The most immediate threat to Sri Lankan democracy is not the rapid monolithic build up of administrative and political power by the Rajapaksa clan, but the visible crumbling of the opposition.
The response to the build up of a power bloc evincing anti-democratic tendencies in a country with a history of democratic traditions is the closing of ranks of the opposition to meet the challenge to democracy. But our opposition is in absolute disarray and shows signs of being swallowed up by the ruling party.
At the centre of this alarming spectacle is the Leader of the UNP and the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The actions of Wickremesinghe during the past few weeks are hard to comprehend. Within his own party there is a revolt against him and to remove him from the party leadership. This issue has been gathering momentum for sometime and faltering occasionally mainly due to the absence of an aspirant strong enough to displace him. The standard practice in democratic parties is for the leader to resign immediately after a defeat, or for the party to remove the incumbent from the leadership if the party membership feels that he or she is incapable of leading the party. Examples are the resignation of Britain’s Premier Gordon Brown, soon after his recent defeat at the polls and the removal of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, when opinion polls indicated a drastic drop in his popularity. Wickremesinghe, having suffered disastrous routs at the eight provincial council elections and the parliamentary elections, while not contesting the presidential election, continues to be the party leader.
Much more alarming is the tragi-comedy he is involved in with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UNP Leader is now involved in a game of constitutional making or constitutional reform with Rajapaksa whom he should not touch with a barge pole considering the constitutional game Rajapaksa has played, out foxing him and destroying the UNP.
Much before the presidential and parliamentary elections, Rajapaksa wrecked the UNP by inviting it to co-operate with the UPFA government in running the country and instead inveigled 17 UNPers to go over to his side with the offer of cabinet portfolios. Having broken the back of the oldest political party that still had a sizeable following, Rajapaksa by non implementation of the 17th Amendment was able to exploit executive presidential powers to the hilt to abuse election laws and win the elections. Notwithstanding all these disasters, the UNP Leader accepts an invitation of Rajapaksa for discussions on constitutional amendments — the abolition of the executive presidency.
While these discussions are on, two UNP MPs are ‘politically abducted’ to go over to the UPFA ranks and then Rajapaksa who had indicated a shift away from executive presidency to executive premiership, goes on reverse gear and shifts back to executive presidency which he wants extended for two consecutive terms! Speaking figuratively in motoring terms, this is like knocking down a person at the centre of the road and then running over him, over and over again with absolute nonchalance!
Ranil Wickremesinghe should not consider the UNP to be his personal property or a family inheritance because of the prominent role played by some of his family members. It was the party with the biggest backing for any political party in the country, consistently registering a near 50 per cent or above that of the total number of votes cast. People have sacrificed their lives for the party such as in the 1989-90 JVP insurrection and more recently seen in the sad self-immolation of a party supporter Rienzie Algama to express his disgust at the state which the Grand Old Party had been reduced to due to squabbling among its leaders. We understand that certain statements have been made on Algama’s death to the police by prominent UNPers which could shed light on the motives behind the self-immolation.
The question on the lips of most UNPers today is: What’s Ranil up to? There is even speculation that he may want to join the UPFA just like his uncle J. R. Jayewardene wanted to join the United Front government of Sirima Bandaranaike in the ‘70s. In this context, it has to be noted that Ranil and JR are too entirely different quantities. JR was much feared, so much so, when there were rumours of his attempts to join the government, Samasamajist Leader and Finance Minister at that time, Dr. N. M. Perera declared: If he comes through the back door, I will get out of the front door; if he comes through the front door, I will get out through the window! In contrast, UPFA members consider Wickremesinghe to be politically innocuous to the extent that they openly say that he should be the permanent leader of the opposition.
For UNPers the most important thing is the future of the party and not Wickremesinghe. The latest moves appears to be to have Karu Jayasuriya as the senior deputy leader and Sajith Premadasa as the deputy leader. That would be an unstable arrangement likely to lead to further party squabbles. The party should have one strong and capable leader that can withstand the ever expanding Rajapaksa monstrosity and lead it to victory. If Wickremesinghe is to remain a leader, he should be capable of firmly enforcing his leadership and get renegades to fall in line and produce a winning party strategy. If not, he should get out or be thrown out.
A hard fact that has to be accepted is that none of the aspirants has been able to challenge Wickremesinghe successfully and that is why he still remains as the leader. Leadership cannot be presented on a platter. Leaders are those who fight through thick and thin and reach their ultimate objective, not wait for it to fall into their hands, be ceremonially presented to them or gain it through political skulduggery.
The party needs a strategy as badly as an unchallenged leader. If it cannot stand on its own feet now, a joint opposition with other parties is a feasible alternative. What it needs least is a continuing squabble for leadership.
The UNP has risen from the ashes of defeat before; once in 1956 under the leadership of J.R. Jayewardene, then in 1965 under the leadership of Dudley Senanayake and in 1977 once again under J.R. Jayewardene and ruled for 18 continuous years. There is a wealth of support for it in the country.
T20 World Cup