UNP back to playing the presidential ball game within, all over again

By N Sathiya Moorthy


Conventional political wisdom has it that when the Opposition is weak, whatever the reason and circumstances, the inevitable and inherent strains within a ruling party or coalition have to come out in the open. This seems to be becoming true of the ‘ruling’ UNP with those attached to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and senior Minister Sajith Premadasa naming them in public as the party’s presidential candidate in elections that are due a full year away.

Neither Minister Lakshman Kiriella, nor his ministerial colleague Ajit P Perera had any urgency or justification for publicly naming Wickremesinghe and Premadasa, respectively, for the presidential polls even as the party and the nation as a whole are recovering from the ‘twin constitutional shocks’ inflicted by incumbent Maithripala Sirisena. If yet they have done what they have since done, they seems to have been advised to do so, or have done to pre-empt possible claims of the other side before it became too late. Rather, both sides have thrown their hats into the ring even before the roll-call is set to begin.

Both Kiriella and Perera came up with the candidacy of their respective favourites within hours of each other. In the case of Wickremesinghe, the Perera announcement favouring Premadasa, Jr, has reduced the former a kind of ‘faction leader’ like any other. With more such announcements, Wickremesinghe is not unlikely to lose at least some of the new sheen acquired at the end of his silent but stubborn legal and legislative battles for setting the constitutional process right.

Coming as it did alongside Kiriella’s announcement on Wickremesinghe’s candidacy for the presidency, Perera’s counter-point has also put Premadasa ahead of the race in the competition for challenging or replacing the other from within. Indications are that the current crisis even while consolidating the UNP factions together for a ‘constitutional cause’, has also revived subterranean internal conflicts that had been left as such after the twin-polls of 2015, where the party came victorious on its combination plank.

This has meant that the UNP has now been forced to face the internal reality at least a few months ahead of mental schedules, and in an unanticipated way. The leadership as a whole and aspiring candidates otherwise will have to adjust themselves to this new reality, and their supporters/advocates have not given them enough time for the purpose.

Compromise candidate

If the proposers of the two candidates thought that they would catch the other side unguarded, it may be that both may have been caught unguarded. Again, conventional wisdom has it that where a party is tied in the middle over any point, especially a personality-centric leadership issue, the temptation to look elsewhere for a ‘compromise’ candidate is in the very nature of things.

In this case, whether he wants it or not, a third faction calling itself the ‘middle-path’ men may come up with new names like that of Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Whether it is to deflect attention from a growing crisis involving the other two contenders or from new players who may throw their hats too into the ring in the coming days and weeks, Speaker Jayasuriya too can make UNP second-line leaders to sit up and think.

Barring the first round, when it looked as if Speaker Jayasuriya was attesting President Sirisena’s ‘replacement’ of party Prime Minister Wickremesinghe with political bête noire Mahinda Rajapaksa, he has been the single-most important source of moral and political strength for the party. That was after the UNP itself had made up its mind to stick together, and one-time eternal dissidents like Sajith Premadasa had rallied round to declare, “Ranil or none” – in word, deed and action.

As Speaker, Jayasuriya also created a (unhealthy) precedent by writing directly to foreign missions and their heads in Colombo, inviting those envoys for consultations (briefing!) in public, at the height of the ‘constitutional crises’. In the ordinary circumstances, foreign envoys have their places in the ‘Diplomatic Box’ of the Parliament Chamber, that too only when the House is in session.  Through his twin actions, Speaker Jayasuriya may not have conveyed his intention, if any, to contest the presidency for the UNP, but he may have still communicated his possible suitability, both to the party and to the rest.

Rajapaksa vote-bank

If there is anything that could give a shot in the arm for the UNP vis a vis the presidential polls it is not the ‘constitutional crises; where they stand vindicated. The ‘civil society votes’ would still have come to them compared to the rival MS-MR camp now, but there is nothing to suggest that Sirisena has been able to wean away some ‘Rajapaksa votes’ for Ranil or whoever is the rival UNP candidate. A lot will also depend on who will be the MS-MR camp’s presidential candidate, and if Mahinda R can ‘transfer’ all of his 40-45 per cent vote-bank even to the candidate of ‘his choice’.

