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Crisis in the UNP: Implications for Democracy

| by Laksiri Fernando

( October 3, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Crisis in the UNP was amply demonstrated first leading up to the three provincial council elections by the crossover of Dayasiri Jayasekera, one of the ablest young politicians in my opinion, and then the dismal electoral results of the party, particularly in the Central and the North Western Provinces. The results of the PC elections were not surprising at all considering the long list of election defeats that the UNP had inflicted on itself during the last decade or so, largely due to its weak and ineffective leadership.

Weak and ineffective are the two key words. When I say the leadership, I mean not only the leader but also the leadership group, having also noted that some of the best were killed by the LTTE and others crossed over. But the question is whether it should be allowed to continue with drastic implications on democracy and the country, apart from the party. Aren’t there more effective people in the party who could come to the leading positions? After all, the UNP is the main opposition party within our present democratic framework.

Role of Opposition

Amartya Sen et al described the role of an opposition in a democratic society as follows in a Commonwealth study report in 2011 (Peace and Democratic Society, p. 84). There were 10 others in the study commission.

“Different perceptions co-exist about the role of opposition parties. Whilst some act primarily as though they are the party in waiting, and therefore spend time consolidating their power base, others focus on the real job of opposition. This is to hold the government of the day to account by listening to the experience of their constituents and being sufficiently well-informed by evidence and argument to support or question the impact of current or planned public policies. Again, the latter approach will make people feel represented and included; the former, typically, will not. The representative duties of parliamentarians are obviously of great importance for the functioning of a civil approach and the avoidance of extremism.”

After Sri Lanka entered into an operational multiparty system with the independence in 1948, the first natural task was to form viable opposition parties against the ruling UNP in addition to what existed as the Left parties. It was this task which was fulfilled by the formation of the SLFP and the Federal Party. In 1956, for the first time, the SLFP as ‘the party in waiting’ managed to win over power from the ruling UNP. Since then the UNP and the SLFP have been playing the same role, alternatively, for the preservation of democracy in the country while also deforming democracy in the process for the reasons of expediency and power. A major reason for this defect or deformation was the absence of proper ‘civil approach’ by the opposition or by the elected representatives that Sen talked about. This was the same in the case of the Federal Party which succumbed to the temptations of extremism, not to speak of the JVP or the LTTE later.

Except the period between 1978 and 1988, when the democratic process was curtailed directly, there were no major obstacles for the ‘party in waiting’ to consolidate power or perform the ‘job of a real opposition.’ This is the same today, except that there are restrictions for or deformities in the overall democratic system. But the ‘party in waiting’ is still waiting since 2004 with an abysmal electoral record and disunity and crisis within it.


The first symptoms of weaknesses of Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe as a political leader became revealed in my observation during his tenure as the Prime Minister in 2001-2004. I am not at all questioning his integrity, intellectual capacity or apparent gentlemanly character. His success was short lived. The economic policy was extremely neo-liberal and the particular peace initiatives were quite detrimental to the national interests or democracy. It was due to these weaknesses that his tenure as the PM was short. Since then he has continued to be the leader of the opposition and it was during this period that the party has experienced a steady decline, over 40 key elected MPs crossing over to the government at different times. Of course there is an obvious opportunism in many crossing overs, but a promising opposition party could have consolidated its membership if there was a promising leader. Many have accused him for ‘internal dictatorship,’ disruption of party unity or favouritism, perhaps indulged in inadvertently.

If a party, particularly a ‘party in waiting,’ does not have internal democracy, then it has major implications for the country. There is no much difference between the incumbent President initiating the 18th Amendment, thereby allowing him to hold office beyond the conventional two terms and RW holding the leadership of the UNP, what may come, since 1994 for almost two decades. This is quite unprecedented in a functioning democracy. When Kevin Rudd, the leader of the Australian Labour Party (ALP), lost the elections on 21 September, just two weeks after the provincial council elections in Sri Lanka, he gracefully resigned and now electing a new leader for the party is open for the elected MPs and the party members.

It is a prevalent practice in many democratic countries that the party leader is elected at least by the elected members of the party in Parliament. It is them who matter most in consolidating an effective opposition in the country, if the party happens to be in the opposition. Some countries also involve the ordinary party members. The practice in the UNP, as far as I understand, is for the working committee to select the leader, where the leader has enormous power to select himself or herself.


