UNimportant Party?

Coupled with the presidential polls and subsequent parliamentary elections early last year, the results of those for the Local Government bodies recently are remarkable for a few insights that they have thrown up. One, of course, is that the ruling SLFP-UPFA is still on its winning streak, which had commenced with the early military victories for the Government against the LTTE in 2007. Two, the JVP has been reduced to near-nothing, thus reducing the manipulative political space available to second-rung political parties in the majority Sinhala areas. Three and more importantly, the Opposition UNP has to go a long, long way before it can hope to be taken seriously on its ability to replace the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The UNP’s current despair comes from their hopes getting dashed even after an interim patch-up between party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and young rebel and challenger, Sajith Premadasa. The two, particularly the latter lost no time in patching up their differences, even if perfunctorily, soon after the election results were known, shows their realistic approach to electoral politics and their own assessment of relative strengths, more outside the party than inside. But early signs of a quick-fix patch-up have shown up the internal frictions for what they are worth, after the quibbling over the post of National Organiser.

As the UNP is finding for itself, it is easy to be in power for a political party and manage its internal affairs better than while in the Opposition. Wickremesinghe is not in an unenviable position, but he has made it look as if he is in control. It is true in a way, but what he continues to rule is shrinking in political and electoral space, and hence relevance, too. With the JVP gone into wilderness of sorts, it is both an opportunity and challenge for the UNP, as a legitimate Opposition to a legitimate ruling combine and Government.

Yet, the UNP can take heart. It is not in the statistics that party analysts quoted, to save face. They claimed that the UNP had polled five per cent more votes than in the past year. That is not saying much in terms of cadre-morale. They see it in terms of the seats and political offices that the party controls. Any further drift at the leadership-level will provide a continuing excuse for the cadre too to drift away, this time even more onto the ruling combine, with a relatively clear ‘conscience’.

The UNP’s hopes, instead, come in the form of the exclusion of a third party in the race for the Sinhala majority votes. The shrinking political and electoral space in which the party will now have to operate, and the further lowering of cadre morale, could well mean that if and when the voter was ready for a change of Government, the UNP may not be ready to capitalise on the emerging situation. The long wait between now and the next round of national elections portends bad tidings for the UNP, even more. 

For long, the UNP has been working on assumptions. Through the period of ‘Eelam War-IV’, for instance, the party leadership, true to its ‘best practices’ when in power, had concluded that the economy would crumble, particularly under the pressure of excessive budget-share for the war-effort, the rising prices and the global meltdown. All those predictions did come true but the UNP had not factored in the ‘human mind’ or ‘national mindset’ in the matter. Their hopes and predictions thus came to a naught. This has been the rule, not the exception when it came to the UNP’s thinking, and consequent campaign-strategy.

In the Ranil-Sajith duo, the UNP has a combination which can learn from each other – and has to learn from each other. This is particularly so in terms of political perceptions and electoral strategies. Wickremesinghe has always remained a ‘global’ preceptor. Premadasa, Jr, has a grassroots-level approach even to larger issues of nation-building. The UNP needs a right mix of both, but then the party’s well-wishers sitting on the sidelines for too long, are incapable of evolving a working majority. Nor is the divided leadership willing to make whatever formula of the kind is evolved, work.

In a democracy, no government can rule for long. Similarly, no Opposition can continue to remain in the Opposition for long – rather, too long. No, it is not about the inevitability of their being able to come to power, if not on their acquired strengths but on the accumulated weaknesses of the incumbent. It is about their ability to survive. Strengthening the party would come only next.

The UNP has a long haul ahead. It also has time on its side, to repair the damage and start afresh. Sure enough, the party will come up with internal assessments, and external consultations, particularly within the country. For the UNP to survive, such consultations, assessments and recommendations, should be aimed at strengthening the party, not an individual or a collective. The Opposition does not have the luxury of strengthening the hands of the leader, and deriving strength in turn from the reflected strength of the leader. The UNP is in the Opposition.

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