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UNP trapped in an elephantine vicious cycle of defeatism

by Sumanasiri Liyanage

(March 29, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) Political parties contest elections seeking power. In defeat, they adjust and readjust themselves to prepare for the next election. This process of adjustment and readjustment entails changing the focus of their programme, organisational design and the modalities of taking on the ruling party. Hence, as a necessary corollary, changing the leadership would become imperative. In this sense, an electoral defeat is not in itself a bad thing for political party as it may contribute positively to clearing deadwood, pruning decaying branches and revitalising itself. We have witnessed this in almost all countries where democratic elections are held. Electoral defeat means that people are not ready to accept the party, its programme and its leadership. However, it is interesting to note that the exception not the rule prevails in the case of the United National Party. As The Island reported on Thursday (March 24, 2011), the UNP has re-elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as the party’s leader. The first to congratulate him was the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his main political contender. The Secretary, the Treasurer and the other key posts of the party remain unchanged. The only change has been the promotion of Sajith Premadasa, who was aspiring to be a leader of the party as joint deputy leader. Ironically, this selection of new leadership happened immediately after another defeat at the recently concluded local government election. It is somewhat hilarious as the ’new’ leader was selected under the new party constitution. How do we explain the fact that the party that was formed to capture political power remains bluntly ignorant of its primary objective even after successive electoral defeats? A simple rather simplistic answer to this question is that the party believes that the party’s electoral defeats cannot be attributed to the failure of the party leadership.

Why has the UNP faced so many electoral defeats? Is it because, its contender, UPFA, has a better programme? Is the government doing its job well so that the people do not seek a change?

As mentioned above, defeat may have a rejuvenating effect on a political party. Let me emphasise that I mean defeat not defeatism. The UNP has not only suffered many electoral defeats but also become a victim of defeatism. Let me elaborate. Defeatism is a vicious cycle. Defeatism feeds itself and has its own dynamic. When a political party goes through this vicious cycle of defeatism, its members can come out of the cycle but not the party as a collective. In one of my previous notes, I argued that when compared to the UPFA, the UNP had many young and dynamic leaders. I mentioned Buddhika Pathirana, Rosy Senanayake, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Sujeewa Senasingha, Thalatha Athukorala at Parliamentary level. A similar group under a leader like J. R. Jayewardene would have produced a winning party. JRJ was never ever a defeatist. He did not allow the party to fall into that trap knowing well that it would produce a virtuous cycle for its main contender.

Defeatism is the mentality of NGOs and not of social movements. The leaders and activists of the NGOs often say: "We work hard, spend lots of money, but our work goes unheeded." During the last 17 years, this NGO mentality has affected the UNP and it has spread like a cancer to all levels of it. As I bluntly put it, the UNP under Wickremesinghe has ceased to be a political party but a glorified NGO that goes around the world spreading anti-Sri Lankan propaganda. The re-election of Wickremesinghe in the aftermath of a crushing defeat at the local government election signifies that even under the new party constitution the UNP does not really want to break free from the vicious cycle of defeatism. When the election of the party leader was postponed till the completion of the local government polls, Wickremesinghe knew very well that he would be re-elected leader regardless of the outcome of polls.

If I stick to partisan politics, as a non-UNPer, I would be happier about the results. No wonder President Mahinda Rajapaksa promptly telephoned and congratulated the Leader of Opposition. The President may even invite him to have another cup of coffee at Temple Trees! However, as my democratic aspiration transgresses my partisan political affiliations, I am genuinely sad about the decision of the UNP. A vibrant political opposition is a must for democratic politics. In post-colonial societies where the political society is much more pronounced than the civil society (I use here the distinction made by Paratha Chatterjee), political opposition is critical for democracy. The UNP has to find a leader who could address beyond the narrow civil society interests broader interests of the masses. The failure of the UNP can also be seen from a different perspective. Whatever the weakness of the Tamil National Alliance, it was able to secure substantial electoral gain in the North and East primarily because it does politics and seeks power.

In 1977, a similar thing happened to the SLFP. However, it was able to confront the ruling party in the 1988 with a different programme by forming a broader electoral front. Although it failed to capture power at that time, the SLFP was well prepared with the changes in the leadership to take over power gradually after winning two provincial council elections. The re-election of Wickremesinghe as ‘new’ leader may not help resolve the internal problems of the party. Two things may be possible. First, another group of dissidents may join the government as they cannot see any political future. However, as the UPFA government is not in a position to offer anything in return, this option would be highly problematic. Secondly, the leadership struggle will continue as there are many in the party with leadership potential. So, if Sajith Premadasa decides to give up his battle for leadership, ‘Young Turks’ would rally around another potential leader and continue the struggle within the party. With some changes in orientation and style, Rosy Senanayake would be an ideal candidate for leadership! Finally, it would be interesting to see why the UNP after changing its constitution has failed to change the leader. To answer this question, one may need to understand the dialectic between the class and the party. Its actual decision making body is not the Executive Committee. There are people acting behind the scene steering the party. If they think they cannot take the party on the path they prefer, they at least try hard not to allow others to take the party on the path they do not want. This group is always behind Wickremesinghe!

( The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya. He can be reached at sumane_l@yahoo.com )

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