Can divided UNP leaders do a Rajapaksa act?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The way the divided UNP is going about the parliamentary polls even after the presidential notification dissolving the existing House and scheduling elections of 25 April, at least one of the factions would have to do a ‘Rajapaksa act, to be in the reckoning, even otherwise. The reference is to the Rajapaksas’ breakaway SLPP’s inherent ability to sweep the presidential polls single-handedly after breaking from the parent SLFP, or dominating the alliance talks, which also involved the parent party under a non-charismatic leader like outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena.

By all reckoning, the UNP does not stand a chance to beat the ‘Rajapaksa wave’ of the presidential poll even in the parliamentary elections within such a short span. The leadership was divided even ahead of the presidential polls and the cadre-mood has sunk even deeper than already. To this, the party has successfully added the visible suicidal tendency of losing the parliamentary polls ignobly, come what may.

Clearly, the shadow leadership of one-time all pervasive Leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and that of rival deputy, Sajith Premadasa, could neve have worked together. Their political character and approach are diagonally opposite, yet party well-wishers had hoped that they worked together, they would be able to reach out to a wider cross-section of the electorate than existing – and when they were on a divisive course for a decade and more.

Presumptions, promises

The results of their united approach was visible both in the presidential polls and parliamentary elections of 2015. If there was a secret deal between the two leaders that Ranil would make way for Sajith in the elections that are now slated, then no one also spoke about it in public thus far. That was the honourable thing to do. But it there was no deal, and it was only based on presumption and third-party promises, then no one can blame the other. The cadres can blame themselves, as always.

Today, both sides seem to have given up on the parliamentary polls, and busy fighting for the post-debacle UNP leadership, with the fervour that neither side had exhibited when working together in 2015. Hence, the Wickremesinghe camp’s insistence of the party and alliance contesting only on the existing ‘Elephant’ symbol and the Premadasa group’s demand for changing the symbol, so that the other side cannot seek to disqualify their MPs, or whoever is elected, as Parliament members.

To this end, the Premadasa camp has also registered a new alliance with the Election Commission, and has also signed up JHU, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Rishad Bathiudeen’s All-Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC). In doing so, the allies of Premadasa also seem to have conceded the point that their UNP ally, by whatever name called, would be losing the polls and they should still back the Sajith camp to capture the party, post-poll, post-debacle.

Neither the Sajith camp, nor their alliance partners of the present seem to have a Plan-B, on what if…. After all, Wickremesinghe is not the kind of man known for his ability or willingness to embrace ‘traitors’, unlike the Rajapaksas, who showed a greater willingness to do business with none other than President Sirisena, who had ‘stabbed them in the back’, and almost literally so as can be applied to politics.

It is not unlikely that post-polls, and a time of their choosing, the Rajapaksas may even encourage the SLFP parent party for a merger on their term. Their being in power may be an incentive to offer such other incentives to the SLFP leadership of the time, weakened more than at present. If both factions were to lose polls, it is anybody’s guess if UNP’s well-wishers too have a Plan B to put the party in order, that too at a short span, ahead of the nine-Province PC polls, which anyway is due for years and which even the united UNP was shy of facing, all those long years.

Why then is there the talk of pre-poll alliance and the like if there is no guarantee that the UNP factions, together even at this late hour, or otherwise, win the polls and make it to forming the Government? Why then is the Premadasa camp insistent on having a symbol of their choice, and a symbol that they have since registered with the Election Commission, with ‘Heart’ as the symbol, instead of the UNP’s ‘Elephant’ or even the ‘Swan’ symbol under which their common Opposition candidate, Sirisena, won the presidential polls in 2015?

Should the UNP’s official or Opposition alliance still win the parliamentary polls, or are at least in a position to strike a post-poll deal, then both sides would want to negotiate the choice of prime ministerial nominee from a position of relative strength. If they lose, if not immediately, but possibly weeks or months later, they may end up negotiating a deal on the choice of the ‘Leader of the Opposition’.

It is not as if the SLPP-SLFP alliance would be looking the other way if they too fall short of an absolute majority. All three would first try engineer defections from the other two, or one of the other two, but the chances of the Government camp having an upper-hand in ‘horse-trading ‘ are better, followed by whichever of the two UNP factions that have won more seats than the other.

Going by the Rajapaksa track-record of President Mahinda’s 10 years in office (2005-15), the chances are than they would not let the nation’s GoP in the UNP rival die away. Not certainly if it would throw up on the national stage any ‘upstart’ (?) whose political behaviour they could not predict.

Hence, when the whole of UNP back-benchers and many from the front benches were ready to cross over to the Government side after Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, they did ensure that the UNP  numbers did not fall below the 39-seat share that their own JVP ally of the time had won in the company of the united SLFP of the time. They obviously did not want the position of the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ going to the JVP.

