Can a change in leadership save a party? The United National Party (UNP) appears to be considering this route, but it will not be a silver bullet unless deeper structural and policy reform is also part of the package.
Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s offer to take over the helm of the once-powerful UNP appears to be prompted by the hope that it would encourage current leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to take a step back and fast-track reforms within the party. On paper, the senior statesman, who is still remembered by many for protecting democracy and championing the supremacy of Parliament during the ill-thought-out constitutional crisis in 2018, would seem to be a competent candidate for the role of unifying the deeply-fractured UNP.
Jayasuriya could, theoretically, bring together the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the remnants of the UNP, and attempt to rebuild a once-formidable vote bloc. But the question is whether a change in leadership would be enough to bring the voters who defected from the UNP and voted en masse for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) back into the fold. There are other issues as well.
Jayasuriya’s appointment would be contrary to the plans set out by the party leadership after it was trounced in the Parliamentary Elections earlier this month. Having crashed to the worst election defeat in history by failing to win a single seat, the UNP is still embroiled in controversy. Shortly after the results were announced, the party said that it would promote a younger leader to take over the party and oversee its restructuring, but Jayasuriya throwing his hat in the ring has raised concern that this will not be the case.
Ideally, the next UNP leader should be given the sole Parliamentary seat allocated to the party, and he should set about seriously restructuring and reforming the party, so that it can perform better in the 2025 election cycle. Given how things stand, it is unlikely that the UNP will be able to present a strong front at the upcoming Provincial Council Elections, and many are resigned to the SLPP performing well once again. It is more realistic to expect that the earlier national voting trend will be repeated and any Opposition votes will fall more to the SJB than the UNP.
Another issue is that at the moment, the UNP’s most realistic lifeline is the SJB, but the latter may be better off carving its own path rather than taking onboard UNP members and their chequered pasts. The SJB has the opportunity to form their own identity and champion their own policies, which can have resonance with past stands taken by the UNP, but stand free from the encumbrances of previously failed leadership and governance mistakes. If the UNP and the SJB is amalgamated, the latter is only likely to gain politicians who have been rejected by the voters, and its most fervent advocates may see it as a backtracking to the earlier status quo.
So far, the UNP has not responded definitively to Jayasuriya’s offer. The option of Jayasuriya becoming the next UNP leader is made even more complicated by the fact that he was a UNP crossover who helped Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa build a two-thirds majority that resulted in, among other things, the 18th Amendment. But it is still up to the voters to decide whether the UNP is worth salvaging.