Under 19-A, Mahinda R cannot contest for a third term. Should a ‘concerned voter’ move the Supreme Court for declaring the 19-A provision ‘unconstitutional’, it is more than likely that the court may hear out the petition – whatever the final verdict. After all, in the ‘Parliament dissolution case’, the early petitions were filed only by individual voters as ‘public interest litigation’, and the SC had no hesitation to proceed in the matter. As it happened, the ‘losing’ political class of the time woke up from their confused slumber on a later date and signed in, into the case, as co-petitioners or whatever.

Should the ‘Rajapaksa voters’ decide to stay put with the candidate of his choice, whoever he or she be, then the question arises where from would a UNP candidate make up the numbers. The results of the 10 February local government polls, nation-wide, was not encouraging to the UNP. Despite the current euphoria caused by the ‘constitutional crisis’, the party is unlikely to see a sea-change in its electoral fortunes, based exclusively on Sirisena’s actions and SC’s verdict in the ‘dissolution case’.

Independent of internal influences, pulls and pressures, the UNP second-line desirous of winning back the presidency after a quarter century gap, will be making back-of-the-envelope calculations, to determine individual aspirants for ‘winnability’. At the end of the day, it is all about the prospective candidate’s ability to wean away the ‘rural Rajapaksa voters’ as much as he can, concluding in advance that the urban voters are with the GoP, as ever.

Anyone but Wickremesinghe, and Premadasa in particular, seems to have an edge in this department. As for Premadasa or any other aspirant second-line leader, they would be anxious not to work under Wickremesinghe the President without taking away more of the presidential powers through the JVP-sponsored 20-A. Their plight, according to some, would be as bad or even worse than that of PM Wickremesinghe under President Sirisena, pre-crises. The fear would be that should Wickremesinghe further consolidate his position within the party as President of the nation, and also among the larger electorate, then most of the present-day aspirants might be rendered politically impotent and electorally irrelevant, for them to have any hopes 10 long years hence.

Love, no-love

In the final analysis, as Elections-2005 first and 2015 a full 10 years later showed, any UNP victory, including victory for a party-backed candidate, especially against a ‘Rajapaksa run-in’ is predicated on the ‘minority votes’. In 2005, the LTTE barred the Sri Lankan Tamils from casting their vote, and Wickremesinghe himself lost by a wafer-thin margin to Rajapaksa. It was no different in post-war 2010 polls, where not enough Tamil voters came out to cast their lot (which would have gone against Rajapaksa.

But then the UNP-backed rival and war-time army commander, Sarath Fonseka, was only the choice of the TNA leadership, and not possibly even traditional cadres and voters. That was because the UNP strategists’ calculation of Fonseka’s ability to cut into incumbent Rajapaksa’s ‘war victor’ Sinhala-Buddhist votes bombed. They preferred a politician and were possibly wary of an army commander. More importantly, they understood, the armed forced lost the LTTE war on earlier occasions not for want of will but because of the unsure nature of the political leadership, which was yielding to ‘international pressure’ of whatever kind, every time the LTTE was seen as being in the back-foot, militarily.

In 2015, the minority votes (both of the Tamils and the Muslims) alone ensured that Rajapaksa lost the UNP-backed Sirisena won. There was nothing to suggest that too many SLFP-UPFA and other, post-war, Rajapaksa voters deserted him. If anything, both UNP and Rajapaksa strategists worked on the premise that the latter would still back a majority of the ‘majority’ Sinhala-Buddhist votes.   For Sirisena to win, he would have to sweep the Tamil and Muslim votes. He managed it – not because the minorities loved Sirisena more, but because they continued not to love Rajapaksa at all.

Whether ‘minorities’ now?

Now after the constitutional crises, the UNP leadership could be hopeful of retaining almost all of the Muslim votes as in 2015. In between there were rumblings about at least a share of the Muslim votes going the Rajapaksa way this time, more than what he possibly polled in 2015.  Somewhere along the line, post-constitutional crisis, the Muslim voters seem to be telling their divided political leaderships, “Anyone but Mahinda, any party but the Rajapaksa camp.”

The same should have been the case with the Sri Lankan Tamil voters, even more. It is too early to say that with any amount of certainty. Going by the results of the local government polls in the Tamil areas, the TNA, which is the unwedded consort of the UNP since the Rajapaksa days in national politics commenced, has begun losing voter-support more than was possible.

