The present state of the UNP after the presidential election of November 16, 2019 is in many ways reminiscent of the state the SLFP was in the wake of the defeat of 1977, when the latter experienced declining public support and disunity within its ranks. As we pen these words, the UNP is on the verge of a major split, with the possibility that the Ranil Wickremasinghe faction will contest under the elephant symbol and the Sajith faction under a different symbol. This is reminiscent of the way the SLFP split after the 1982 presidential election. Things are now moving with a momentum of its own. The Parliamentary election has already been declared. Applications have already been called for postal voting. The Elections Commission is to begin accepting nominations on Thursday this week (12 March) to close on 19 March. If the political parties are to hand in nominations before the closing date they will have all of ten days between now and that deadline to finalize their lists – which is arguably the most difficult part at any parliamentary, PC or local government election.
During the ten days that remain until nominations close, the two warring factions of the UNP will have to decide who will be on the national list and who will contest in the districts. Once the lists are finalized, they cannot be changed without more conflict. Hence the coming days will be crucial for both factions of the UNP and particularly for the Sajith Premadasa faction which is the breakaway group. The UNP under Ranil Wickremasinghe is at a slight advantage because they represent the established political party with the party symbol, the party headquarters and the party branch organizations or what is left of them. The Sajith Premadasa faction will face the additional challenge of having to build a political party from scratch on the eve of a parliamentary election. The Samagi Jana Balawegaya which the Sajith faction has set up has a name and a symbol and a significant group of UNP parliamentarians supporting it. But they don’t have any grassroots party organizations.
Can the SJB do an SLPP?
The expectation obviously is that the present grassroots party organizations of the UNP will become the grassroots organizations of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya. That may be so in certain places where the electoral organizer is very strong. But when the two factions of the UNP field separate lists, the greater likelihood is that the grassroots organizations will split along the factional faultlines. If the sitting member of Parliament in a district goes with the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the UNP will most probably field a provincial councilor or a local government opposition leader in his place. The replacement will also be a person from the area, with links to the grassroots party activists. So no one in the Sajith Premadasa faction will be able to carry the entire UNP support base with them into the Samagi Jana Balawegaya. In the coming days, these practical realities will begin to dawn on members of the Sajith Premadasa faction and no one should be surprised if there are mass defections from the Sajith faction to the UNP before nominations close.
As this writer has pointed out previously in this column, even though the Samagi Jana Balawegaya has been inspired by the example of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the Mahinda Rajapaksa model will not necessarily work for Sajith Premadasa. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in January 2015, he was the leader who had presided over what in this writer’s view was up to that time, the most successful government in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history. Intractable problems which had been festering for years were solved during that period. The FBI designated world’s deadliest terrorists were conclusively defeated, the Norochcholai and Upper Kotmale power plants which no government had the courage to go ahead with, were built. The government survived multiple global crises including the global food crisis of 2007, the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 which was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the high fuel price regime between 2010 and 2014. Despite the war and multiple glolbal crises, Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP in US Dollar terms increased threefold in the nine years that Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled the country.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in January 2015, many people were shocked and angry. People from all over the country flocked to see the defeated leader at his house in Tangalle. This was the groundwell that led to the reorganization of the pro-Mahinda forces, the Nugegoda rally, the formation of the Joint Opposition and finally the SLPP. Sajith Premadasa does not have Mahinda Rajapaksa’s track record in government, nor does he have the groundswell of public support that Mahinda Rajapaksa had even in defeat. The only thing Sajith Premadasa has going for him is that in the run up to the presidential election, the vast majority of the UNP rank and file supported his candidacy over that of anyone else in the UNP. As this writer pointed out at that time, the rallies organized to promote Sajith’s candidacy drew vast crowds of party supporters and the party leadership simply could not ignore the signal sent by the rank and file as to who their candidate should be.
However that was in a context where the UNP rank and file actually thought Sajith Premadasa could win the presidential election. They thought that Sajith’s welfare and freebees approach combined with the support of the overwhelming majority of the minority votes would carry the day. But contrary to those expectations Sajith Premadasa was soundly defeated. In the defeated UNP, Sajith may still be the most feasible prime ministerial candidate, but whether that will confer on him the ability to ‘hollow out’ the UNP the way Mahinda Rajapaksa hollowed out the SLFP by contesting separately, is in doubt. There are several factors to be considered here. When Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters hollowed out the SLFP, that was done in stages and the circumstances were very different. One of the factors that enabled MR and his supporters to hollow out the SLFP was that after Maithripala Sirisena took over the SLFP, he made it a part of the UNP government.
