By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
Change’ and ‘Unity’ are the two competing slogans within the UNP. Sadly the issue is wrongly framed for either slogan to do much good. The question should be whether change or unity should come first. If unity precedes change, it will also preclude change. Unity is thus being deployed as a slogan to counter that of reform aimed at leadership change or leadership change through reform.
If the SLFP ‘united’ around ‘Mathiniya’, i.e. Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1994, as it did in 1988, it would have remained in opposition until her death. It is because it was ‘disunited’ enough to replace her with Chandrika that the party swept in to office.
The UNP can and should be united after it has implemented change. It must unite under a viable, popular new leadership which can rouse enthusiasm. It is only if the party members and supporters feel energised by hope, that they will rally round the party, unite.
If the UNP can drop to 29.34% of the vote, then it is obviously not united, because voters are defecting or staying at home. If the party remains ‘united’ in this manner, a basic mathematical projection shows that it will wither away.
Karu Jayasuriya, a devoted party man, urges unity and avoids the mention of change. Now it must be recalled that Jayasuriya, dedicated though he is to party unity, actually crossed over and joined President Rajapaksa’s administration. That was not because he loved the UNP less but because he loved Sri Lanka more. He put patriotism above partisanship.
Could he not have done so while remaining in the UNP benches? Obviously not! That option was impossible under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Karu could not persuade Ranil to take up a patriotic stance in defence of the country during a crucial period in its history.
Now the problem I have is this. What makes Hon. Karu Jayasuriya think that the average voter, including the average UNP voter, is any less patriotic than he is? Simply because he has forgiven Ranil Wickremesinghe his manifest lack of patriotism, what makes him think that the peasant families of the Sinhala heartland, whose youngsters gave their lives and limbs in the war, will do so — especially when their emotions are rekindled by the presence of Ranil on the platform and the effective propaganda by government’s demagogic nationalist ideologues?
Jayasuriya lists the shortcomings of this government and urges unity to combat them. He must surely recall that the Sri Lankan voter responded negatively to such entreaties on the part of the SLFP, then in opposition, until they were certain that it would not mean a return of Madam Bandaranaike to power — so deeply engrained was the memory of queues and shortages.
Similarly, the voter will not shift from the incumbent administration, which after all, delivered a historic victory, while the prospect exists of a return of Ranil Wickremesinghe whom the masses cannot relate to and who will ‘give away the store’ to the enemies of the nation.
It is only if the voter is guaranteed of a real change, of a new leadership that is every bit as patriotic as the Rajapaksa regime but is an improvement in matters of living standards and people’s prosperity that the voters will return to the UNP.
The Old Guard of the UNP assumes that economic hardship alone will drive the voters back to the party. This is erroneous. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stint as PM is not remembered by the voter as a period of mass prosperity. On the contrary it was experienced as a phase of sharp cutbacks in public spending. Wickremesinghe himself is identified with the Jayewardene administration, the lopsided economic policies of which were cautioned against by Prime Minister Premadasa. His cautioning was ignored and a bloody insurrection resulted.
olombo’s UNP elite would have been slain in their beds or sent off to slave in labour camps had Premadasa not been selected by the party and elected by the people in ’88. The party and the people responded to a personality who was manifestly no less patriotic than his main rival Madam Bandaranaike but was also known to be capable of improving the standard of living of the citizenry, as she was not.
The fundamental factor is that Ranil Wickremesinghe is historically obsolescent. He belongs to the Prabhakaran period of Sri Lanka’s contemporary history, and furthermore he belongs on the wrong side of that historical contestation. Ranil was chosen not by the party but by Prabhakaran, who assassinated every able UNP leader (Premadasa, Lalith, Gamani, Ranjan) and potential ones (Ossie Abeygoonesekara, Gamani Atukorale), leaving only Ranil untouched.
Ranil returned the favour, acting as a puppet of Prabhakaran. He is indelibly associated with a period of shame in the long history of the island.
He and his associates are also seen as socially decadent, as Jayasuriya for instance is most certainly not. Surely the collective memory of UNP must recall the disaster of Sir John Kotelawela and Zsu Zsu Mohamed, so effectively skewered by the famous ‘Mara Yuddha’ cartoon in 1956?
This compound profile of anti-national treachery and social decadence makes Ranil electorally radioactive. That radioactivity affects the party as a whole. For the party to recover the UNP rank and file and the country at large must not see him in the frontlines.
So as long as he is visible, the government’s ideologists and propaganda machine will chew up the UNP. Short of a visible change of leadership, how does Jayasuriya hope to re-infuse the party with what it lacks most, namely, hope?
Today, Wimal Weerawansa has beaten Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the UNP, in Colombo. That is the evidence of how terminal the UNP’s crisis is, under Ranil. One fails to see the logic of ‘unity’ under the leadership of someone who cannot secure more votes than Wimal Weerawansa in Colombo itself.
One also fails to see how such a slogan can have a chance of success. If Ranil’s leadership cannot deliver the goods (the votes) in cosmopolitan, globalised Colombo, how can it do so in the countryside, where the majority of voters are?
Is this the leadership under which the UNP members are urged to unite: a leadership that cannot take the party to victory but only from one defeat to another and each time worse?
Why would they?
The most dangerous aspect of calling for ‘unity’ without and before leadership change is the signal it sends out: that despite repeated and worsening electoral rejection at the hands of the voters of Sri Lanka for two decades, the UNP does not give a damn for the opinion of the voter; that the UNP is deaf and blind to the repeated signalling by the citizens of this country.
To be viable, the UNP must be brought in line with the repeated signals of the electoral marketplace. The party must show respect for the unmistakable feedback from the people.
Unity cannot be on the basis of the decrepit, unpopular status quo. Change must precede unity. Unity can be restored only on the basis of immediate leadership change. To borrow President Premadasa’s concept, the UNP must be ‘people-ised’.