Last week, the United National Party Working Committee nominated Sajith Premadasa as the presidential candidate of the Grand Old Party, and effectively, of the UNP led alliance. Mr Premadasa’s candidature may not impress those who wanted a more forthright choice with a degree of policy substance.
But, alas, there was no such in the competition. One who could have somewhat made a difference, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya pulled out, ostensibly, after Mr Premadasa assured him of the Prime Ministership of a future UNP government.
The triumph of the former presidential scion and housing minister in the bitter internecine struggle is remarkable. Unlike in the past, when he had habitually caved into the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Premadasa persisted this time around, until to the very end.
Once his victory was in sight, he rebuffed preconditions set by Mr Wickremesinghe, including that the latter be the prime minister of a future UNP government, and strangely enough that a UNP president should abolish the executive presidency- effectively handing power over to the executive prime minister, who according to the bargain, would be Mr Wickremesinghe.
Mr Wickremesinghe later retracted his demands and nominated Mr Premadasa as the party candidate at the UNP working committee meeting, which unanimously accepted it.
However, that is not necessarily a happy ending. Mr Premadasa is likely to face a good deal of obstruction and backstabbing by the disgruntled Wickremesinghe loyalists, including some senior members. He would be well served by studying the pitfalls of the campaign of Hector Kobbekaduwa, the SLFP contender of the 1982 presidential election, whose campaign was sabotaged by none other than the party leader Sirima Bandaranaike herself.
However, it is still a relief that the UNP managed to avoid a potential split. It is also a consolation that no one throttled anyone in the working committee meeting. A greater relief though is that despite all the ambiguity surrounding him, Mr Premadasa is representing the long-awaited change, that was so badly needed by the UNP.
The UNP has been reduced to a skeleton of its former self under Mr Wickremesinghe. The Yahapalanaya government led by the UNP was a byword for vacillation and indecisiveness. It mishandled the economy and then, with the devastating consequence, the national security. While the bickering between President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP might be the reason for crippling policy paralysis, the UNP can not absolve itself.
Five lost years under the Yahapalanaya have eroded the enthusiasm of the UNP friendly civil society activists, some of whom have now rallied behind the former Commander of Army General Mahesh Senanayake, who has been named as the candidate of National People’s Movement.
Mr Premadasa is carrying the burden of the UNP’s epic mess up, as he canvasses for the presidency. He is in an unenviable position.
However, if rightly handled, this could also be a new beginning. At last, the UNP can look forward to the post -Wickremesinghe era provided that Mr Wickremesinghe cedes his leadership irrespective of the outcome of the presidential election. His unduly long reign at the helm of the party, despite a losing streak and simmering internal party discontent, is an aberration of democratic politics.
In the Conservative Party of the UK, of which many traditions the UNP faithfully apes, the leadership had changed seven times since 1994, the year Mr Wickremesinghe first became the leader of the UNP and clung onto the party leadership ever since.
However, Mr Premadasa has so far failed to inspire anyone other than the green-blooded UNPers. They are a few and far between and no longer a force capable of deciding the outcome of an election.
Mr Premadasa has also been suspiciously vague and over-cautious, making many an observer feels that he is lacking substance and is scheming to thrive in rhetoric. He has not espoused a coherent economic policy of the sort. His pet project such as Uda Gamas smacks of a rent-seeking, dependency promoting political gimmick, which has taken economic priorities of the country wrong.
Such misplaced policy priorities obscure the crippling housing shortage – and the absence of state involvement therein – faced by the economically active and aspiring urban middle class. (Probably Mr Premadasa can learn from Singapore’s HDB housing)
He is also vague in his stance on the devolution of power and a political solution. Perhaps, that ambiguity is a matter of necessity for anything said on the subject could be misconstrued by his opponents. However, at the same time, it comes at the expense of the minority voters, whom he should win in en masse if he is to win the presidential election.
Mr Premadasa won the UNP’s internal contest. But, he is still a long way from winning the Presidency – or having a decent shot at it. A good number of sensible Sri Lankan voters are in the dark as to what he represents?
To begin with, Mr Premadasa should tell the public who he is? The vagueness of his policies and his persona do not have much reach beyond the serf-like microscopic minority of the local electorate.
He has to come up with a set of coherent economic and social policies and espouse his position on the Tamil national question and a political solution. He should be free to draw his boundaries on these matters, but, the public has a right to know where he stands. The election campaign has just begun and things would evolve as it progresses. So would the electability of the candidates in the eyes of the voters. Mr Premadasa should proactively seize that opportunity before his opponent capitalizes on his lacuna.