It now seems almost a certainty that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe will be contesting Mahinda Rajapaksa even though the UNP’s decision making bodies have not yet made a formal decision to that effect. Those who were in favour of the UNP leader contesting the presidential poll under the green colour and the elephant symbol expect thereby to rally support for the party countrywide and capitalize on the recovery seen in the Badulla district at the recent Uva PC elections. They also entertain the hope of victory if the overwhelming majority of the minority vote comes to the UNP. There was (and still is) another school of thought in the party that in order to ensure victory, all the political parties in the South like the JVP and Fonseka’s party also have to be taken on board and if what is required for this is to field a candidate from outside the political party system that everyone can agree on, then the party should make the sacrifice and take a step backwards and support the common candidate. The latter group also argues that if the objective is to abolish the executive presidency, then there is no point on insisting on a UNP candidate for what would essentially be an interim presidency to abolish the institution.
The latter group’s argument certainly has logic to it. But what they have not considered is what would happen if the so called common candidate from outside the party system is defeated. As of now, this group is so sure of victory if a common candidate acceptable to all parties is fielded, that they are willing to risk everything on one massive wager. But they have to ask themselves whether the risk is worth it. If the UNP agrees on a common candidate from outside for a second time and loses, that will have a devastating impact on the party. At the parliamentary elections that follow upon the presidential election, the UNP will be decimated and it may take another ten years to recover from a blow like that. Besides for a national party to encourage their rank and file to vote outside the party is suicidal. The SLFP has never encouraged their members to vote for outsiders at national elections. In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga collected small parties around herself, instead of asking her party to vote for some common candidate outside the party.
The UNP’s strategy now should be to do a Chandrika rather than repeating the mistake they made in 2010 by fielding an outsider. If the UNP fields its own leader and loses they will at least do well at the parliamentary elections because their vote at the presidential elections would have been inflated by minority community votes thus conveying the impression of a UNP revival throughout the country. It should be remembered that the UNP now does not get any minority community votes other than at presidential elections and they are dependent on Sinhala votes for their parliamentary representation. If they can infuse enthusiasm into their Sinhala voter base by getting a lot of votes (bolstered by the minority vote) at the presidential election, that will generate hope in the rank and file and be an incentive for the existing UNP voters to go to the polling booth. If on the contrary, the UNP fields a common candidate again and loses, the party rank and file will not be able to see a visible improvement in the UNP’s performance as the votes will be diluted with the votes of other parties.
There is also the very great possibility that UNP voters will not vote in their numbers for a common candidate the way they would for a UNP candidate. We saw that happening even when General Sarath Fonseka contested as the common candidate. Back in 2009, one could not imagine a figure more suitable than Sarath Fonseka to be the common opposition candidate. At least in theory, he had the ability to split the patriotic vote down the middle. Yet by fielding even a candidate as attractive as Fonseka the UNP lost some of their main bastions like the Badulla district which they had always won at major elections until Fonseka became their candidate. They have still not recovered properly from that blow in the Badulla district. If that was the situation with an attractive common candidate like Sarath Fonseka, can one imagine the negative impact that would result by fielding a lacklustre common candidate?
What one has to realize is that today, the only individuals who would make good common candidates are all within the UNP. There is no one outside the UNP who can even hold a candle to Ranil Wickremesinghe or Sajith Premadasa as a potential candidate. Indeed there is nobody outside the UNP can hold a candle even to the now debilitated and weakened Karu Jayasuriya let alone the other two. If the potential candidates in the UNP are ignored in favour of some colourless candidate from outside, the UNP will suffer devastating consequences. Leadership counts. The UNP was able to make good headway in the Badulla district largely because of the dynamic leadership that was given to the campaign by Harin Fernando. Likewise at a presidential election the candidate should have the ability to rally UNP voters and organizers around himself without which he will not be able to put up a good showing. If the next candidate is from within the UNP, there is the possibility of rallying the party vote but if he is an outsider there is the certainty that a significant part of the UNP voters will not bother to go to the polling booth. This happened even with Sarath Fonseka as a candidate and will almost certainly happen if some unappealing candidate is appointed from outside. If the UNP is browbeaten into supporting a common candidate from outside, the majority of UNP voters may follow the party line and vote for the common candidate but a significant section of the party vote will keep away from the polling booth and that will make all the difference.
Most UNPers would like to see a UNP government in power and to them, toppling the Rajapaksa regime will not have any meaning if power does not fall directly into the hands of the UNP. The average UNPer is very practical – he wants a bird in the hand, not two in the bush. Many will be skeptical of the argument that the bird has to be sent into the bush first before the UNP can catch it. That is why the Fonseka candidacy failed. Some believe that if Ranil Wickremesinghe contests the presidential election and loses again, he will have to relinquish the party leadership. Certainly if RW contests the election and gets less than what Fonseka got in 2010, there will be another internal rebellion to oust him from the leadership. But if he gets even a little more than what Fonseka got, then there will be little justification for a rebellion because no political party can be expected to bounce back in less than five years from a drubbing as comprehensive as that of the presidential election of 2010.
There is reason to believe that RW as the UNP candidate has a good chance of getting more votes (in terms of absolute numbers) than what Fonseka got in 2010. This is an election where the two party system has to be resuscitated so that we are not subject to unpleasant surprises like in 2009/2010 with untested, inexperienced individuals with no understanding of what is proper and improper in politics suddenly appearing on the scene wanting to lead the nation.