Becoming the main opposition force
Thus those who remained with Mahinda were from day one assured of becoming the main opposition force in the country. This is a key consideration which must never be lost sight of. In the context of the UNP, it should be noted that the Ranil Wickremasinghe faction has not become a part of the government and is still in the opposition. So there is no guarantee that the Sajith faction will be able to become the largest faction of the opposition. Members of the Sajith faction are trying to portray the Ranil faction as having an under the table deal with the government. Accusations like this can be made, but it’s obvious that the UNP faction led by RW is not a part of the SLPP government the way the Maithripala Sirisena led SLFP was a part of the yahapalana government. The Ranil Wickremasinghe faction is making the counter accusation that the Sajith faction is trying to split the UNP so that the SLPP gets a two thirds majority in Parliament.
The fact is that both these factions are in the opposition and so long as they remain there, they will share the opposition vote between them in the event that they contest separately. Last week, UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe attended a do organized by parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera and lashed out at the SLPP led government and at Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa characterizing the latter’s request made to India to reschedule Sri Lanka’s debt as a case of begging for alms. So neither of the two UNP factions has a monopoly over anti-government rhetoric. Another fact that has to be considered is that even after Maithripala Sirisena had made the SLFP an appendage of the UNP, and after the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna had been formed, once the SLFP contested the local government elections separately, they were able to garner a significant number of votes despite being weakened by their association with the UNP government. Even when the UNP and SLFP were contesting the local government elections separately, SLFP ministers were serving in the same cabinet with the UNP.
The fact that the SLFP managed to put up a better than expected showing at the 2018 local government elections even in such circumstances should be an eye opener for the Sajith faction. In fact even at the Elpitiya Pradesheeya Sabha election which was held just before the presidential election, the SLFP which had by that time formed a collation with the SLPP got over 5000 votes in that local government area. The situation may have changed now because the SLPP candidate has been elected President with an overwhelming majority and the SLFP has all but been swallowed up by the SLPP. But so long as these two parties remained distinct, the SLFP also managed to retain a reduced but still significant following despite the fact that Maithripala Sirisena was no match for Mahinda Rajapaksa as a leader. If the Samagi Jana Balawegaya contests separately, there is the possibility that the UNP will retain a very significant following.
If the SJB is to eclipse the UNP, getting half the UNP vote bank will not suffice, they will have to get at least three to four times the number of votes that the UNP gets the way the SLPP prevailed over the SLFP at the 2018 local government election. The SLPP victory left no doubt in the minds of voters, which party was bigger and had better prospects. Even as of this moment, all members of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya appear before the public in their capacity as members of the UNP. Sajith Premadasa is the deputy leader of the UNP and the others are UNP parliamentarians and that gives them some status among the UNP constituency. However the moment they file two separate lists, the UNP will have to remove them from the party and it is yet to be seen whether firstly, the parliamentarians who are now with Sajith have the appetite to sever their links with the UNP and launch themselves into the unknown, and secondly, whether the UNP voters will vote for candidates who are no longer officially in the UNP?
One wonders whether the SJB experiment has been well thought out. When Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali took on President Premadasa, in the early 1990s, they both had personal followings in the UNP. Besides, after about 14 full years of UNP rule, the incumbency factor was weighing heavily on the UNP government. In a situation where the SLFP which was then the main opposition political party was not showing signs of promise, the breakaway from the UNP provided the dynamism that was needed to galvanize the opposition. In this case, it’s obvious that Sajith Premadasa never had the kind of personal following that his father R.Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayke had in the UNP between 1977 and 1991. A following gathered around him for the purpose of ousting party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe. A similar gathering was seen around Karu Jayasuriya not so long ago and Sajith himself was a part of that gathering around Karu! What we now see around Sajith Premadasa are not those personally loyal to Sajith, but a fluid body of politicians in search of a leader to oust the incumbent leader. If Sajith had refused to lead them, they would by now have found someone else to lead them.
