At a ‘Think Tank’ session held in the South a couple of weeks ago, an American representative in attendance in the audience made a very relevant point. Drawing an example from his own country’s 2004 Presidential Elections, he stated that a party that is running on a totally negative platform would always lose, unless that negative slant is overshadowed by a strikingly bright positive campaign.
It’s true that John Kerry in 2004 ran one of the most lackluster campaigns in the recent history of American Presidential Elections. However, when Carl Rove and his Republican PR gang swift-boated the Democratic candidate unmercifully and painted a picture of a ‘traitor’, Kerry could not recover.
Ultimately the negative campaign that the Republicans ran against Kerry proved too lethal and decisive. Coupled with that brutal negativity, the ‘Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rove’ axis turned the 9/11 disaster into a positive pitch for the incumbent, President George W Bush. The result was a comfortable victory for Bush and his Republicans.
When Kerry’s campaign is contrasted with the campaign conducted by the newcomer Barak Obama in 2008 against a seasoned campaigner like John McCain, the difference is like that between night and day. Obama’s positive message had resonance of a brand new record release. Baraka Obama’s 2008 campaign was unique in one sense that it was one campaign in which the message was the messenger himself. The change that the Democrat offered was fundamentally himself. Not only his color of the skin and his Afro-American birth but his daring challenge to the Washington Establishment too was so profound, in the context of the incumbent Republican President running two wars on a credit card, so to speak.
It is quite obvious that the American representative who voiced his opinion at the aforementioned ‘Think Tank’ session did so with a lot of hindsight and experience.It is even more pertinent in the current context of the Parliamentary Opposition in Sri Lanka. The United National Party (UNP) which is for all practical purposes the Opposition Party in Sri Lanka, barring the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the North and East, has got enmeshed in an all-consuming leadership struggle and its validity and relevance are being examined and questioned earnestly at many a quarter where politics is the subject of the day.
The laundry list offered by the governing circles to the Opposition is too long and provoking; yet the Opposition led by the ever so sluggish Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to take the lead. The fundamental function of a legitimate opposition was relinquished by the main stakeholder. Starting from the infamous ‘hedge fund’ deals, former Chief Justice Sarath Silva’s questionable rulings, Treasury Secretary Jayasundara’s re-appointment, Examination Department’s clandestine mishaps, higher education bungling, murder of a factory worker in Katunayake, disappearances of journalists to the ultimate challenge to the concept of law and order in the unscrupulous impeachment of the Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake were issues each of which on its own merits would have qualified themselves as explosive weapons in the hands of a shrewd and astute Leader of the Opposition.
Ranil Wickremesinghe instead chose to disregard these issues and thereby condemned the UNP to its present predicament which it’s finding exceedingly difficult to extricate itself from. Amongst many reasons that have led to this unfortunate circumstance in which the UNP finds itself in, in the writer’s opinion, the following feature saliently:
1. Ranil Wickremesinghe does not read a political situation properly nor does he identify potentially explosive issues
2. Even if Ranil does read it correctly he is too lethargic and incompetent to take action
3. His party is not equipped to act and does suffer from a serious lack of troops to back him up.
4. He does not want to dislodge Mahinda Rajapaksa; there is no provision in his agenda to come to power and form a UNP-led government.
5. RW alone is not the cause; the Working Committee and his other advisers too are responsible for the present stalemate.
Let’s examine these one by one.
One of the main characteristics of a good above-average leader is the capacity and skill in identification of issues on a timely manner. All Ranil’s predecessors in the UNP were astute ‘readers’ of political situations and the fact that their eventual course took their party along, specially after an election defeat, towards victory was testimony to this essential characteristic of the makeup of those leaders. This particular trait is equally significant whether one is in the Opposition or the Government. Eighteen years is a long period of time for any political party in a democracy to be rotting away without tasting power. Ranil’s incapacity to differentiate between potentially explosive issues and utterly irrelevant ones is displayed in what he says and does. Rattling off absolutely laughable statements every now and then while on foreign furloughs, is a given scenario with Ranil Wickremesinghe today. His reprimanding of those Parliamentarians who attended the Court hearings on the Impeachment of the Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake is a prime example of how insensitive he is to burning issues of the day.
Lethargy and incompetence
It’s been universally accepted that Ranil Wickremesinghe is grossly incompetent and notoriously lethargic in his basic approach to politics. His usual approach of giving ‘notice’ of an impending opposition operation is ample example of such a mindset. It stems from elementary laziness and procrastination which are certainly not traits that any leader, either in politics or in any other field, would like to practice and set as examples for the followers to emulate.
Party not equipped and lack or troops
The Party being ill-prepared for any and all eventualities has been proven beyond doubt. For the last eighteen years, each time an election was called, the campaigning started only after the nomination papers were handed over at the Kachcheris. The meticulous preparation that needs to be undertaken while being in the Opposition is being neglected and the Party has got used to this lackluster approach to an election resulting in resounding victories for the opposing parties successively since 1994. From top to bottom, the UNP has rotten away and the various office-bearers from the General Secretary downwards have been dwelling happily in their own comfort zones without realizing that there is enough and more space and breathing room outside those zones. This lodging in a comfort zone could be an extremely destructive activity when it comes to electioneering as the Government party is ever so busy and active in their preparation work with in fact the Temple Trees, the former official residence of Prime Minister getting converted into a perpetual election office in the heart of Colombo. Against such odds, the UNP would fall by the wayside.
Not wanting to dislodge Mahinda Rajapaksa
Failure in the first three spheres has inevitably led one to believe that the UNP leader really does not want to displace the current regime nor its leader. It’s a terrible conclusion one naturally arrives at after examining the mindset, approach, attitudes and the lack of alternative policies and principles in the present course the Party has been taking. However, Ranil’s co-habitation with President Rajapaksa has been proven on more than a few occasions. Whenever, Ranil Wickremesinghe was threatened by the UNP rebels, he sought and received more than adequate support and help from Rajapaksa. But the most conspicuous injustice Ranil caused to his Party and the country was his incredible behavior during the impeachment process of the Chief Justice Bandaranayake. At a time when the entire country could be galvanized to an action plan and the people brought to the streets, the UNP leader deliberately opted to throw away a golden opportunity of ‘opposition politics’. That very behavior of Ranil Wickremesinghe easily proved to be the ultimate betrayal of trust and honesty. That unprecedented betrayal of loyalty would be etched in the minds and hearts of all political leaders for some time to come.
Ranil alone is not responsible
A political party leader alone cannot bring it down to its ultimate demise. In its self-destructive route, those who support the leader from sidelines are equally responsible and they too must bear the brunt of public criticism. The Working Committee and other Party officials who keep mum about the leaders’ suicidal conduct must be taken to task by the membership of the Party. But it seems that the point at which no other option is available has not yet been reached but fast approaching.
In short, the current leadership of the United National Party can boast about a colorful past to which they simply do not belong and it has a woefully colorless present and a bleak future, if indeed it chooses to tread the same path.
The country would be grateful to those who would take corrective measures, for such measures would not only heal many wounds of the United National Party, it would also go a long way in redirecting the masses in the country towards a more just and rightful approach to politics and governance. It’s intoxicating even to dream such a dream!