It is easy for the TNA leadership to claim that the Tamil voter apathy bordering on antipathy owed to the ‘historic non-performance’ of their chosen Northern Province Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran. The retired Supreme Court Judge having parted company since, to float his own politico-electoral outfit, the Sampanthan-led TNA leadership may hope that the ‘Tamil voters’ are back with them, if only to teach and ‘over-ambitious’ Sirisena and an ‘over-arching’ Rajapaksa a fitting and further lesson.

Fair enough, the Wigneswaran camp did not foresee the constitutional crises, either, which came after they had founded the new, Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA). They were also not visible in capital Colombo, especially inside Parliament, and were not heard, hence.

The inability or unwillingness of the Wigneswaran leadership to use the ‘constitutional crisis’ to split the TNA parliamentary group to its liking, should be proof enough about the impossibility of the task on its hands. After all, the eternally rival Rajapaksa camp could woo at least one TNA parliamentarian in the final count, and one other declared his neutrality of sorts by deciding to boycott every ‘parliamentary vote’ on issues flowing from the ‘constitutional crises’. Yet, the Wigneswaran camp was left clueless.

The Wigneswaran leadership is still struggling for greater acceptance among anti-TNA sections of the Tamil polity. In the past, anti-TNA Tamil candidates like Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam (2005) and M K Sivajilingam (2010, now back in the TNA) had contested the presidential polls, and came out with abysmal voting figures. Should the anti-TNA Tamil groups, especially those pro-LTTE, pro-separatist Diaspora groups decide to field a ‘strong candidate’ this time round, whether the TNA leadership could repeat the 2010 and 2015 trick, to the advantage of the party’s choice (read: pro-UNP) remains a big question.

This throws up the question if a UNP presidential candidate can hope for a smooth-sail without the assured/re-assured traditional vote-share of the TNA? That is after granting that the party itself comes around and settles its internal troubles amicably, and presents a united and unified face to the electorate.

Today, when the issue is about the choice/replacement of the TNA Leader of the Opposition in Parliament (LoP), R Sampanthan, the former has all but said that Speaker Jayasuriya has acted not only unilaterally without sacking him in the first place, but possibly also on communal lines. Other TNA leaders have been more vocal and direct on their criticism of Speaker Jayasuriya, for naming Mahinda Rajapaksa, of all persons, as the Leader of the Opposition – and without ‘sacking’ Sampanthan, formally and after informing him, even if only as a matter of courtesy.

Interestingly, TNA leaders seeking to challenge Rajapaksa’s appointment as the Leader of the Opposition have advanced arguments that are either untenable or could cut both ways. According to them, if Rajapaksa continued to represent the pre-split SLFP-UPFA, headed by President Sirisena, the Speaker should have noticed that the latter as the Head of the Cabinet holding very many ministerial portfolios, despite his party pulling out of the Wickremesinghe Government, pre-crises.

By extension, Rajapaksa too belonged there, and the same party cannot be in the Government and against it, too – or, so goes the TNA argument. This was also the rationale that Speaker Jayasuriya had adopted while denying the forgotten ‘Joint Opposition’ (JO), identified with Rajapaksa, the LoP job, pre-crises.

But the irony too remains. Now as then, the TNA continues to back the ‘Wickremesinghe Government’ in almost every parliamentary vote since the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo took over in January 2015, and followed it up with a popular mandate of sorts in August that year. What more, as Rajapaksa did not miss out while quitting as ‘Prime Minister’ earlier this month, the Wickremesinghe Government now survives only on the strength of the TNA’s 14 parliamentary vote, which the party has committed to the ‘cause’, almost unconditionally.

Not to be forgotten, the TNA backed Sirisena’s candidacy for the presidency openly, and has never ever disowned him thus far and in public. They continue to be opposed to any accommodation for Rajapaksa, which their votes in 2015 ensured, did not return to power. The TNA is also a partner in the non-functional coordination committee of parties, though without legal status, that was formed by all parties backing the Sirisena presidency at inception.

That being the case, it is anybody’s guess how could the TNA morally, and possibly even legally, call  itself an ‘Opposition’ party in the parliamentary sense of the term, to be able to continue claiming the LoP status and job? If otherwise, the TNA now argues that Rajapaksa is now a ‘defector’ — he having ‘crossed over’ to the SLPP from the parent SLFP-UPFA – to be able to claim the LoP post, how was it that the party never seemed to have remembered it when they challenged his appointment as ‘Prime Minister’ but remember it only now when Mr Sampanthan’s LoP job is on the line?

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])


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