A fluid body of dissidents
What will become apparent within the next ten days is whether the group that has gathered around Sajith not because they are personally loyal to him but only because they want to oust the incumbent leader will launch themselves into the wild unknown with Sajith as their leader. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated, the majority of the MPs in the SLFP remained loyal to him. Even when Maithripala Sirisena who had taken over the control of the SLFP, deprived the MR loyalists of their party positions and electoral organizer positions, they still refused to abandon Mahinda. That was one of the great political acts of faith that we had witnessed in our lifetimes. For a politician to be deprived of his electoral organizer handle and to see it being handed over to someone else was the equivalent of death in political terms. All politicians are dependent on the electorates they nurse to get the critical base vote that will see them elected to Parliament. It is still a mystery to this writer as to how so many SLFP parliamentarians had the courage to stand by Mahinda Rajapaksa when they were being deprived of their very political lifelines.
We must remember that even though the Mahinda sulanga campaign to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa back into politics had begun 40 days after his defeat and had gathered momentum and there was a clear groundswell of opinion in favor of MR coming back into politics, the clearly ascendant Mahinda Rajapaksa faction in the SLFP/UPFA still thought it would not be feasible to contest separately without contesting under the UPFA. So the 2015 parliamentary election was fought by the SLFP/UPFA with Mahinda Rajapaksa leading the election campaign, but with Maithripala Sirisena leading the party and the Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists being in the opposition and the Sirisena loyalists being in the government! The moral of this story is that even Mahinda Rajapaksa who was clearly the most popular politician in the country at that time, had to think twice before breaking away completely from the mother organization even though the mother organization was already tainted by the fact that it was in a coalition with the UNP. If a politician like Mahinda had to think twice, Sajith Premadasa should think ten times before contesting outside the UNP.
Of course, it has to be said that in the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa, one of the reasons that motivated his group to contest together with the Sirisena controlled SLFP/UPFA instead of breaking away to contest separately, was because there was the hope that the UPFA would be able to win the 2015 parliamentary election. So people tended to err on the side of caution. This may have come to pass, if Maithripala Sirisena had not sabotaged the campaign of his own political party by making the public announcement that he would not make Mahinda Rajapksa the prime minister even if the UPFA won the election and following this up by sacking the general secretaries of both the SLFP and the UPFA on the eve of the poll and replacing them with his own loyalists. With that, the whole rationale in contesting together and not splitting the SLFP/UPFA was vitiated.
In the present context, it must be said that neither the UNP nor the Samagi Jana Balawegaya has any hopes or illusions about being able to form a government at the forthcoming parliamentary election so the two factions don’t have to be cautious like the MR faction in the SLFP before the parliamentary election of 2015. However, this gives rise to the question whether they can afford to be reckless? They are after all fighting for a share of the same dwindling opposition pie. If the UNP vote is split between these two factions, there is the possibility that both factions will fall in between two stools in the districts.
A UNP clone led by Sajith?
Another issue that needs to be thought out is that what Sajith Premadasa is offering the people is a carbon copy of the present day UNP without Ranil Wickremasinghe and with a garnishing of welfare measures such as Janasaviya on top of Samurdhi, low income housing and various freebees. Poya Day religious observances will also be thrown in for good measure. Other than such superficial changes, the Ranil Wickremasinghe UNP will be continued as it is at present by Sajith Premadasa. The SJB will have much the same people and much the same policies. This writer has in fact pointed out on a previous occasion that when it comes to constitutional reform, Sajith Premadasa had accepted the TNA position in toto in his presidential election manifesto.
Apart from that, the same minor parties that drove the UNP into the ground, the ACMC, SLMC, JHU and TPA are also seen surrounding Sajith Premadasa. The question that all this raises is whether the people of this country have an appetite for a Sajith led UNP which is a clone of the Ranil led UNP but with the welfare garnishing mentioned earlier. The expectation of the individuals and political parties surrounding Sajith Premadasa appears to be that the garnishing will get them the power they need to implement what is essentially the Ranil Wickremasinghe agenda.
Another major factor that has to be considered is that, the Samagi Jana balawegaya will be splitting from the UNP literally in the middle of an election. In the case of the SLPP, they had at least two and a half years to set up grassroots organizations, to hold separate rallies, including the historic Galle Face May Day rally of 2017 before they had to face an election in February 2018. In contrast to this, the SJB will be moving away from the UNP without any time to get their act together. This will have an impact on the breakaway faction because they would not have had the time to set up an islandwide party network and will be completely dependent on the individual politicians associated with the SJB to run the election campaign for them. When the new party is dependent on individual politicians in that manner, there will be large parts of every district that is not covered by the SJB’s man in the area. All in all, one does not get the impression that the SJB faction has thought things through carefully.