UNP leadership: The last battle of the war

By Dayan Jayatilleka

(May 26, Singapore City, Sri Lanka Guardian) One year after the victory, the last battles of the war remain to be fought and won. One is the diplomatic and opinion battle against those who seek to persecute Sri Lanka for its ‘unauthorised’ victory. That battle is in the best possible hands, those of Prof GL Pieris. The other battle is the intellectual one, to ensure that world history will absolve us and uphold a verdict that Sri Lanka’s was a Just war. The third is the battle for devolution because Sri Lanka’s narrative before the world that it was Prabhakaran and his Tigers and neither the State nor the Sinhalese who were preventing justice and fair-play for the Tamils through the full implementation of the existing provisions of our Constitution which make for provincial autonomy. The fourth is the legal and political battle to preserve democracy.

These however, are not the most important of the last battles left over from the war, which have to be fought for the consolidation of last year’s victory. The most important last battle is that against Prabhakaran’s political partner and ally; the leader who provided the space for Prabhakaran to build an air-force: Ranil Wickremesinghe. The war will be finally over and the country will be safe only when Ranil Wickremesinghe has paid the price for his policy of appeasement by losing the party leadership; the main democratic alternative, the UNP, is safely in patriotic hands; and elections to the Northern provincial council have been held.

The British Labour party is to hold an election to choose its leader. Two brothers, David and Ed Miliband are the front runners.

Irrespective of what their political fortunes are at the time, the US Democrats and Republicans hold bruising internal elections, the primaries, to choose a leader, because this enables the selection of the most popular and bestows legitimacy on the leader who may go on to the president of the United States, holding the most powerful post on the planet.

Does anyone say that the UK Labour party, having suffered a serious defeat, should not ‘risk’ an open election for fear of weakening the party still further? Is the ‘too risky due to divisiveness’ argument used about the US Democrats and Republicans at the lowest ebb in their political fortunes (the Democrats under Reagan or Bush, the Republicans under Clinton)?

Obviously not, because that would be utterly nonsensical: How could a leader who has proved his or her popularity and gained legitimacy by winning an internal election, weaken the party? Secondly, how could a party not benefit by ditching an unsuccessful and unpopular leader by a democratic method? Thirdly, if elections inevitably cause splits and weaken political entities, and therefore should be avoided, why on earth have multiparty elections in a country?

A last ditch argument has it that Gen Sarath Fonseka as UNP leader would surrender the present leaders of the country to an international war crimes tribunal. Now this is really scraping the bottom of the argumentative barrel. The choice before the UNP is not Ranil Wickremesinghe or Sarath Fonseka but Ranil Wickremesinghe or Sajith Premadasa. Other patriotic personalities such as Karu Jayasuriya, Rukman Senanayake would make good Opposition Leader and UNP chairman respectively, while Dayasiri Jayasekara would be a fine Deputy Leader to Sajith’s party leader. Sarath Fonseka will become an option someday, only if society feels the need for change and Sajith has not taken over the party leadership. In short, those who think that Sarath Fonseka would be a danger should support, not oppose, the accession of Sajith to the post of leader without further delay. It is only such a change over that can pre-empt an even more drastic change such as that represented by General Fonseka. It must be said however that Sarath Fonseka cannot be denied either his place in History or in national politics someday, due to his considerable contribution as a co-architect of the titanic victory over Prabhakaran’s LTTE, though he has damaged his reputation and prospects as a future leader by his egocentricity and adventurism.

The replacement of Ranil Wickremesinghe as UNP and Opposition leader is one of those happy moves that would be a win-win outcome, with a great many beneficiaries and very few losers. What would be the positive outcomes and who the beneficiaries?

1.The UNP and the Opposition: it would no longer have to carry the electoral kiss of death that is the ‘brand’ of un-patriotism, appeasement and treachery which is currently carved on its collective forehead. It will be able recover and to punch its social weight.

2.The State, government and the armed forces: Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP is the aircraft carrier for the INGOs and foreign interests that are waging a propaganda war against Sri Lanka. So long as their favourite Ranil is in play, they will try to de-stabilise Sri Lanka in order to effect regime change and place him at the helm. If his comprador leadership is replaced by a patriotic one, these elements will be far less motivated to campaign against Sri Lanka because they will have no local allay and option. No UNP leader but Ranil would be likely to collaborate with an international inquiry against Sri Lanka

3.The public: a strong Opposition would mean a government that was on its toes. The people could get the best out of the Government while having a viable democratic alternative.

4.The business/investor community, local and foreign: A viable opposition could keep economic and financial institutions and processes more transparent and accountable. A UNP leadership with a popular, more social democratic and patriotic profile could someday form a modern, investment friendly administration which was also protected from a social backlash.

5. The judiciary, the public service, the armed forces and the mass media: all institutions of the state and civil society could function more autonomously and with less intimidation, interference and distortion, because the administration would have to function with less impunity if there were an effective and viable Opposition as a ‘shadow government’.

The country can exit the cycle of history defined by the war, only when the UNP, the second major political formation in the island, is liberated and that party brought back into the national mainstream by bringing it into line with the national ethos. The SLFP survived and prospered because, in 2005-6, it came under a new leadership that was patriotic. That transformation has to occur in the UNP for it to become similarly reinvigorated. There is an unfinished task left over from the war. Siri Kotha is the last Nandikadal. The party with the elephant symbol needs a Kandula – a Kadol Atha- to break through the gates of the Siri Kotha and Cambridge Terrace citadels, dislodge the Tiger appeasers and empower the patriots. Only then, after this final battle of the war is fought and won, can we put the war finally behind us.

What the UNP needs now is hope; the hope that can only come from a page turned and a new beginning made. The UNP changed leaders with the Hartal of 1953, and the electoral debacles of 1956 and 1970. This permitted the UNP to limit its stay in opposition and the SLFP‘s in office to one term each time! Now let us recall what happened when the UNP did NOT change its leadership after electoral defeat. It retained the same leadership after 1994, with the result that the UNP has remained in opposition since, i.e. for 15 years, with the next scheduled election six years away. Imagine the party’s fate had it not changed its leadership after 1956 and 1970! If it makes the move to Sajith this year, then with elections 6 years away, he has time to grow into the leadership and with the vital factor of renewed hope; the UNP has the time to reorganise from the grassroots, throughout the country.