The die was cast many moons ago. And what we have witnessed in recent times has been the sorry spectacle of the march of events that had inexorably led to the breakup of the Grand Old Party of Lankan politics — the United National Party. Attendant as the midwife at the birth of the nation’s [...]


UNP and SJB take turns to dig their own graves


The die was cast many moons ago. And what we have witnessed in recent times has been the sorry spectacle of the march of events that had inexorably led to the breakup of the Grand Old Party of Lankan politics — the United National Party.

FOR THE GOOD TIMES: Before the break up, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe patiently gives ear to deputy leader Sajith Premadasa as he outlines his plans for the party’s future

Attendant as the midwife at the birth of the nation’s independence and assisting in the smooth transition of power from colonial hands to the sons of the soil, whose leaders’ minds were still shaped by western  thought and whose  appearances were draped in western attire, the party became the sole receptacle of power until it sprung from its own fount its own major rival: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to successfully challenge its monopolistic and tenacious hold on Lanka’s collective political conscience, thus beginning the two party democratic system in the country.

With Lanka’s history since the grant of independence inextricably entwined with its own  chequered steps, the UNP has dominated the political landscape for the last seventy two years; and even when it suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of its traditional political foe, it has remained comfortably seated on one side of the seesaw as the ‘government in waiting’.

Rifts within the party there may have been many in the past but they have all remained behind closed doors and then shoved in the closet and shut up and forgotten. The only major split of note occurred when a group of senior Ministers broke away from the party in 1991 to voyage  on uncertain seas in a make shift raft, declaring ostensibly that they had embarked on their unchartered course because they were at loggerheads with the draconian and undemocratic policies followed by their leader President Premadasa.

The tragedy of the episode was that all the three protagonists, namely President R. Premadasa, Ministers Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali did not live long to see the result of the exercise. Within two years, all three were dead, killed by the real foe, the Tamil Tigers.

A lacuna was created in the UNP leadership; and into the void stepped Ranil Wickremesinghe as leader of the party at the young age of 45 years. And from that day forth, the UNP has been cruelly jinxed, denied the chance to eat of the plum fruit of the Presidency, condemned to play second fiddle to an SLFP Head of State.

The decline in the UNP fortunes set in 25 years ago. During this bleak and uninspiring period he — or any other UNP member, for that matter — has never sat in the presidential chair. The presidency had always eluded him, been beyond his limited reach and feeble grasp. Out of the six presidential elections held, the party’s leader Wickremesinghe has contested the all important presidential election only twice — and that, too, unsuccessfully; and, as if there were some legal bar in the Constitution that made a person who had been defeated twice at a presidential election ineligible to contest again, had preferred to outsource the candidature to someone else to represent UNP interests and promote its policies, letting the blade of failure fall on his or her head instead, whilst keeping his own safe and free from censure.

All in all, his battle strategy had been to play his role in his chosen passive manner of patiently waiting in the wings in the belief that everything, including power, comes to he who waits. Such is the ambit of his ambitions: that he is quaintly content to be ever the suitor never the groom, to the everlasting dismay of his followers and to the untold delight of his opportunistic opponents in government.

The mutineers in the UNP galleys contend that the genius of the captain is not to keep the mates together singing ‘he’s a jolly good fellow’ and the purpose of the ship is not to meander in circles but to reach victory port; and demand he be made to walk the plank and shoved overboard and let another take command of the drifting vessel.

Egged on by the young Turks around him, Sajith emerged from his deep southern lair to lay claim to the party’s presidential nomination at last November’s presidential election. And Ranil, probably, whiffing defeat in the air, graciously stepped aside to make way for his deputy to get a taste of his first election defeat.

As expected, the election result may have dashed Sajith’s presidential ambitions but he was not shaken. After mysteriously disappearing into the ether, he burst in from cold to announce his intention to lead the UNP at the forthcoming general election.

Having thrown down the gauntlet, the old guard responded by offering Sajith Premadasa the leadership of the United National Front (UNF) which would be the UNP-led grouping that would contest the forthcoming general election. They also offered to name Sajith as the UNP’s prime ministerial candidate.

