Things cannot get any more ludicrous than this. As the Sri Lankan voters go to vote for a new Parliament on April 25, in little more than six weeks from now, the United National Party is feuding over who will own the party’s symbol.
This should not have been a problem at all. The aged old elephant is both familiar and invokes a sense of nostalgia of its glorious past.
However, Sajith Premadasa, the deputy leader and his loyalists who are indulging in a self-destructive fratricidal battle bemoan that though the elephant is dear to them, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the party leader who has the final say over the party affairs cannot be trusted.
A bitter internecine war that is being waged right now is more likely to damage both factions and hand over the election on a platter to the formidable Pohottuwa.
Earlier, Mr Wickremesinghe survived the calls to hand over the UNP leadership to Mr Premadasa. As a concession, the latter was made the opposition leader.
The UNP working committee also appointed him as the prime ministerial candidate, the leader of the new alliance and the chairman of the election nomination committee for the General Election. However, they also decided that the new alliance contests under the official regalia of the UNP, the elephant.
Mr Premadasa and his loyalists who distrust Mr Wickremesinghe and UNP working committee dominated by Wickremesinghe loyalists formed a new electoral alliance, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which was formerly set up last week. Among the other members of the new alliance are Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), Ahila Ilankai People’s Congress, United Leftist Alliance, Jathika Mahajana Sabawa, Api Purawasiyo, Journalists for Democracy and Wadabime Api.
Now Mr Premadasa wants the UNP to officially hand over the elephant symbol to the new alliance.
The UNP leadership is worried that if the symbol is handed over, the UNP might not be able to get it back.
Mr Premadasa loyalists have pondered over several symbols, heart, telephone, and the swan, under the latter former presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka contested for the presidential election in 2010.
But, fresh concerns have now been raised after Samagi Jana Balawegaya was registered as a new political party.
Other than the usual bad blood, this poses a legal dilemma too for the UNP, of which constitution bars any member of the UNP from obtaining the membership of any other registered political party. In other words, any UNP member who is contesting under SJB would cease to be a member of the UNP.
In the meanwhile, UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam has officially written to the Election Commissioner conveying the intention of the UNP to contest the General Election. This might be undertaken as a mere formality, but can become a reality if the two factions fail to sort out differences.
Mr Premadasa and his loyal coterie are indeed warning to go it alone- they claim 90 per cent of the UNPers are behind them, and Mr Wickremesinghe would be left with only a name board.
But, at what cost to the Grand Old Party and electoral prospects?
Mr Wickremesinghe is part of the problem. More than anyone else he is responsible for squandering the opportunities during the last five years of the UNP rule and failing to deliver on the economy and national security. The UNP might not win under his leadership. But, an emotionally driven and irrational campaign to undercut him- obviously because he is not voluntarily vacating the party leadership- is doing more damage to the UNP than Mr Wickremesinghe.
Mr Premadasa might also be committing another major mistake, which is indeed a repetition of the similar kind of folly he committed in the presidential election. He bulldozed his way to get the UNP nomination for the presidential election, after a virulent campaign. And then, lost the presidential election ignominiously to Gotabaya Rajapaksa by 1.4 million votes.
Then and now, Mr Premadasa and his spin doctors have been singing to the choir, the already devoted UNP core membership, which is a depleting category. That he could not win any Sinhalese Buddhist majority electorate would explain how thin the UNP’s traditional green-blooded electorate is spread over.
This time around, the repetition of the same flawed logic will result in a loss with a much larger margin.
It does not matter Mr Premadasa would secure his sole authority over the SJB and recalcitrant Ranil Wickremesinghe would be taught a lesson.
That would be a pyrrhic victory for the UNP, SJB and Mr Premadasa would lose big time to the Pohottuwa and the Rajapaksa brothers.
This correspondent warned a similar outcome at the presidential election- I gave Gotabaya a head start of 10 per cent- and there is no reason to cheer that it was vindicated. If Mr Premadasa wants to make a difference, he should turn his guns not at the party leader and his loyalists, but at the Pohottuwa and their Rajapaksa handlers.
Mr Premadasa is the leader of the opposition, but he has been more vocal in opposing Ranil Wickremesinghe than the current government in power.
The Premadasa loyalists would like to hear their prospective leader digging into the infamous Sri Lankan Airline bribery scandal or how the CID is handling the investigations into the extradited Rajapaksa cousin Udayanga Weeratunga, who was implicated in corruption in a multimillion purchase of MiG 27 ground attack craft, or forensic audits of the Central Bank bond scam, dating back to 2000s.
Sri Lankan voters also want to hear from Mr Premadasa a set of sensible economic policies and a commitment to democracy and independent institutions.
Ethnic minority voters who voted Mr Premadasa overwhelmingly in the presidential election deserve, at least, a thank you from their candidate and definite expression of his commitment to resolving their genuine grievances.
Leave aside the wishful thinking, the UNP, the SJB or any other of its apparition would lose this election. But, they still have the opportunity to mitigate the extent of the loss and prevent the Pohottuwa from obtaining any number closer to a two-thirds majority. To that end, the UNP should unite its warring factions.
It should contest as one, preferably under the elephant, which might still manage to lure the indecisive UNPers.
And their election candidates should talk about the real problems and real solutions. They should also warn about the lurking danger. Sri Lanka’s short-lived exercise of institutional empowerment would go on reverse if the government succeeds in obtaining a two-third majority in Parliament.
They should speak sensibly of a possible international dressing down looming in the horizon. The economy is set to take a beating in the wake of a global Covid-19 outbreak, with some economists projecting that the Sri Lankan economy would record a negative growth this year due to supply chain disruption, drop in tourist arrival and decreasing foreign remittance.
Instead, it is a shame that the UNP is still stuck neck-deep in a lose-lose fratricidal fight.