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Sri Lanka: Victory or reprieve? The way ahead for post-NCM UNP

The Grand Old Party at the crossroads: There is, no doubt, however, in the minds of the UNP voter and the public at large that the changes made reveal that the UNP will remain unchanged.

by G. Dasanayaka

( May 6, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Let me preface what follows with a brief statement explaining why the subject is of broader interest and concern to the Sri Lankan public than just to the United National Party leadership.

From a public perspective, the overarching concern is that the UNP leadership by commission or omission is pushing the voter and the country back to the near despotic regime that was rejected by a majority of the people three years ago. The UNP has been a political force that has catered to the interest and welfare of a large constituency for over seven decades. People of many a race and faith still look to the UNP for political refuge and national stability. That’s why, perhaps, the party has earned for itself the sobriquet of “Grand Old Party”. It cannot be left to an individual or an “inner circle” to let the party drift into oblivion and create a political vacuum that cannot easily be filled. Such a vacuum can also lead to social upheaval in our country.

The Grand Old Party at the crossroads: There is, no doubt, however, in the minds of the UNP voter and the public at large that the changes made reveal that the UNP will remain unchanged.

Just when I thought that the April 4 no-confidence motion (NCM) against the Prime Minister had now been relegated to the dustbin of history, I could not help but revisit the subject on seeing colourful banners in outstation towns proclaiming the defeat of the NCM as a great victory for “Our Prime Minister”. These banners obviously put up by “Sirikotha appointed organisers, many of whom lost the local council elections to the “Phottuwa”, are a reflection on the sorry state the UNP and the party leadership have fallen into.

“It’s folly to be wise where ignorance is bliss” and it may well be that those responsible for these banners in their blissful state, believe that the defeat of the NCM has cleared all hurdles for the entrenchment of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s power for the next decade. Or can it be that such people are just self-centred and concerned only with whatever short term benefits they could reap from the current UNP leadership?

While these “Sirikotha oragnisers” hail the defeat of the NCM as a great victory for “Our PM” the more discerning and politically savvy public, view it more as a “reprieve”. At best, they see it as a “Pyrrhic Victory” leaving the party bruised and battered, warranting immediate introspection and remedial action. Such introspection and remedial action are required within the “Unity Government” but more within the UNP; as millions of Sri Lankans still rely on the UNP for national political stability.

Govt’s positives

The days of the “Unity Government” are numbered. The Constitution dictates that the Presidential election be held before January 8, 2020. General Elections will follow not much later. With a tired and frustrated electorate, especially the 6.2 million who voted the previous regime out of office still looking for a genuine change in governance, what matters most now, is not what the “Unity Government” can deliver in the next 17 months. Instead, it relates to what is in store for us when the people elect a new leader and Government in 2019/20. Should Messrs Sirisena and Wickremesinghe wish to continue in the turbulent seas of the “Unity Government,” so let it be. In the process let Mr Wickremesinghe will also achieve the distinction of serving a full term as Premier in his fourth attempt. Whatever good the “Unity Government” may achieve in this remaining short period will be a positive and I, for one, hope the Government will have some positives to speak of by the end of 2019. What thereafter, however, is the million dollar question.

As for the next presidential and parliamentary elections, it is reasonable to assume as at now that the key contenders will be a UNP-led front on the one hand and a group whether under the “Pohottuwa” or the SLFP-led by Mahinda Rajapaksa on the other. This is regardless of who the Presidential candidates will be. Any major change in this equation within the next 17 months appears highly unlikely.

Meanwhile, the underlying causes for the rejection of the MR regime and the victory of the UNP-sponsored common candidate in January 2015, continue to niggle in the minds of the voter; especially the 6.2 million who voted for change. The MR group has done nothing constructive since its defeat to convince voters that it has the capacity to re-position itself as a clean government, committed to democratic values and national prosperity. Neither have the people around the MR leadership changed. Yet, in their unbridled favour has been the virtual chaos that has reigned in governance under the MS-RW leadership.

This chaos, particularly at the level of the rural and working class voter, has led to a yearning for “MR times” notwithstanding all the vulgar negatives it was associated with. This yearning was evident in the results of the February local polls. Given this background, the critical question for the UNP must necessarily relate to its ability to convince the national electorate in 2019, that the party deserves another term in office. That effort must also target a UNP-led government and not a shaky coalition — a truly formidable challenge!

In fairness to the “Unity Government”, much has been done primarily in the area of strengthening democratic institutions and overall freedom of the individual. This, however, is more of intrinsic value and the average voter when in dire need asks: Are we to eat and live on freedom alone? Regrettably, neither has the Government been able to successfully “market” with the public whatever good it has achieved in terms of macro-economic long term stability; whereas the governing chaos has overwhelmingly overshadowed the achievements.

One may argue that the attitudes of our voter smack of political immaturity and the problem lies therein. Any political leadership worthy of its salt, however, needs to understand reality and average voter expectations. The average voter looks for more direct tangible benefits in which area this Government has little to boast of, apart from what was done during the period January-August 2015. In an electorate with a short term memory what was done then counts for little now and will count for even less by late 2019.

The post-local poll scenario and the run up to the NCM led to a revamped sense of enthusiasm among UNP supporters. This enthusiasm was prompted by the repeated assurances given by the party leadership that radical changes would be made to the party, enabling younger people to take charge of party affairs. More than a hint was made of a change in party leadership. The positive impact this enthusiasm had on the rallying call to support the PM and defeat the NCM cannot be gainsaid. Even the most pessimistic of UNPers seemed to entertain a glimmer of hope in the promise of change. The month for change was April. April has come and gone. What a damp squib the so-called radical change has been? Not only among many involved in the party machinery at different levels but thousands and more foot soldiers of the party feel they have been shortchanged and brought to square one. Meanwhile, the pessimists sneeringly say out loud: we told you so!

