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Elephants, Walk!

Sep 18, 2010 2:30:14 PM - thesundayleader.lk

It’s not election time, it’s rejection time. The Sunday Leader would like to support and endorse any UNP MPs that choose to sit independently in parliament. Ranil Wickremesinghe has lost 16 elections, sat out the last presidential and lost the support of over 50 of his own MPs. For the sake of the opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to step down. If he won’t, honourable MPs should step aside. If the elephants don’t walk now, they may be extinct forever.

More to the point, any Sri Lankan citizen with any care for democracy should take the initiative and tell Ranil to go (if they feel so). This means that at whatever meetings Ranil chairs or whatever public events he attends, he should be told — as politely as possible — that he is hurting democracy and the future of this country.
Many have accused this paper of needless malice towards Ranil. Ranil remains a popular vote getter and someone respected within the business, minority and English-speaking communities. None of this belies the fact, however, that he has failed. One can be a good person and fail, as we all surely know from our personal lives. The mark of character is knowing when to step down and give someone else a chance.
This is precisely what the opposition is asking President Mahinda Rajapaksa to do, but it’s difficult for those words to come from Ranil’s mouth. It is very difficult for a seemingly permanent opposition leader to argue for term limits when he himself observes no such principles. It is difficult for an opposition leader to argue for democracy when he stays despite losing support from both voters and MPs.
Yes, Mahinda is authoritarian and he deserves to be criticised. He, however, only gets away with as much as he does because the opposition is so hopeless and weak. Indeed, much of his cabinet is composed of former UNPers. Much of his electorate is now former UNP voters. If Ranil had stepped down in 2005, the party would be in fighting form now, poised to check and balance the presidency. Even if he stepped down one month ago, the MPs who voted with the government on the 18th Amendment would likely have stayed. He did not and it looks like the UNP will be, in the words of one commented on our website, “The United National Person.”
Sadly, very few in the UNP seem to be demanding a change. Sajith Premadasa has had support but he has not shown the courage to stand up and take the leadership. He seems to be contemplating his own political future and lacks the guts to take a risk. The only UNPer who has shown any semblance of courage is Dayasiri Jayasekera in proposing that MPs simply walk away. Let us see if his will holds.
A change is necessary for the simple reason that no one wants to be in the opposition forever. Having lost 16 elections, Ranil is virtually guaranteed to lose. At various points, events have saved or sunk him; the death of Gamini Dissanayake giving him the party leadership and the assassination attempt on Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga perhaps costing him the presidency. Perhaps he is waiting for divine intervention, but the country cannot afford to gamble, especially since Mahinda is playing to win.
A strong opposition is important to the country because it keeps government honest and competitive. It would, more concretely, be able to oppose self-serving constitutional changes and negotiate positive ones that actually deliver power to the provinces and minorities. Instead, Ranil’s personal battle decimates the UNP for Mahinda’s gain.
Ranil Wickremesinghe cannot shake hands or hold a baby. He is impersonal and needlessly slights people by not making eye contact or remembering their names. These are basic political skills which could be foregone in a party based parliamentary system, but which are absolutely vital for a president.
He also gets the small things wrong, often catastrophically. Most notably, the UNP lost what should have been a sure shot at the Colombo mayor’s post, by bungling nomination paperwork. This is not directly Ranil’s fault, but leaders of parties have fallen for less. The buck seemingly does not stop anywhere.
In terms of statements and optics, he also fails. Recently, for example, he appointed a TNA MP to a Parliamentary Council that both the UNP and TNA are boycotting. The TNA predictably rejected the move, making Ranil look like a fool. Ranil has replied that this is part of some broader chess game, making him look like more of a fool.
He also gets the big things wrong. Ranil Wickremesinghe is forever tied to the Cease-Fire Agreement. While many supported this CFA at the time, it was not a successful policy. Not that it could not have succeeded, but that it simply did not. He took a risk and he lost. He should have either protested when President Kumaratunga took his ministries and prevented implementation or bowed out after that. Instead he did neither, effectively not having cake and not eating it too.
The government is now systematically tarring the CFA in its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission as the root of all evil. More to the point, the fact that Prabhakaran fought till the bitter end, shows that negotiations were perhaps not the best idea. Ranil is forever tied to this losing policy and he keeps repeating by endlessly negotiating with people that turn on him — Mahinda, dissident UNPers, etc. It’s becoming his trademark, as is losing.
The point of the opposition isn’t to be in opposition forever, it’s to someday be in government. An opposition needs hope, even false hope, so that it can retain members and muster support to enter government one day. Ranil offers no such hope. There is hope based on experience and there is hope based on novelty and he offers neither. Ranil has lost almost every national election except for one. He has lost so much that it’s become a joke. At this point, experience shows that he is expected to lose. He is also not new, so people can’t even hope that he might win based on the man not being tested for. Ranil is a hopeless opposition leader.
Ranil Wickremesinghe should have had the shame and honour to step down long ago. Instead, he is forcing his own MPs to walk away. We encourage them to go, for the sake of multi-party democracy in this country.