There are two tasks for the UNP as the main opposition: (1) to consolidate its power bases and (2) to play the real job of an opposition. It is believed, although there are no confirmed opinion polls, that the primary vote of the UNP and that means the ‘faithfuls’ (kapuwath UNP) were quite high even when they were defeated in elections in the past. That is how it could bounce back quickly. This ‘bounce back’ quality of the UNP was quite high in the past compared to the SLFP for some reasons. If this power bases have now eroded, that means the weakening of the grass roots organizations and local committees for the lack of enthusiasm, funds or leadership. The power bases also mean the trade union organizations and also the faithfuls in the business sector.

More importantly, has the UNP been playing the role of a real opposition? This is a public interest issue beyond the party interests. This means, has the UNP been making the government accountable for what they were doing in terms of corruption, cost of living, mismanagement, deviation from democratic norms, violation of human rights, blunders in foreign policy, injustices to the minority communities etc. Have they gone to town on these issues except on some cost of living matters? This requires a team, if not a shadow cabinet, and the task of consolidating such a solid team is the tasks of the leader. Of course there are some spokes persons and undoubtedly some are effective like Dr Harsha de Silva on economic matters.

It is true that during the period of the war, or immediately thereafter, it was difficult to replace the incumbent government. During the war, the UNP blundered with their cynical statements. Its role should have been to warn against any atrocities but not against the war. In 2010, at the presidential elections, RW decided to hide behind General Sarath Fonseka who was at least bold enough to challenge the incumbent. It was not a policy of consolidation. Then at the general elections, the UNP terribly lost and that was good enough for the RW to resign as a graceful leader.

If we take two key recent most issues, the role of the UNP has been extremely ineffective or even pathetic. On the impeachment issue, the UNP’s role was quite conciliatory and some of the statements were even erroneous. Considering that the issue was about the independence of the judiciary, the betrayal was almost unforgivable. The most recent was Weliweriya. Just imagine if MR was the leader of the opposition how he would have reacted? The UNP allowed the issue to be dissipated having organized a meekly protest in Colombo only after two weeks.

If a leader of the opposition challenges and exposes a government’s mismanagement in Parliament in a professional, effective and a convincing manner and supplies an alternative vision and a policy, based on facts and research, people like Dayasiri Jayasekera will be shy to crossover.


The challenge for the UNP as the main opposition in Sri Lanka is no longer normal. The role cannot be learnt, if at all, only from what I quoted from Amartya Sen, or even Robert Dhal (Political Opposition in Western Democracies). Whether you like it or not for an ‘outsider’ to say it, Sri Lanka is “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” These terms are used quite loosely though, nevertheless to highlight some serious challenges and dangers.

The UNP as the main opposition has to be more dynamic than usual and more democratic than the authoritarian UPFA government. It should be a wrong assumption to consider that the opposition also should be ‘authoritarian’ to be effective against authoritarianism – a kind of ‘tit for tat’ logic.

The specific kind of ‘authoritarianism’ in Sri Lanka is not political dictatorship, but ‘consensual totalitarianism’ in politics and dictatorial handling of security and law and order matters with subtle curtailment of democratic rights. It still keeps a façade of democracy that the UNP as the main opposition should seize upon. It has taken or taking the form of one-party dominant state nevertheless polarized on ethnic grounds in the North and the South. This is the most dangerous challenge for the opposition in general but so far the main opposition, the UNP, has also been culpable for this development by not being a strong and an effective opposition.

The UNP as the main opposition should have the most enlightened policy on the ethnic issue or otherwise it would blunder the future of the country badly even more than the present government. ‘Arab Spring’ is not the correct model for the opposition in Sri Lanka. Something like that would completely destroy the already weak democratic fabric of the country. The UNP could consolidate its power bases by reorganization of the party particularly at the grass roots level and should play the role of a ‘civil opposition’ by making the government accountable for its every act and word. The UNP should be ‘tit for tat’ in this sense. However, the cheap propaganda, character assassination or distorted information just to ridicule the government leaders is not the way to go about.

There is much literature to creatively learn about how the democratic oppositions countered authoritarian or even more direct dictatorial and/or military regimes in Latin America. There is also growing literature on how the democratic oppositions work in post-communist countries including Russia, countering more fierce authoritarian rulers.

As the central issue of the crisis in the UNP is the weak and ineffective leadership, it should best be resolved as soon as possible for the sake of democracy and the country. A good leader might be able to consolidate a good team. What is equally important are a vision, strategy, policy program and an action plan with clear cut responsibilities to utilize the best out of what is available in the party. This is not only a task to save the UNP, but also democracy in the country.
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