Jumbos go wild
Posted on November 24th, 2019

Editorial Courtesy The Island

The blame game is on, in the UNP, with the Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa factions holding each other responsible for the party’s crushing defeat at the recently concluded presidential election. The Sajith loyalists are raking their rivals over the coals for not having gone the whole hog to ensure the party’s win. The other side insists that the then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, entrusted with campaigning in the North and the East, succeeded in having the people there vote for Sajith overwhelmingly, but those in charge of the UNP campaign in other areas miserably failed to deliver. Both these groups are not telling the whole truth, we reckon.

The TNA, realising that odds were stacked against Sajith in the electorates outside the North and the East and the central hills, upped the ante; it put forth 13 demands aimed at securing more devolution, bordering on federalism in the hope that the UNP would be compelled to accept them publicly as it was desperate for votes. When Sajith, realising that it was plain political suicide for him to undertake to grant those demands, chose to remain silent thereon, the TNA found itself in a dilemma. It was left with a choice between a polls boycott and backing Sajith. It knew SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa would score a walkover if it boycotted the election and, therefore, decided to back Sajith. It may also have thought its support for him would lead to a quid pro quo. Even if anyone other than Ranil had campaigned in the North and the East, the TNA would still have delivered its block vote to Sajith, for its own sake more than anything else.

The Ranil faction is right in insisting that Sajith’s organisers failed elsewhere. However, the fact remains that the UNP did not throw its full weight behind Sajith. What befell him reminds us of the then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s predicament at the 2005 presidential election; the SLFP led by then President Chandrika Kumratunga was not supportive of him. Former President Maithripala Sirisena in Aththai Saththai, a hagiographical sketch, reveals that in the run-up to the 2005 presidential election, Chandirka asked him who he thought would win. When he told her it was Mahinda, she said Mahinda’s win would be good for the SLFP but bad for her. (Mahinda won in spite of her.)

The TNA gave Sajith the kiss of death in that its support for him triggered a backlash in other areas. The UNP made a huge miscalculation; some of its seniors even boasted that Sajith would get a head start with the help of the block votes of the minorities. They said he had bagged 30% of the votes even before the start of the race! They may have expected the votes for Sajith in the North and the East to increase while those for Gotabaya decreased so that there would be a repeat of the outcome of the 2015 presidential election.

‘The most unkindest cut’ for Sajith came from the then Minister Ravi Karunanayake in the Ranil faction. While Sajith was struggling to be the UNP’s presidential candidate, Karunanayake looked down upon him, at every turn, as a total misfit, claiming that the latter had not even passed the GCE O/L examination in Sri Lanka. Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka also castigated Sajith initially as a square peg in a round hole though he started singing hosannas for the latter, after being promised the defence portfolio.

Sajith never recovered from Ranil’s claim, at a media briefing, prior to the election, that he would be the PM in case of Sajith’s election as President, for it was Ranil the people wanted to see the back of. Sajith sought to counter that claim by offering to appoint a ‘first-time PM’, but his effort was in vain.

The UNP leader has admitted that his party has alienated the Sinhala Buddhist voters. The erosion of their faith in the UNP did not occur overnight, after Sajith was nominated to contest the presidential election. It is the UNP leadership that should take the blame for this situation.

The UNP has lost a sizeable chunk of its vote base and come to be dependent on the block votes of other parties, which can hold it to ransom. It should have made use of the opportunities that presented themselves after its win at the 2015 general election to woo the majority community. But it did not care to do so. Unaware of the ground reality, Sajith took a leap of faith on 16 November, nay, he dived into the shallow end of the pool.

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