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If the UNP is to preserve itself and survive it has to change

Aug 28, 2010 11:43:19 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dayan Jayatilleka

Was Opposition firebrand, lawyer, karateka and pop vocalist Dayasiri Jayasekara right when he warned several weeks back that the UNP stood in danger of electoral extinction, like the Old Left in general and the LSSP in particular? The answer probably resides in yet another question: what would be the Wickremesinghe led UNP’s strength in parliament today, if Sri Lanka had the first-past-the-post system?

How many seats would it have obtained at the 2010 general election? How many seats would it get under the current leadership at the next election, were the system to be changed to a Westminster model? These queries are particularly pertinent because the reversion to such an electoral system is perfectly possible as part of the macro changes that are in the offing as the Government closes in on a two thirds majority in the House.

The comparison with the LSSP is not fanciful when one recalls that at the general election of 1947, the Left did so well, that had it re-combined (it was divided into three – LSSP, BLPI and CP) and linked up with independent-minded progressive MPs such as SWRD Bandaranaike, independent Ceylon’s first government could well have been Left led, and not, as it happened the conservative administration of DS Senanayake’s UNP. A mere thirty years later, at the General election of 1947, the once mighty LSSP and CPSL were wiped out, and were utterly unrepresented in the parliament of 1977.

I do not wish to re-ignite the discussion over what the Left got wrong and when, for it to wind up in so pathetic a state, since I have written extensively on the subject over the years, starting with a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly (India ) in 1978 while a Peradeniya undergrad. Instead I wish to indulge in a little counterfactual history as to how the Left, crushed in 1977, could have revived fairly rapidly by adopting a simple remedy or even avoided the wipe-out of that year.

Had the leadership of the LSSP been handed over to Vasudeva Nanayakkara and that of the Communist party to Sarath Muttetuwegama before the General election of 1977, after the manifest failure of the old guard leaders, the left may have averted electoral extirpation. Had the leadership handover taken place in the aftermath of the 1977 election, the Left would have revived. Instead, ritual self criticism was conducted in both parties, without the basic change in leadership that would have signalled the public that the disastrous line of the recent past had been definitely abandoned and that the old leadership had paid the price of their political perfidy. Instead the old faces remained at the top, while the relatively younger figures were used as window dressing—and the voter based was washed away.

The lesson is simple and clear: that of timely generational change. A failed elitist Establishment must give way to a dissident younger leader with populist appeal, if the political organisation is to survive and recover. No tokenistic re-shuffle, cosmetic self-criticism, ‘inner party constitutional reform’ or recombination of parties can suffice or act as a substitute.

As another missed chance in the history of the Old left demonstrates, formal organisational unity of the party is a secondary matter in determining outcomes in politics and history. Following the 1971 Insurrection, its bloody suppression, the continuation of the Emergency, the introduction of the retroactive Criminal Justice Commission legislation, the district and media-wise standardisation of university entrance, the Constitution of 1972 and the incarceration of Tamil youth for hanging black flags in protest in Jaffna, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka suffered a serious internal schism in 1972. Founder member of the Socialist movement in Sri Lanka and first ever parliamentarian from the left, Dr SA Wickramasingha, young radical MP Sarath Muttetuwegama and the editorial staff of the popular newspaper Aththa were the most prominent elements of the leftward dissent. It was stifled in the name of ‘party unity’ by the canny Party Secretary, KP Silva (towards whom I have had warm personal regard since my teens). Comrade KP returned with the ‘line’ from Moscow, and tapped into the respect that young party militants had for him, to abort the rebellion and ‘re-establish party unity’.

What was the upshot? When the electoral backlash came, it swept the entire CP into the dustbin. The first to recover and be re-elected at a by-election, functioning almost as a lone opposition, was Sarath Muttetuwegama. Had the 1972 split not been suffocated, the respected and popular dissident faction would have provided a ‘left alternative’ to the UF government and turned into something like the CPI-M of neighbouring India. Most importantly, the JVP would not have been able to monopolise the ‘left space’, with the dreadful spiral of terrorism and counter-terrorism that we experienced in the 1980s. Even the Tamil struggle would have had a different outcome with the leftwing elements having a strong Left partner among the Sinhalese (which the JVP, a Sinhala chauvinist party, was unwilling to provide).

Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya has recently made an impassioned appeal for opposition unity in the face of what he identifies as highly deleterious political trends. His appeal begs the question. There was a far greater threat to democracy emanating from a government and state, when JR Jayewardene took away the civic rights of the SLFP leader, sacked 60,000 striking employees, deployed physical (including lethal) violence against trade unions and student youth, allowed his goons to go unpunished after burning the Jaffna Public Library and making a mockery of the DDC elections in the North, had a referendum instead of a scheduled parliamentary election, failed to crackdown on the July ’83 anti-Tamil rioting, and unfairly proscribed the JVP. By contrast, today’s lurches and skids towards political centralisation and monopoly come from an absence of such ‘brakes’ as are usually constituted by a viable Opposition, or if one is to change metaphor, from a political terrain that contains hardly any obstacles to political temptation. Thus if Mr Jayasuriya wishes to combat the wrongs he so passionately identifies in his latest text, he should begin by putting his own house in order, i.e. fighting to make the UNP viable by changing its leadership.

If the UNP is to preserve itself, if it is to survive, it has to change. This seeming paradox would come as no surprise to reader of Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s famous novel The Leopard (‘Il Gatopardo’) with its now legendary dialectical dictum that ‘for things to remain the same, they have to change’ or, put the other way around, ‘things must change, for them to remain the same’. Sri Lanka’s two major democratic parties instinctively knew this, hence the changes from Senanayake to Jayewardene and then to Premadasa, and from Sirimavo to Chandrika and then from the Bandaranaikes to Mahinda Rajapakse.

Today’s UNP has forgotten that and perhaps lost the capacity to make that change.

The crisis of democracy in Sri Lanka today, is primarily a crisis of the opposition, which is itself reducible to the crisis of the UNP. The crisis of the UNP is one of blocked or failed transition to a new generation of leaders untainted by the charge of un-patriotism and appeasement.