A robust Opposition is essential for a well-functioning democracy. The significant victory by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) on Saturday has once again resulted in fissures within the United National Party (UNP) widening and left many people wondering what would be its fate if Sri Lanka heads to snap General Elections in the next three months. For the interests of inclusivity, governance and democracy, it is essential that an Opposition capable of robustly defending institutions and rights is in place for the future of all citizens.
It was apparent that allowing UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa to run as its presidential candidate was a band aid solution cobbled together at the eleventh hour with little support from UNP leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his loyalists within the party. The divisions within the UNP have been festering for years, possibly over a decade, and they were evident even on the campaign trail for those who knew where to look. Therefore, political observers were aware that win or lose the Presidential Election, the UNP would continue to face internal problems. This has now come true.
Just hours after SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa was declared the 7th Executive President of Sri Lanka, the resignations from the UNP started flowing in but they were all from the pro-Premadasa camp. However, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is being called on by members of his party as well as supporters to sit in the Opposition and hold the fort until 1 March. The proponents of this option argue that the mandate given on 16 November does not cancel the earlier mandate given by the people in 2015 and it is imperative that the UNP hold its ground.
Many of its supporters, especially moderates and minorities, are concerned that if the SLPP is allowed to capitalise on this momentum, it could sweep up a large chunk of parliamentary seats and effectively undermine efforts made during the last five years to strengthen democratic institutions. The 19th Amendment will be a key battle ground with Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa already making it clear that the party was focused on constitutional changes.
The SLPP manifesto clearly states that it will appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to draw out a new Constitution and it is very likely to go to polls appealing to voters to give it the requisite two-thirds majority. If this were to happen, then ensuring that any constitutional change is done enshrining minority rights, strengthening governance, improving transparency and promoting accountability will be up to the Opposition.
Leaving aside the 19th Amendment, even the multitude of other challenges of governance needs a strong Opposition. As fractured and weakened as the UNP is, it is doubtful whether there is time or space for it to be replaced by a different political party scaled up to take the role of the main Opposition.
As UNP Leader, Wickremesinghe has to show the way by allowing more democracy within his own party, working with members who possess more public appeal and ending stagnation. What is at stake is bigger than the UNP but they still have a role to play in protecting democracy and minorities in Sri Lanka and being a central force that civil society, media and other stakeholders can group around. Given the deep ethnic divisions on display, it is imperative that progressive, democratic and centrist forces are united to protect those same ideals for all of Sri Lanka.