By H. L. D. Mahindapala
Everyone talks about the urgent need to have a strong opposition, but no one — not even the leader of the opposition — is doing anything about it. The absence of a credible opposition has created a huge vacuum and there is nothing in the political system to balance the formidable power resting in the hands of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
At this point it is relevant to ask: what should be the format of ‘a strong opposition’? The misguided UNPers – the only party that could have given a run to the government – have acted on the belief that the opposition must flex its muscles and go on the war path against the government no matter whether it is good or bad. This is a perverse and counter-productive interpretation of the phrase ‘strong opposition’.
At all times, parliamentary democracy functions effectively under pressures of an enlightened opposition that can present a viable alternative. A ‘strong opposition’ is also a responsible opposition and not a gang of wild Neanderthals lunging in all directions, hoping that their erratic, ‘juck-muck’ ‘toot-toot’ stunts would land them somewhere near the seats of power at the end of each election. An opposition that opposes for the sake of opposing merely to grab some votes at the next election is certainly not a dependable tactic for it to undermine/defeat the government by winning the confidence of the people. A parliamentary opposition, relying on non-violent politics, must come up with credible alternative policies and programmes that address the needs and aspirations of the times for the people to place their trust in the opposition.
In a parliamentary democracy both the government and the opposition play the same game of winning the hearts and the minds of the people. Psephologists will agree that the mature Sri Lankan voter (I always maintain that there are no citizens in Sri Lanka but only 20 million politicians) cannot be fooled easily. Time and again, particularly at critical times, the people have responded positively to leaders who had responded to their inherited socio-political and historical aspirations and needs. The big political waves that swept the nation and remain as watersheds of the post-independence era (1956 and 2005 are two leading examples), have been generated essentially by the pragmatic leaders who had read the mood and the needs of the time correctly.
In other words, the leaders who had veered away from the grass root trends (example: the left wing Marxists with their imported theories and the right-wing, pro-Western Royalists) have lost. The Senanayakes, the Bandaranaikes and now the Rajapaksas (none of them are Royalists) have won not because of dynastic dynamics or glories but because they represented the prime political needs of their times.
Clearly, a leader of the opposition who aspires to occupy the government benches cannot be far removed from the aspirations, the needs and the mood of the people. Right now the burden of providing this alternative lies with the UNP. But is it capable of providing the alternative leadership? Successive election results have proved that the UNP had deliberately steered an anti-national course alienating it from the people’s aspirations. It has declined from a responsible opposition to an irresponsible bunch of losers directed by a leader who is running in all directions without a compass. Some even view Ranil Wickremesinghe as the undertaker of the dying UNP. So can it regain its lost position as the viable alternative?
The current plight of the UNP is disastrous not only to the party and to Wickremesinghe but also to the nation. A democracy without a viable alternative becomes a monolithic state which, in some instances, may not be entirely bad as seen in Malaysia and Singapore. However, the task before the UNP is two fold: (1) capture the lost ground and (2) leap ahead of the UPFA. Can it do it under the Wickremesinghe regime? The tendency under his stewardship has been for the UNP to decline. Electoral statistics reveal that it has hit rock bottom.
Answer: Ranil Wickremesinghe. Recently there was an attempt within the party to cover-up his sins and distribute the blame to all and sundry. But to shift the blame from the perpetrator of the political sins in the hierarchy to the victims below is unrealistic and unacceptable, particularly in the case of Wickremesinghe who has craftily grabbed all the powers to consolidate his position. This concentration of powers in his hands makes him solely responsible for the failed policies, tactics and the direction of the party which ran into a dead-end. If, on the contrary, he won he would have crowed to high heaven that he is the political genius who carried the party to victory. But when he loses, he spreads the blame evenly to everyone around him and some UNP masochists are willing to accept the whipping given by the master with pleasure. The fact, however, is that he cannot escape total blame because the excessive powers concentrated in his hands make him solely responsible for victories (if any) and losses.