As part of this offer, it was also to be agreed that Ranil Wickremesinghe would remain as the UNP leader. A counter offer emerged from the Sajith camp. Sajith would be the national organiser and would have complete control over the nomination list. Plus they demanded the post of the UNF General Secretary be filled by Sajith’s nominee Madduma Bandara. It was granted.

But there remained one snag. The issue of the UNF’s symbol. After much wrangling, bickering, squabbling, quarrelling and backbiting over it, with each faction holding steadfast to their intransigent position and refusing to budge from it, the elephant became the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It also brought the final parting of the ways, with the Sajith faction forming their own party the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). Both parties filed their separate nomination papers, with the SJB using the telephone and the UNP using the elephant as their respective symbols.

Then the COVID pandemic hit Lanka as well and every subject apart from the coronavirus was banished to Coventry. Now that the COVID air seems to have cleared in the Authority’s eye and holding the delayed general election has received the ‘all clear’, politics have returned from holiday. And what do we find?

That the gap between the UNP and its breakaway party the SJB has grown wider and instead of efforts been made to reconcile the two, the UNP, in particular has practised its own form of social distancing vis-vis the SJB. So much so, it didn’t even wish to rub shoulders at the hustings as rival candidates and went to court seeking to exile the SJB to the wilderness. The Supreme Court on June 9 dismissed a UNP rights petition requesting court to order the Election Chief to dismiss SJB’s nomination papers. Had it been granted, the SJB would have been rendered out of action at the election, its bloom nipped in the bud.

But the UNP should first take stock of its own self. Less than 15 former UNP MPs still remain resident in the UNP citadel, Sirikotha, loyal to Ranil. The rest, numbering over 60 ex-MPs, have decamped to Sajith’s bank. So have the UNP’s traditional allies in an alliance, the SLMC and others sworn their allegiance to Sajith and cast their lot with the SJB.

The Grand Old Party of Lanka cannot afford to run on past steam. It needs people to breathe life to those ideals the party possesses and upholds and outlines its vision. The UNP answer to the mass exodus from the party camp has been to fill the vacancies with unknown faces. Perhaps, in the long run, the novel experiment will prove good but can a major party afford to tarry with tryouts when the pace of events will condemn to oblivion the party itself.

UNP Secretary Kariyawasam pooh-poohs the end is nigh for the party as a major political force and belittles the idea the UNP will lose this election by fielding new unknown faces. He said on Monday: ‘The UNP was able to secure a five-sixth majority in 1977 by fielding its B team.’

But he forgets that in 1977, the ruling SLFP was at the nadir of its popularity unlike today when the ruling SLPP is riding on a crest wave of public support. And, if Akila thinks that team that comprised JR, Premadasa, Dissanayake and Athulathmudali was only a B team, wonder what grade he gives way down the alphabet to define the UNP’s present team, himself included? X, Y or Z?

With the UNP divided, and the base vote split, it is in danger of losing the poll race to the odds on favourite the SLPP by ten furlongs or more. Both Ranil who prides himself as a statesman and Sajith who considers himself a man of the downtrodden masses should keep their petty differences aside and unite, even at this eleventh hour for the sake of the party, if not for the country. Else the UNP will linger on in the political arena as a spent force and sent to grass in the knacker’s yard. The SJB will crumble into dust and be heard of no more, vanishing into ether as its leader had once done. But never to return.

It’s not too late to unite. Though the two parties cannot contest as one, having filed separate nominations, they can express their solidarity before the election and assure voters that a vote for either will be a vote for the UNP at large.

The alternative will be to hand over a two-thirds majority triumph to the SLPP which, with a strong presidency, a top heavy military presence in Government administration and a  two third majority in Parliament, will enable it to make complete its stranglehold on power.

If let to happen, then this nation, left bereft of an alternative credible party to challenge on an equal footing the potent mass appeal of the present Government, will be reduced to the pitiable and wretched status of a one party State; and woeful dirges will be sung at the internment of democracy itself.

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