The UNP crisis: A case of missing the wood for the trees

by Prof. Ashley LS Perera

(August 13, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
The UNP is one of the two main political parties in the country. It is generally acknowledged as the only political party, potentially capable of forming an alternative government. Curiously though, it has suffered sixteen straight defeats at provincial, parliamentary and presidential elections held during the past six years. Consequently, some rebels from within the party are demanding a change in leadership along with appropriate steps for re-organising and re- structuring of the party hierarchy as remedial action. The demand for a new leadership and party reforms have been consistently mooted after every single electoral defeat suffered by the party. The rebels firmly believe that the weak leadership is the main cause for party setbacks.

The recent episode of suicide by Rienzie Algama, a die-hard UNP supporters from the south, who doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire, in the vicinity of the UNP headquarters has added a new dimension to the crisis. He has apparently made a plea for party unity as his last wish. This has prompted the party faithful to call for discipline in the party as a first step. However the rebels continue to agitate for change some even presenting their personal agenda as remedial measures. In the mean time the UNP crisis seems to be receiving quite a bit of attention from sources external to the party. It has become the talking point not only in parliament but also in all other political fora. In fact a private TV channel has made the UNP crisis a regular news item in its prime time news bulletin. It is rather hilarious that the TV channel should sermonise on what it refers to as lust for power of the current UNP leadership and continue its dogma day in day out when there are other important national issues that need attention.

While the criticism levelled by members of rival political parties is obviously aimed at making further inroads into the UNP voter base, some of the rebels from within may be entertaining leadership ambitions. What is pertinent however is to identify the real cause for the UNP setbacks. As pointed out in a previous article by the writer the reason for the UNP defeats appears to be the lack of a generally accepted policy strategy in keeping with the aspirations not only of the minorities but more importantly with those of the aspirations of the majority community as well.

What the UNP agitators should realise is that it is futile to attempt to put forward their own individual opinions as those of the public without a clear understanding of the aspirations of the public. The public are indeed not concerned about mere personalities. What they demand from a political party is a pragmatic policy strategy which could improve their socio- economic, physical and environmental outlook.

It is not unusual in the British tradition for the Prime Minister who is also the leader of the governing political party to step down after an electoral defeat. This however has never been the practice in Sri Lanka where leaders of political parties would hold fast irrespective of political reversals. Besides in the case of the UNP there appears to be a vacuum at the top created by the LTTE killings of UNP leaders which makes it difficult to replace the incumbent leader as the available options are very limited. Furthermore in the Sri Lanka context party leaders are rarely elected. The founder of a party automatically becomes its leader and succession is invariably within the family, or the choice of its leader. The late Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike left the UNP and established the SLFP because of the slim chances of succeeding as UNP leader despite being the next in seniority. Likewise the late Mr. CP de Silva, Maithripala Senanayake and TB Ilangaratne of the SLFP had to make way for the Bandaranaikes. Party supporters never resented the leaders who took over. A majority of voters has been more concerned with the policy issues of different political parties rather than their leaders. An examination of the post independence political history of this country clearly indicates that a majority of voters had been more concerned with the policies pursued by the respective political parties rather than its leader. If for instance a majority voted for a political personality rather than the policies or party he represented then this country would have had some excellent leaders such as Dr. NM Perera, Mr Phillip Gunawardena and Mr. SA Wickremasinghe amongst our past prime ministers.

The greatest hindrance to a UNP electoral victory rested on its lop-sided policy strategy which had been repeatedly rejected not only by the majority of voters but also by some of their conventional supporters. Initially the UNP blundered by attempting to ridicule the war effort of the government. This not only angered a majority of voters but also a cross section of UNP diehards. It clearly did not have a reasonable and pragmatic policy strategy to deal with the deadly terrorist outfit. It was content to hang on to the failed peace talks desperately attempting to convince the public of some indirect benefits or what it referred to as peace dividends.

On the other hand its economic strategy whilst in power was chaotic. Indiscriminate privatisation of some profit making state ventures and the lop-sided public transport policy did more harm than good to the UNP image. Even in a developed capitalist country like Sweden public transport has received a subsidy of over 50% from municipal governments and local councils. This is because public transport is one area where it is impossible to make a profit while providing a satisfactory service. It can make a profit only by exploiting the public. While the efforts of the present government of resurrecting the nationalized public transport service were widely acclaimed by the public, the UNP policy of privatisation was resented by the silent majority.

The UNP has apparently not realised its folly even at the time of the parliamentary elections of 2010. Its policy statement issued just prior to the elections was merely a shopping list perhaps similar to gifts purported to be showered on the kids by Santa Clause on Christmas Eve. It inter-alia pledged to reduce the cost of living and prices, increase salaries of public servants and ensure minimum wages. It also promised job security and unemployment relief and profitable marketing of agricultural produce with refrigeration facilities for fisheries and technical advisory services for dairy farming. It also pledged relief for pensioners and senior citizens coupled with improved health education and infra structure facilities with provision for employment housing including plantation housing. Its biggest deal perhaps was the proposed salary increase of Rs. 10,000/= to public servants. These indeed were too good to be true. If such a magnitude of government spending had ever taken place, it would have eventually led to hyper inflation in the absence of concrete proposals for growth and development. Consequently, any initial benefits derived by the community would have been soon wiped out heaping numerous hardships on the masses. Although not many voters would have understood the economic implications of these proposals they may have perhaps been led by instinct to reject these proposals and go along with some modest proposals put forward by the government in power.

For the UNP to have any prospects of coming to power it will have to revamp its policy strategy in a manner acceptable to the general public. Now that the war is over it should develop a comprehensive strategy for reconciliation of the affected people and redevelopment of the war affected areas. It should have a balanced economic policy for growth and development. Indiscriminate privatisation is not a panacea for all economic ills. While the private sector should be given all the encouragement that it deserves, health, education, insurance, infrastructure development and public transport should be in the firm grip of the government. An unrestrained open economic policy that is not subject to government scrutiny can lead to disastrous economic consequences. Finally, the expansionist fiscal and monetary policy pursued with impunity by successive governments including the UNP has put the general public into immense difficulties. It is therefore essential to pursue a non expansionist monetary and fiscal policy for quite some time to achieve economic stability.

(The writer is the former Head of the Department of Town and Country Planning, University of Moratuwa, Director of Post Graduate Studies and Senior Professor of Town and Country Planning. Presently an Independent Consultant to several international agencies engaged in multi-disciplinary research studies.)