The crisis of the UNP is not reducible to the enormous drop in its vote on 10 February, a vertical drop that is unprecedented for a long established party in government and at a local government election at which governmental patronage matters. The 10 February shrinkage of the UNP is the consequence, not the cause of the UNP crisis.
That crisis is one of long duration. The crisis of the UNP is a crisis of leadership and it dates back to the assassination of President Premadasa and other senior leaders by the LTTE. The UNP’s crisis is a post-Premadasa leadership crisis and it has lasted for decades.
Either the party resolves it this week or the crisis which has turned cancerous kills the UNP and probably the Government.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the leader of the party since 1994. No party in the democratic world today has had the same leader for almost quarter century — only Sri Lanka’s United National Party. That’s hardly an achievement and speaks very badly for the UNP.
What is worse is that the past quarter century of leadership by Ranil Wickremesinghe has been one of dismal failure. The UNP has never once led the country in these two and half decades. At best, it has held the number two spot. Put differently, the UNP has not been perceived by the electorate as deserving to lead the country so long as Wickremesinghe was/is at the helm. He ran for Presidency in 1999 and 2005 and lost. He ran a proxy in 2010 and lost. The fact that he had to run a proxy should have told him and the UNP something but it obviously didn’t.
He reluctantly backed a proxy in 2015 and won, but he forgot that a proxy is not a puppet. The very reason that enabled his proxy to win, i.e. his Sinhala-Buddhist, non-UNP, centre-left base, has made that proxy behave autonomously and now demand his resignation.
It is understandable if a democratic party retains the same leadership for a quarter century if it has been successful, produced results. Wickremesinghe manifestly is not a success in that the UNP, once the Grand Old Party of governance, has not been at the helm of the Sri Lankan state; has not led the country, for a generation or more.
Can’t the UNP grasp the simple, self- evident fact that as long as Ranil Wickremesinghe is the leader, he, and more importantly the UNP, will never lead the country? Which part of that can’t the UNP get?
Why is the UNP not giving Ranil the heave-ho at this moment when it has a sympathetic President who would facilitate and enable the UNP’s blocked transition to a more nationally acceptable, electorally viable leadership? What does this say about the UNP?
If the UNP does not hit the ejector button on Ranil Wickremesinghe and produce an alternative as leader and Prime Minister later this week, it will be in a terminal crisis and that termination will not take long, nor will it be pretty.
The blockage at the moment dates back to a tale of fathers and sons. Wickremesinghe’s ideologue and chief political ally is Mangala Samaraweera. Both men have fathers with disastrous, interconnected political histories. When the UNP government of 1952 implemented economic shock therapy and was rewarded with a massive uprising in August 1953 known as the Hartal, the liberal PM Dudley Senanayake was sensitive enough to resign and therefore could make a comeback and form a government in the next decade.
It would have been prudent for the UNP to shift to a profile which was more consonant with the social mood, but instead, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s father, Esmond, an ex-Trotskyist turned rightwing strategist and ideologue (a precursor of many neoconservatives in the USA who were ex-Trotskyists) urged a “stand firm” stance, just as Ranil Wickremesinghe is adopting today.
The shock of the Hartal of August 1953 was followed, not by a prudent policy pivot and retreat, but a far more strident pro-western, rightwing, hawkish style and substance in the form of Sir John Kotelawela.
Ranil’s father Esmond was also the architect of conspicuously pro-Western, anti-Afro Asian tilt at the iconic Bandung summit conference of 1955. The upshot was that of still greater polarisation than that which had triggered the Hartal of 1953. Cultural polarisation and issues of lifestyle entered the picture powerfully. The moderate opposition, the recently formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Bandaranaike, shifted from social democracy to majoritarian nationalism and swept the UNP away at the national election of 1956, burying it for decade.
Mangala Samaraweera’s father was on the correct side of history at that time but in late 1964 he had been persuaded by Esmond Wickremesinghe, the present PM’s father, to defect from the SLFP to the UNP. Mangala Samaraweera is now where his father wound up. It is social existence that determines social consciousness said Karl Marx. That probably explains why Ranil and Mangala are politico-ideological twins.
So what happens if the UNP allows the Ranil-Mangala line to prevail? The same thing that happened in the 1950s and 1960s. There will be a UNP-TNA government or a UNP government with a TNA prop. This will be a minority government in every sense of the word: a government of the minorities, by the minorities and for the minorities. It will be hemmed in by an unsympathetic and unhelpful president, and a vastly strengthened opposition which has two camps: the rising Pohottuwa-JO led by Mahinda Rajapaksa and a large chunk of SLFPers working with the JVP and a few UNP defectors.
A UNP-TNA government will mean that the whole ball game changes, or to change both metaphor and magnitude, the ground will shift dangerously.
The masses are in an anti-incumbency, anti-establishment mood. When that establishment is a combination of pro-Western elitism, practicing neoliberal economics and supported by a federalist minority party, then the backlash itself reflects that composition of the ruling elite/establishment but in an inverted form or turned inside out. As in 1955-56, the growing oppositional tide becomes ethno-nationalist and ethno-religious. That in turn makes for a particular kind of presidential candidate late next year. Imagine a 1956 mood with a presidency as the prize!
The tale repeated itself in 1965-1970, when the UNP, once again influenced by Esmond Wickremesinghe, entered a coalition with the Tamil parties (the defection of individual members of which he had engineered). The UNP-Tamil Congress composition of that government led to a ghastly swing in an ethno-populist direction not only of the SLFP but also the trade union based left parties and even the embryonic JVP. The UNP lost the1970 election badly, with widespread arson and violence, sometimes lethal, visited on the losers.
The UNP is on the very verge of making the same mistake. It must take a moment to imagine the catastrophic electoral consequences a few months down the road, at the provincial council elections, of a UNP-TNA government or Pact (in the 1960s, typical SLFP supporters would accuse the UNP government of a “secret packet” with the Tamil parties). This trend will climax late next year with a presidential candidacy that both the Pohottuwa and the SLFP can agree on and will slam into the UNP like an offensive operation by the hard-charging, elite Gajaba Regiment. It will all culminate in a parliamentary election at which Mahinda Rajapaksa wins, which would be a good thing, but on an ethnically edgier platform than we and he would prefer.
The UNP can avoid electoral extinction and even turn things around, if it does what it did in a politically similar though exceedingly violent situation in late 1988: change the profile, change course by opting for a conspicuously populist-patriotic leader who can read the mass mood and surf the social wave.
But the UNP must do so today, or rational UNPers must leave and form a new party – their own ‘Pohottuwa’ – or join the moderate SLFP in a new centrist formation supported by President Sirisena. Everything is at stake. Never before in UNP history has “the fierce urgency of now” (Dr. Martin Luther King) needed to be felt, experienced and grasped more intensely.