The so-called change has been a shifting of persons (all men at that with no women) among the key offices under the party constitution. The only “outgoing” has been the chairman who continues to retain heavy political clout. The general secretary was appointed chairman. The deputy was appointed general secretary with no unanimity — and a reluctant deputy brought in to fill the gap. A new national organiser, with no defined role, and a few other insignificant moves among old faces have also been made. The obvious deputy leader remains unchanged and so does the highly controversial assistant leader.

The only sense one might draw from the spirit of these changes is that the leader will also remain! I would not guess as to how satisfied the UNP leadership is of this change. There is, no doubt, however, in the minds of the UNP voter and the public at large that the changes made reveal that the UNP will remain unchanged. No doubt there are some good and efficient people among the new party office bearers. Regardless, the image of a party in the eyes of the public is reflected in the persona of the leader. To that extent, the party will continue to be associated with a failed leader and the expectation of a UNP-led government by end 2019 is even more diminished now than what it was before the “Change Month” of April 2018.

Cry of the UNP foot soldiers

Interestingly, as a wag put it in a Colombo watering hole the other day – “Only if RW when contesting national elections displays the same tenacity he does when protecting his party leadership, he would certainly have been a winner many moons ago”! But then, clinging to party leadership within the context of a tight pro-leader constitution and fighting a national election in the public domain are two different ball games. Unless the numerous committees in the UNP wake up to this reality, the drift from victory to oblivion will be very fast.

If the party leader cannot be changed under the complexities of the present constitution, change the constitution is the cry of the party foot soldier. The very least one could expect from the UNP in preparation for the 2019/20 election, though certainly not the best, is to declare the Party’s Presidential candidate sooner than later. The UNP voter does not expect it to be RW and hopefully the party will not snoop around in secret conclaves for a third party candidate either. The declaration of a candidate can still permit RW to continue as party leader and make way for a new leader when the party candidate hopefully wins the Presidency.

We can be reasonably assured (or can we?) that RW the “loyal party man” will in the, meanwhile, extend unstinted support for the victory of the party candidate. Such an arrangement, however, will necessarily require the declared candidate to take operational charge of the party machinery and build a strong team to face the hustings. That requirement too needs to be facilitated. In the prevailing atmosphere within the party it is questionable, however, as to whether the current leadership will be far sighted and courageous enough to walk this path.

Assuming without conceding that the “April Changes” can galavanise the party into election mode, a political analyst may still legitimately ask whether party and government should not be delinked as far as it is possible, for mutual good.

It is useful to consider in this regard how J.R. Jayewardene addressed this aspect. JRJ is credited with bringing the party twice into power after humiliation at the polls. The most notable was the UNP victory in 1977 which routed the then mighty SLFP. If the current UNP leadership is really serious about strengthening the party machinery why not take a leaf from the thoughts of JRJ?

It was his thinking that the party executive; to work with efficiency, needed a degree of independence from the politicos. His thinking was manifested in the appointment of the highly respected accountant and polls strategist N.G.P. Panditharatne as the party chairman. He was not in the public eye but a professional master strategist, loyal to the party and what it stood for. JR’s appointment of the young, energetic and affable Harsha Abeyawardene as General Secretary was another good example. Harsha who was ruthlessly gunned down in his prime by cowardly terrorists was not burdened with nursing an electorate. Instead, he focused full time on party work and facilitated with great acceptance the activities of the politicians.

Now, contrary to the thinking of JRJ all the key office bearers of the UNP are not mere politicians but those holding powerful cabinet/ministerial responsibilities. Party office bearer meetings may well amount to “mini cabinet” meetings! I wonder as to whether these men have sufficient hours in a day to get through their ministerial duties and wonder even more as to how they would find time to discharge the obligations they owe the party and its membership.

I ask, against this backdrop, as to why not in the minimum, rid the burden of high governmental responsibilities from the General Secretary? Or will sacrificing cabinet office be too high a price to pay for holding key party office? The party had an exceptionally good choice in Imthiyaz Bakeer Markar for General Secretary but for reasons unexplained, that was not to be. No doubt those responsible for appointing the current office bearers and the holders of these offices consider themselves equal to the task: truly supermen!

An arrangement to delink the party as much as possible from the politicians can also be of practical value when in government and more so in a coalition government; as it enables a degree of flexibility to draw a distinction between compromised government decisions and party policy. This cannot easily be done when government ministers hold key party office. A very simple but clear example would relate to President MS’s decision to continue with a ban on selling alcoholic beverages to females. The UNP very likely has a different view on the subject. Yet, how could the General Secretary of the party who is a senior Minister in a cabinet presided over by the President speak out for the party without breaching the norms of collective responsibility?

To revert to the issues at hand, the NCM, its aftermath and the impending national elections in 2019/20. The defeat of the NCM was at best a pyrrhic victory for the UNP. If the UNP is to retain the faith of the voting masses it must constructively address the challenges ahead in a politically mature manner.

The level of disillusionment among the party rank and file has reached an all-time high. This disillusionment alone is enough to reverse the result of the 2015 elections. The writing on the wall is clear and time is running out fast. Hopefully, I am not just a proverbial violinist as the Sinhala saying goes; playing music to a pack of deaf elephants. It was the erstwhile Israeli diplomat politician, Abba Eban who said many years ago of the Palestinians: “They never lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity”. Being an incorrigible optimist, I still believe that history will not have to say the same of the “Grand Old Party”.

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