04 November 2018

From DS to RW: The Decline of the United National Party

It goes without saying that a good leader does not necessarily mean that a party is essentially a one-man show. Parties have members and loyalists. Their work and contributions also count. Praise and blame get distributed among leaders and followers. 

In short, it is unfair to blame the woes of the United National Party (UNP) on the various flaws of Ranil Wickremesinghe, even if one were to take into account the fact that Wickremesinghe’s tinkering with the party constitution which effectively made him unassailable and put the party at the mercy of his whims and fancies. It needs to be noted that even though his leadership was challenged on occasion, none of the would-be successors have talked about the anti-democratic nature of the constitution he authored and which the party endorsed in an unreflecting moment. 

The UNP is 71 years old. It has had seven leaders. Three of them stand out in terms of vision, capacity and execution: D.S. Senanayake, J.R. Jayewardene and R Premadasa. All of them were doers. They looked to the future. They could and did mobilize the people. This has to be recognized even if one did not agree with their respective visions or the way they did things, even if one is appalled by the outcomes they produced.  They were leaders and demonstrated a kind of leadership that the party has lacked since May 1, 1993.  

It is fashionable for the UNP’s detractors to mention the number of elections that the UNP lost since Wickremesinghe took over as party leader. These include the provincial council elections that were held in a staggered manner to favor the ruling party. That’s unfair. Since 1994, the UNP has tasted victory only twice, in 2001 following a sudden exodus of MPs from the People’s Alliance and in 2015, riding the momentum of the Maithripala Sirisena victory at the presidential election.  Both these ‘victories’ came courtesy a breaking of ranks by the principal adversary, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).  

Where does the party stand now? Well, we could talk ideology, program, vision and track-record over the past three years and it’s not pretty and the fact that other parties (SLFP and SLPP) are as or more ugly is irrelevant.  What counts right now are issues of legality and legitimacy. 

What are the numbers in terms of popularity? The last time popularity was tested (Local Government Elections, February 10, 2018) the UNP mustered just 32.63% of the vote. At the time, Mangala Samaraweera said that the majority (55.3%) voted against ‘a return of the Rajapaksas’.  He didn’t apply the same logic to voter-dissatisfaction regarding the UNP (67.37%!). He just added up the votes obtained by the UNP, the SLFP and parties other than the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). If her were to subtract the SLFP votes and add them to the Rajapaksa camp (as per latest political developments) then he would discover that there can be a massive gap between legality and legitimacy. The legal claims of the UNP are at best vague, the legitimacy-claims are worse. 

All that will be resolved soon, and hopefully elections, preferably parliamentary and if not at least provincial councils elections, would give us a clearer picture on these matters. 

What of the party at this historic juncture though? Things move fast in times like this. This morning’s chest-beating affirmer of support is in another camp come nightfall, beating chest and affirming loyalty to someone else. All this is part of an unsavory political culture produced over several decades and the production of which owes a lot to the UNP. What’s important, given the February 10 result is that parliamentary composition is at odds with popular sentiment. This legitimacy-deficit, sadly, is the only straw that is available to the UNP.

Speaking to NDTV, Wickremesinghe has claimed ‘I am the Prime Minister,’ and insisted that ‘according to the constitution, the person who commands the confidence of parliament is the Prime Minister.’  He wants, therefore, ‘a floor test’.  He insists that no one knows what the legal situation is.

He knows ‘floor tests’. He knows how they can be orchestrated. The election of UNP Party Leader is a process that can be cited as a classic in constitutional tinkering to benefit the incumbent. He knows also about undated letters of resignation obtained by one of his predecessors and his uncle, J.R.Jayewardene. He knows how foreign countries backed with millions of dollars the campaign to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa. He claims that bucks are being offered and he is probably correct, but the claim has to stop at ‘observation’; it cannot proceed to ‘complaint’ for there’s a moral deficit that is prohibitive. 

The diehards will of course be upset. They might go along with ‘I am still the Prime Minister, the law says so’.  The loyalty of some may be inspired by nostalgia for the ancient (‘old’ is ‘too young’) UNP, the party of (some) gentlemen and ladies (who, others may claim, were ideologically and programmatically ‘off the mark’). 

There may even be a few who honestly believe that the UNP stands for decency, democracy, good governance and the Rule of Law. ‘No white vans now!’ they say (hopefully). True. No white vans. Did someone say ‘not yet’?  Probably, because history shows the circumstances in which white vans materialize. It happens when a strong regime gets weak, leaders lose legitimacy and most things go down the tube. It happened to Mahinda Rajapaksa and it happened to J.R. Jayewardene, but Mahinda’s ‘white-vans’ are playthings compared to the UNP’s Ukussas, Kalu Balallu, Kaha Balallu, PRRA and Kola Koti.

All these are technicalities that don’t count, in the end. What matters is political relevance. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP is not a democratic party in the first place (Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa know this). Wickremesinghe’s UNP is not averse to hanky-panky (Arjuna Mahendran knows this). Wickremesinghe is not clean and he’s not clever either. He is faulted for being out of touch with the local, but it’s clear that he’s out of touch with the global too. He’s the darling of the USA, UK and the EU for reasons that need not be elaborated. The UNP, as a party, out of helplessness, naïvety or for the benefits, went along with Wickremesinghe.  The Party, then, is as culpable. When you know the leader is wrong, when you know the leader has tinkered with the constitution to prevent correction and/or replacement of leader, the decent thing to do is retire from party politics or start one on your own. Go along and you are complicit.  

Wickremesinghe held a media conference immediately after President Sirisena appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister in a move that is par for the course for politicians in the SLFP and the UNP (let’s not assume there are any innocents here), a move that was distasteful and which every citizen has a right to condemn. His political near and dear were in attendance. After he spoke, he suggested that the loyalists also speak. There were seniors there. Eventually, they all got Patali Champika Ranawaka to address the media. Others chipped in of course, but if the UNP cannot find anyone in the party to step up in a crisis, it says a lot about the party.  

The party is not over. Well, the yahapalana party might be, but political entities such as the UNP have not been around for decades for reasons of frivolity. Even 30% is a solid base. The JVP, for example, with less than 5% is a presence, undoubtedly. It’s not the end of the UNP. It could (and some might say ‘should’) be the end of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political journey or at least his aspirations to be the undisputed leader of the country. The party constitution is a sturdy prop of course, but nothing is permanent and this too the UNP should know: JR scripted the Second Republican Constitution in a way that it seemed the UNP will always be in power and for 17 years it appeared that JR was correct, but he was not, we know now.

Today it’s just another party of rogues, hooligans, rabble-rousers and political clowns.  An analogy oft used is apt here: The Republican Party of the USA went from Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump; the UNP went from D.S. Senanayake to Ranil Wickremesinghe. In that sense, the party is over, certainly.