by Sumanasiri Liyanage
A member of the United National Party, Rienzie Algama, committed self-immolation last week as a mark of protest against the current crisis and the resultant disunity within the party.
The UNP has decided to suspend its Kandy District MP A.R.M. Abdul Cader from the party Working Committee for voting with the government in parliament on several occasions. Since the last Parliamentary election, many leaders of the party have aired the views that a substantial change in the constitution of the party is needed so that the leader of the party can be made accountable for party’s electoral performance. Reorganization time and again has become the key word in party internal discussion.
With all these developments, it seems Ranil Wickremesinghe is consolidating his position within the party with his calculated manoeuvres and also by drawing considerable support from the government. Nonetheless, one of the strongest parties in Sri Lanka in a shambles making the future of Sri Lankan democracy bleak.
The current pathetic state of the party has oftentimes been attributed to the weakness Wickremesinghe as a party leader. Hence the argument is that if he is replaced by a leader with mass appeal and charisma, the party can regain its electoral position and eventually win the next election. There is no doubt that this argument carries some truth, but in my opinion, the crisis of the UNP may not be reduced to the personal characteristics of its present leader.
D. S. Senanayaka and Dudley Senanayake were leaders with charisma and both gained the popular support of the masses. In this sense, J R Jayewardene was not a leader of that kind, but he was a great organizer who was able to get close to the people after he became the leader of the UNP in the early 1970s. It is true that Wickremesinghe has failed to identify himself with the masses and this failure is quite obvious when he is compared with his contender, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his immediate predecessor, late Ranasinghe Premadasa. However, the electoral failure of the UNP, in my opinion, is due to the significant changes that have happened during the last 10 years or so with regard to the direction of the party.
So, changing the leadership without addressing this major and substantial issue will not resolve the present crisis of the party
What do I mean by the direction of the UNP?
Whether in government or in opposition, the United National Party in the past stood as a political party with the principal objective of capturing governmental power. Although the UNP always stands for capitalist and landlord interests in the island and to protect them, party was very well aware that in a democratic set-up it had to win the support of the rural and urban masses. Hence party’s right wing policies were structured and presented as they were attractive to them.
Moreover, all the previous UNP leaders succeeded in forming political united fronts and alliances. Policies of land colonization, agricultural reawakening and massive infra-structure projects like Mahaweli and all-island housing projects and village reawakening programmes cemented alliances with multiple layers of masses, both urban and rural. Hence the UNP always emerged as the main contender to governmental power even it suffered electoral setbacks in the parliamentary elections in 1956, 1960 and 1970. Why did the UNP fail to gain electoral victory after 1994 except at the 2001 parliamentary election?
Why did the party fail to get re-elected in 2004 parliamentary election after a significant victory in 2001?
In my view, the brief answer to both these questions is that the UNP under Wickremesinghe ceased to be a political party. The difference between a political party and a non-governmental organization (NGO) is that while the former is confronting the party in power in order to defeat it at the next election or to overthrow it in a revolution/ rebellion, the latter intends to work with the government on specific issues.
NGOs are issue-based organizations that are working on multiple issues such as human rights, media freedom and developmental deficits. Although individual members of NGOs may have power projects and they may use NGOs for them, in general, NGOs are not supposed to capture political power. The political parties are not only aiming at capturing power but also based on comprehensive political programmes.
Wickremesinghe became the leader of the UNP when internal armed conflict became so intense. It was during this period NGOs mushroomed in Sri Lanka to work on peace, ethnic harmony and conflict resolution. One of the key criticisms of the NGOs against 2000 constitutional draft was that an enactment thereof may not resolve the conflict so that the focus should be on how and in what manner the LTTE can be brought to a negotiation table. This was the idea advanced by not only local NGOs but also the so-called international community.
International community and INGOs linked the issue of negotiation with the LTTE to the economic development of the country. What was the response of Wickremesinghe to these developments?
He misunderstood it as a comprehensive political programme and made it the programme of the party. So what was the final outcome?
It was that the political programme of the party was subjugated to the programme of the NGOs. Hence the UNP, under the leadership of Wickramasinghe, has become a political party owing to what I venture to call ‘NGOization’.
Let me use counterfactual argument to elaborate my position. Had Gamini Disanayake lived to see these developments, as a leader of the UNP, how would have been responded?
As a person who was seeking to achieve governmental power to his political party, he would have supported the 2000 draft and helped change the constitution. Changing the Constitution meant not only making devolution of power more visible but also the abolition of the executive presidential system. Having that being achieved, he would have resorted to manipulations to change the power configuration of the Parliament and got the majority in the Parliament to become the prime minister through a parliamentary coup.
This explained why he was supportive the constitutional amendment process in Parliament as the Leader of the Opposition. After becoming the Leader of Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe adopted a totally different strategy.
Wickremesinghe’s political programme is based not on the agenda of the local level party members like Algama, who want to regain political power, but on the issue based politics of Colombo NGOs. If we look at the present supporters of Wickremesinghe, we can easily recognize that they are not grassroots level local political leaders, but appointed MPs and NGO bureaucrats.
Unless and until the UNP changes its current political programme that is a summation of NGO programmes, mere change of leadership would not resolve the crisis of the party. The emergence of the UNP, once again as an alternative contender to political power, is imperative for Sri Lankan democracy, especially in a context that is characterized by the absence of viable third political alternative and the increasing and emerging authoritarian tendencies.