UNP must reinvent itself | Sunday Observer

UNP must reinvent itself

Last week, we wrote in these columns that the death knell has sounded for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and that the final nail in its coffin will be in place when the results trickle in on the night of November 16.

If that is the destiny of the party which has governed the country for the longest period, its arch rival, the United National Party (UNP) averted a similar fate last week, if only narrowly, by appointing its Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa as its presidential candidate.

This is not the opportune moment, in the midst of a very volatile presidential election campaign, to propose or oppose a particular candidate. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that for democracy to be truly practised, voters must have the best possible options to choose from. Now, that seems to be the case.

Staunch UNP loyalists will brag about how the Grand Old Party came together in its hour of need and closed ranks around Minister Premadasa, pushing him to the forefront of the campaign instead of parliamentarian of four decades and five times Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

What the UNP prevented last week was not only a calamity to the party but a long-term political disaster to the nation. With Minister Premadasa publicly declaring that he would contest the November 16 election no matter what, he would have had to walk the talk, had he been deprived of the UNP’s nomination.

That would have meant a three-cornered tussle between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the UNP candidate, Minister Premadasa contesting with a ‘rebel’ faction of the party, Gotabaya Rajapaksa running from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) with Anura Kumara Dissanayake from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as the ‘also ran’. There are no prizes for guessing who the winner of such a contest would be. Much more significant would have been the impact of a long-term split within the UNP. That has happened before when Minister Premadasa’s father, then President Ranasinghe Premadasa led the party, culminating in the impeachment attempt of September 1991 and the birth of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) led by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake.

In a cruel irony of fate, it was the elimination of both Premadasa and Athulathmudali by the Tamil Tigers that brought the UNP under one banner again, with Dissanayake returning to the fold after Dingiri Banda Wijetunge assumed the leadership of the UNP. Had the party been split this time, it would not have been so fortunate and the political wounds would have festered for a longer duration.

With the SLFP in tatters, this country therefore had the potential to become a virtual one-party state, where the ‘pohottuwa’ party or the SLPP called all the shots. What would have been even more damning is the fact that the SLPP is in fact a one-family party. So, Sri Lanka would have become a one-party state controlled by one family, with that family, the Rajapaksas, being the modern equivalent of royalty.

While there must be a sense of relief that the UNP got its act together, even if it was at the eleventh hour, its candidate Minister Premadasa has his work cut out over the next forty-odd days before the election. The Rajapaksa juggernaut is not easy to stall and the UNP’s performance for the past four and a half years has been far from redeeming.

The UNP may not be as dead as the SLFP but it is certainly ailing and feeble. A glance at the facts, which are a stubborn reflection of reality, reveal this.

In 1977, J.R. Jayewardene obtained a historic five-sixth majority in Parliament, winning 140 seats in a 168-seat legislature. 12 years later, despite twin insurrections in the North and South of the country and being in power for 12 years, Ranasinghe Premadasa secured 125 seats in a 225-seat Parliament.

The UNP was ousted from power in 1994. In the 25 years since then, it has never been able to secure even a simple majority in Parliament. The closest it came to doing this was in 2001, when it won 109 seats. It hasn’t won a presidential election for the past 25 years and hasn’t contested a presidential election in 14 years. The percentage of votes it polled at the last major election, the local government election last year, was just over 29 per cent. Need we say more?

What J.R. Jayewardene did to the UNP was to transform the party from an elitist, aristocratic-led, Colombo-centric conclave into a party to which the average person on the street could relate. Although being an Anglophile at heart, he cleverly used the likes of Ranasinghe Premadasa to achieve this.

Unfortunately for the UNP, under Jayewardene’s nephew Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership, the latter seems to have turned back the clock. The party is again perceived as a snobbish entity which has room at the top only for Royalists wearing coat and tie and their assorted cronies. That is certainly an overgeneralisation, but that label has stuck.

This change came about at around the same time when Mahinda Rajapaksa was projecting the SLFP as a seemingly more people friendly party after being a preserve of the Bandranaikes, although, in reality, there was only room for Rajapaksas at its top. As Rajapaksa played the chauvinistic drum without missing a beat and the UNP veered carelessly towards the West, the Grand Old Party’s decline from thereon was inevitable. The Eelam war victory was merely the icing on the cake for Rajapaksa.

Why all this is important is not only because of the presidential election that lies ahead in a few weeks’ time. While its outcome will have a telling effect on the fortunes of both the UNP and the SLPP, there is more at stake.

The Rajapaksa’s dream of ‘one party, one family’ is a project that is still very much alive. Whatever the result of the presidential election, a general election will follow. It is important that the UNP re-emerges with a robust parliamentary representation in that election. That is the real challenge that awaits Sajith Premadasa, if the UNP is to reinvent itself and return to its former glory.