Better still, they did not want the UNP rival stripped of the honour. Not very long after, the Rajapakaas also got the JVP parliamentary group divided, if only to check the latter assuming an assertive role in the affairs of the ruling coalition. There could be a repeat of the same this time viz the UNP factions, depending on the final numbers.

If the SLPP combine gets an absolute majority in the 225-member House, even then the Rajapaksas would (have to) entice Opposition MPs of all hues, if only to ensure that they have a two-thirds majority, required for enacting constitutional amendments, starting with one on the controversial and even more ineffective 19-A, a legacy from the previous regime. President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has declared his intention in this regard more than once.

For the Sajith camp, they need the pre-poll allies, if only to flex their post-poll muscles, whether or not they come on the top or even a second place. Even if they come third, they may still need the allies to strike a honourable deal with the Wickremesinghe camp, and to protect the fence-sitters from within, not to cross over either to the Ranil faction or to the Treasury Benches.

Figures of speech

Even without it, figures speak for themselves. The UNP, together or split, has a limited reach, going by the presidential poll results. Whether or not the SLPP combine has endeared itself to the voters since, the UNP alliance has definitely not anything closer to the sort – or, even won over some sympathies for the party and a torn leadership.

Between, Wickremesinghe and Premadasa, no one is talking about the former contesting the parliamentary polls as yet. Whether the factions re-unite other otherwise, it will still be for Ranil to decide if he wants to contest the polls, and enter through the National List, if at all. His presence in the candidates’ list, either way, will send jitters down the spines of the Sajith camp, as they would not be comfortable with the other man being there to challenge Premadasa, be it for the Prime Minister’s job or the Leader of the Opposition post, or whatever.

Yet, between them, it is certain that if Ranil contests, it will be from the cosmopolitan Colombo district, incorporating the capital city by the same name. In the parliamentary polls of 2015, which followed the presidential polls eight months earlier, Ranil came on the top of ‘preferential votes’ for any candidate from any party in the country.

For Sajith, media reports claim that he too may want to contest from Colombo, a traditional stronghold of the UNP until he lost the voter-edge to rival Gota Rajapaksa in November last. Sajith, who has been traditionally contesting the parliamentary polls from native Hambantota district, the bedrock of the Rajapaksas, got his lowest 25-per cent vote-share in the presidential polls in native Hambantota.

It is too early to say from which district pool will Sajith contest the polls, just as it is too early to say if he would run as the prime ministerial nominee of the UNP parent, yet. If he ‘migrates’, it would sill be unlike Mahinda Rajapaksa moving away from Hambantota to Kurunegala district, his son Namal replaced him as the victorious candidate from the former. The parallel of Sajith possibly migrating out of Hambantota cannot be compared to the same, if Sajith migrates at all.

The comparison does not stop there, and this is what all factions of the UNP and there allies should be concerned about, even more. In the presidential polls, when the UNP was supposedly united, Sajith Premadasa polled close to 42 per cent vote-share against victor, Gotabhaya’s 52.5 per cent. The striking irony is that all of Gota’s vote-share came mostly from the Sinhala South, whi8le a substantial share of Sajith’s came also from the Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil districts and electorates.

Gota came on top in 16 of the 22 electoral districts (in 19 electoral districts) while Sajith came first only in six districts, all of non-Sinhala majority, so to say. Even in some of the eastern Trincomallee district, the Tamils and Muslims together over-run the Sinhala’’ one-third. From his six districts, Sajith got . 1.42 million votes against his total of 5.56 million (viz  Gota’s 6,92 million).

That is to say in the total valid votes of 13.38 m, the non-Sinhala districts have given Sajith 10.6 per cent of his 42 per cent. Even overlooking the non-Sinhala voter-contribution to Sajith in urban Colombo, where constitute massive numbers way beyond the 50-per cent cut-off, the non-Sinhala vote-share for his candidacy comes down to just over 30 per cent.

Traditionally, those who still consider the UNP as the single-largest party in the country in terms of vote-share – which it is not – their figure is 30-35 per cent. This only means that the Sajith candidacy did not bring more votes in his leadership capacity than what the party already had in its kitty. It was/is the same with the UNP vote-share in Hambantota, where he benefited more from the party votes than possibly the other way around.

That is saying a lot than what the Sajith camp may claim, or even what the UNP sympathisers want the nation to believe. After all through four successive elections since the failed presidential outing of incumbent Mahinda R in 2015 – and including the parliamentary polls that year and the nation-wide local government elections in February 2018 – the Rajapaksas have scored a steady 40-per cent vote-share, all of it on their personal name, brand and title.

In a way, the 12-13 per cent SLFP voters who had went in for Sirisena in the presidential polls of 2015, obviously stuck with the UNP rival in the parliamentary polls that year, but returned to the parent party in the local government elections. They voted for Gota R, as his SLPP and Sirisena’s SLFP struck a poll deal, which continues for the parliamentary elections, too.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email:



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