UNP’s future at stake Defeat at the recent LG polls renews calls for reform
Posted on February 19th, 2018

By Arjuna Ranawana Courtesy Ceylon Today

One of the strongest pillars of mature, stable democracies is the presence of two established political parties.

In the West, countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and others see that power has changed hands over the years between two parties.

In Canada and the UK there are similar Centrist Parties, like Labour and the Conservatives in Britain and the Conservatives and Liberals in Canada.

There is also the existence of smaller parties, usually on the Left that add balance such as the New Democrats in Canada and the Social Democrats in the UK.

After many changes the situation in India has settled down with the Bharathiya Janata Party and the Congress taking turns to
govern.

In Sri Lanka too, we have more-or-less, had a two-party system ever since S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike broke off from the United National Party and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in the mid-1950s.

Also, over the years, these main parties have split because of personality clashes or ideological rifts, but in all cases breakaway factions have never been able to defeat the main parties in elections.

Even when the powerful duo of Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake left the UNP and formed the Democratic United National Front they could not make a dent in the UNP. Similarly the popular and charismatic duo of Vijaya Kumaranatunga and wife Chandrika could not defeat the SLFP at the polls.

So, it is truly remarkable that the newly-formed Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna was able to sweep the recently concluded Local Government elections in the manner it has. Its “parent” party, the SLFP/UPFA combine has been reduced at the poll to fourth place in many wards even beneath the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

It has proved that the Mahinda Rajapaksa brand is the most powerful in the country.

It has also caused a political crisis in the country that has now dragged on for days without a resolution in sight.

Fragile coalition

The fragile and somewhat incongruous coalition that has been ruling the country with a limited reform agenda, the first time the SLFP and the UNP have tried to rule together, has been seeing serious cracks appear in recent months. The Pohottuwa sweep of the poll has caused these cracks to widen to the point that the two parties may never come together again.

The SLFP seems doomed and replaced at the electorate by the SLPP.

But the surprising development is that it has caused a major crisis in the UNP.

The Grand Old Party was formed a year before Sri Lanka gained independence from the British colonialists in 1947. Its founders were the founding fathers of Independent Ceylon.

The UNP has been the governing party or in the governing coalition from 1947 to 1956, from 1965 to 1970, from 1977 to 1994 and 2001 to 2004.

Since 1994, Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the party leader and has suffered more defeats than victories. He is the current Prime Minister, the second time he has had a chance to lead the Government, and both times with an SLFP President at the top of the power structure.

While Rajapaksa swept the poll, decimating President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP/UPFA alliance, it has been Wickremesinghe who has had to face calls for him to step down from within his party as well as the supporters outside.

This is a rare and remarkable situation. The election was not a referendum on his performance, nor did it actually impact on governance per se. But after 24 years of his leadership it appears the UNP lower ranks have had enough, and cannot stomach another defeat.

It brought to the surface the frustrations with the UNP leadership that has been simmering beneath the surface.

Calls for reform

The loudest protests came from the UNP Parliamentary Back-benchers who had been calling for reform of the party for many years.

Several revolts against Wickremesinghe in the past seven or eight years had been successfully put down, and he remained at the top.

While Wickremesinghe is easily one of the most experienced and perhaps most able politicians in the country, the party itself has not moved on to harness the dynamic talents available to it because the Party Constitution has prevented the upward mobility of new leaders.

There appears that there is a realization of the seriousness of the problem after the latest defeat. At his first press conference after the LG Polls, Wickremesinghe talked at length about reform in the party. He said there would be a massive overhaul of the party to “build a new generation of leaders who will carry the party forward for the next twenty years.”

In Sri Lanka, political leaders tend to promote their friends and more than that their kith and kin as future leaders, as politics is often a family business.

In more developed countries, the parties tend to identify talent and promote individuals gradually into leadership positions.

For instance, in the UK and Canada every MP will have Parliamentary Secretaries who are often from the electorates selected by the party as a future candidate. They are usually given the opportunity to work as the liaison between the MP and the party organization in the electorate. While these or similar positions are available in our structure they are usually filled by the MP’s wife or children.

It is very important for our country to keep our main parties stable and strong for the future of the nation. Reforming the UNP and making the path clear for future leaders to emerge is an essential step towards that.

One Response to “UNP’s future at stake Defeat at the recent LG polls renews calls for reform”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    In 71 years of elections there has been only 1 instance of reversing a bad election trend in favour of the government. That was in 1999 presidential election that reversed the fast declining trend of Chandrika. Apart from that all election trends ended in regime change. Most likely this is the end result of today’s debacles. SLPP should bid its time, retain its Sinhala vote base, not try to win minority votes by sacrificing Sinhala votes and get ready to rule the nation. Fate of Sirisena and Ranil is certain to a great extent.

    Sirisena and Ranil need super-human effort to reverse the trend. They got the power and mandate but not the will.

    For the record, the mandate of LG elections is for LGs only, not for presidency or parliament. A separate mandate is needed to for those national posts. In 2011 Mahinda had a massive LG mandate of 56% but lost the presidential mandate in 2015. Even in September 2014 Mahinda had a clear 52% mandate at the Uva PC election but just 4 months later had no mandate to continue as president. In 2002 UNP won a 55% mandate at LG elections but 2 years later lost parliamentary mandate badly.

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