In other words, he has entrenched himself like Velupillai Prabhakaran, as ‘the sole representative’ of the UNP until he steps down or goes under a bus. So there is no way he could palm off the blame to those who have obeyed him. How can he blame others when he is the sole authority with power to (1) appoint only those who are loyal to him (2) dictate policies and cheap tactics that have taken the party to lowest depths (3) isolate dissenters or manipulate any possible threat by activating his stooges and (4) undercut any reforms that have been a serious threat to his survival as a leader? Over and over again he has proved to be a self-centered manipulator determined to stay in power irrespective of the disastrous consequences to the party and the nation.
One of his sneaky traits is to put one UNPer against the other, hoping to divide and rule. Only stooges have survived under him. Despite the legally concrete defensive fence he has built around him, he has never been able to feel secure or use the power to stabilise the party. What is the use of all his power if he can’t hold the party together? But all his tactics and manipulations confirm that he is less concerned about the survival of the party than he is about his own survival as its leader. He hangs on to the leadership dearly because without it he would fall into the abysmal pit of obscurity, minus the luxuries and the kudos he enjoys now. The clear choice for the UNP is to decide whether saving Wickremesinghe can save the party. The answer is blowing in the winds of change coming from Hambantota.
If the UNPers unite, they have nothing to lose except the chains of Wickremesinghe. He has so far made the party look like him – a total failure without any redemption. Willy-nilly the party has been dragged to reflect his thinking. If, for instance, Lakshman Kiriella, Tissa Attanayake or Ravi Karunanayake speak out on any given issue, one can be sure that they are merely mouthing the thinking and the tactics of their lame leader. If Wickremesinghe says that Toppigala is only a jungle with some leaves, it won’t take long for Kiriella to say that any cow can wage a war, or Karunanayake to say that the army does not know whether it is in Pamankada or Alimankade, or Tissa Attanayake to hold a press conference confirming the denigration of the nation. Together they are all peas of the same rotten pod. Dissenters who see through Wickremesinghe, of course, have no place in his one-man rule.
The systemic failure begins with Wickremesinghe and he has been the main cause of the crisis within the UNP. Media reports exposed that on the eve of the last election, he had not even appointed organisers for the electorates. All the cosmetic reforms, initiated mainly to cover-up the failures of the leadership, have worsened the crisis. Consequently, it has lost the confidence of the people, both in the North and the South, due to its ill-conceived and irrelevant policies and the systemic chaos that has dismantled the GOP which, in the pre-Wickremesinghe era, had the best organised national network.
So at all levels the UNP has come apart. Starting from the grass root level, the organisational level, the hierarchical levels, the policy level, and the leadership level it has gone to the dogs. What can be expected of a leader who can’t account for the millions handed over to the party by foreign agents and local businessmen? With his high living in 5-star hotels (nothing less) and low politics, he has lost his image of ‘Mr. Clean’. His image has sunk below sea level because no one – not the electorate, not the rank and file and not even those in the hierarchy of the UNP – trusts him. When Sajith Premadasa says bluntly that he does not want to meet him alone because he does not trust him, it speaks volumes for the unreliable character of the leader.
It is a sad state of affairs when more level-headed seniors like Karu Jayasuriya and John Amaratunge take a back seat and allow Wickremesinghe to drive the UNP car. As the sole driver of the party, where has he taken it? So far, going by the mileage on the odometer, he has driven the UNP from his house in Cambridge Place only to ‘Kollu’-pitiya!. To use the phrase of his disillusioned side-kick, Kiriella, even a cow could have done that.
Of all the UNP leaders, it is President Ranasinghe Premadasa who worked tirelessly to change the image of the UNP as a party of ‘sallikarayas and pallikarayas’. As a man from Kehelwatte, he had to face the challenges not only of the opposition, but also the Kurunduwatte elite. He always maintained that his base was in the villages and not in Kurunduwatte. Eventually he succeeded in transforming the UNP image from that of sallikarayas and pallikarayas to that of a pro-people party.
Wickremesinghe has reversed pro-people policies of Premadasa and taken it back to the ‘sallikarayas and pallikarayas’.
It is time that the UNP returned to the Premadasa policies to give a new lease of life to the party, before Wickremesinghe drives it to Kanatte – his last stop.