During this entire period of almost a quarter century out of the top spot, the UNP has been led by one man. Today there is open dissent against his leadership; dissent that makes it to the TV news every single day.
Earlier, when the UNP was in office, it had impressive marches on May Day, culminating in a huge rally on Galle Face Green. Today’s UNP, devoid of the capacity to mobilize a march, penned itself into the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. The UNP has no powerful Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya to organize a May Day parade.
What we are witnessing is the shrinking, cracking and crumbling of the UNP. It has been beaten into second place by the Pohottuwa. Though its strategists are counting on the abolition of the executive presidency, projections show that even at a parliamentary election the UNP would clock only 60 seats while the JO-Pohottuwa would clock 120 i.e. double that number.
Ranjith Aluvihare, MP and descendant of a clan of UNP stalwarts in Matale, said on TV news that,“the UNP has a problem as to its presidential candidacy in 2019… It will lose the Provincial Council elections… [It] has already lost its base in the villages.”
I have never seen the UNP in as bad a shape as it is now. If its leadership remains unchanged, the UNP will plunge to its lowest ever percentage at the next nationwide election. In short, 2019 will see the worst defeat in UNP history.
The only silver lining for the UNP is Sajith Premadasa’s speech at Sugathadasa stadium and the uniquely tumultuous applause both he and it received. ITN cameras repeatedly cross-cut to the supercilious smirks and bemused exchanges among Ranil Wickremesinghe, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Navin Dissanaike, as Sajith made a blistering critique of neoliberal economics, exposed the horrendously unequal distribution of wealth, emotively invoked his father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, and rolled out an electorally compelling, pro-peasant/pro-youth populist policy package.
Sajith is the sole populist in the front ranks of a party dominated by an unpopular neoliberal globalist elite, at a time that populism is on the rise globally and neoliberal globalism is on the retreat. Way ahead in the UNP leadership stakes, he won’t get there in time to salvage the party in 2019 despite his super-subtle signalling that he hasn’t ruled out running as candidate (“endorsed by hundreds of thousands at Galle Face Green”). When the party crashes and burns in 2019, he will get the chance of leading it into the parliamentary battle of 2020.
The SLFP is at its lowest ebb ever, in terms of electoral percentage. It is in a governing coalition, and yet its trade union wing just broke away and the party was unable to mobilize a parade for May Day. With the crossover of 16 SLFP MPs, most SLFP parliamentarians and voters are in the Opposition, with only the Chandrika-ist rump faction of 23 remaining in government, devoid of most of its popular vote. The SLFP numbers in the Opposition will increase, not decrease.
The SLFP is better placed than the UNP. It has two options. It can regrow its base as an independent Opposition party albeit with links to President Sirisena, a dualism which may not quite work because the nexus with the incumbent may be counterproductive in the context of an anti-Establishment tsunami. But the SLFP retains the option of ‘bandwagoning’, i.e. “transition” to a broad anti-UNP coalition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his designated Presidential candidate.
The only hope for rebellious UNP MPs is to imitate the Pohottuwa and the SLFP Sixteen, and sit in Opposition as an independent entity (as Dayasiri Jayasekara argued for in 2011). The UNP dissidents and the SLFP rebels could form a moderate ‘Macronist’ centrist cluster in the Opposition.
Chandrika, India and the West’s formula of a UNP-SLFP government is collapsing like a pricked balloon. The UNP’s vote base has shrunk, as has the SLFP’s, and the residual SLFP in government has a negligible vote base.
What the last nail in the government’s coffin will prove to be, has already been spotlighted by columnist DBS Jeyaraj in these pages. The TNA is due to launch a campaign of non-violent agitation calling for the implementation of the Government’s alleged promise of a new Constitution. He writes that MA Sumanthiran and Jayampathy Wickremaratne have a draft which can be fast-tracked in two weeks, if the Government gives the green-light. If not, the ITAK will endorse at its convention this June, the slogan of a non-violent campaign of agitation. He discloses that such a campaign had been planned and thousands of Gandhi caps stitched for use in late 2014, but was halted by the victory of the Yahapalana ‘regime change’ project. So the caps will be dusted off for use from mid-2018.
At a time when the government is on the decline, nothing is more certain to bury the UNP/Yahapalanaya electorally than agitation for a new, non-unitary Constitution in the North. Nothing could be more conducive to generate a hardline majoritarian nationalist backlash which any Opposition candidate will feel tempted to surf! Nothing is more likely to trigger a military intervention in politics by civilian electoral means!
At a time when the government is on the decline, nothing is more certain to bury the UNP/ Yahapalanaya electorally than agitation for a new, non-unitary Constitution in the North. Nothing could be more conducive to generate a hardline majoritarian nationalist backlash which any Opposition candidate will feel tempted to surf! Nothing is more likely to trigger a military intervention in politics by civilian electoral means!
It is probably the case that the planned Northern agitation is intended by foreign intelligence agencies as a preemptive strike, setting the stage for a Kosovo-Kurdistan type separatist project once the inevitable happens and the Rajapaksas return next year.
The government has alienated itself from nationalist, and even more basic national, sentiments. Those who recall the election of 1956 and 1970—the ‘Silent Revolutions’—will remember the role of the Buddhist clergy in the election campaigns. Can anyone doubt that the Sangha will mobilize itself and plunge en masse into the campaign next year?
Meanwhile, in the penultimate year before decisive national elections, the government has just hiked the price of staples, milk powder and cooking gas, with signals that fuel prices and water bills will also increase. I have never seen a government quite so suicidal. James Carville famously coined the slogan of Bill Clinton’s campaign: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” In the case of this UNP government’s coming demise, the appropriate slogans would be a variation: “It’s Not Only the Economy, Stupid!” or “It’s Also the Economy, Stupid!”
As the massive May Day manifestation in Galle clearly showed, Mahinda’s JO-Pohottuwa is on the offensive and dominates the national political battle-space. The most important question in Sri Lankan politics is this: who will Mahinda Rajapaksa’s choice of Presidential candidate be—Gotabhaya, Basil or Chamal?
The UNP takes comfort in the factional rivalry that is latent, but thought the same when Mahinda split the SLFP and backed the Pohottuwa. The UNP’s assumption collapsed with MR’s Feb 10th triumph over both the UNP and the SLFP. The factional rivalry can be likened to the US presidential primaries and will die down once the choice is made. Even if Mahinda were to draw lots blindfolded to pick the candidate from among his able brothers, whoever that random choice is will probably win next year’s election.