Democracy, oligarchy and the UNP
In the Hollywood parable on racial struggle in the USA Remember the
Titans, Denzel Washington’s character American Football Coach Boone
says: 'This is not a democracy, this is a dictatorship. I am the law'.
He was, of course, stressing the need for extreme discipline in a highly
competitive sports environment.
Such statements should, of course, have no place in modern politics.
Yet one can almost hear the same words coming out of the mouth of
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, speaking in the context of the
inner struggle within the United National Party (UNP).
The latest stage in the elephantine affray in the Grand Old Party is
a court case regarding last month’s selection of office-bearers of the
UNP-affiliated National Lawyers’ Association. President’s Counsel Tilak
Marapana had been appointed as chairperson and Nissanka Nanayakkara as
secretary in place of Upul Jayasooriya and Gunaratne Wanninayake, who
were elected at a convention three years ago.
The plaintiff, Association member Mahen Gunasekera submitted a
petition to the Colombo District Court that the appointments on July 19
were arbitrary and illegal. District Court Judge Dhammika Ganepola
issued an enjoining order preventing the newly appointed Executive
Committee from functioning within the Association until August 23, by
which date the Opposition Leader was ordered by court to prepare a
This is the latest unravelling of the formerly well-knit structure of
the UNP, which had a place for everybody and everybody in their place -
with the Party Leader at the apex, fully in charge. Although the formal
organization had been put in place by former leader Junius Richard
Jayewardene, the roots of this authoritarian configuration went back to
the earliest days of the UNP.
At the very creation of the party, the then Leader, Don Stephen
Senanayake bestrode it like an unshakeable colossus. DS had cobbled the
UNP together from various disparate elements within the Ceylon National
Congress, which he had quit three years earlier when it called for
complete independence from the British Empire.
The new party was basically a collection of notables bringing
independent Sinhalese nationalists such as Neel Kamal Hewavitarne, the
nephew of Anagarika Dharmapala together with minority politicians like
Tuan Burhanuddin Jayah into coalition. The only common denominator was a
general dislike for the Left and its allies, especially the Ceylon
Indian Congress (later to become the Ceylon Workers’ Congress).
At its core was the strategic combination of the Senanayake and
Wijewardena extended families. These families formed an important bloc,
which had worked together for a long time, most notably in their schemes
against Anagarika Dharmapala and Don Baron Jayatilleka.
The importance of this grouping can be gauged by the fact that the
first Cabinet of 14 included four members of the two clans: DS himself,
his son Dudley, his nephew John Kotelawala and the Wijewardena scion, J
R Jayewardene, all of whom became party leaders in turn - giving rise to
the ‘Uncle-Nephew Party’ jibe. Since then, only three leaders of the UNP
have not been from this family band: Ranasinghe Premadasa, DB Wijetunge
and Gamini Dissanayake.
The UNP included only one modern political entity, SWRD
Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha. NM Perera, the parliamentary leader
of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, invited SWRD to lead a coalition of
nationalist and socialist forces, offering him the premiership. However,
such was the stature of DS Senanayake that SWRD refused.
When he did break away, four years later, to form the Sri Lanka
Freedom Party (SLFP), it was generally thought that it was because he,
the most senior member after DS himself, was being shunted aside as heir
apparent in favour of Dudley.
However, the roots of the SLFP went deeper: it brought together the
populist, the nationalist and non-Marxist socialist elements which
opposed the imperialistic policies of the UNP. These forces were
exemplified by DA Rajapaksa, CP de Silva and TB Ilangaratne.
The SLFP’s differences with the UNP were revealed during the Great
Hartal of 1953, led by the LSSP and the Communists, during which the
entire UNP Cabinet took refuge on the Royal Navy cruiser HMS
The Hartal paved the way for the 1956 defeat of the UNP, the removal
of British bases and the achievement of complete sovereignty in 1972.
The autocratic leadership structure continued. It was not until after
Dudley’s death that even a member of the oligarchy who was not of the
Senanayake extended clan (in the person of JR) could become Leader.
Premadasa had to fight to take the reins from JR, and that only when the
latter had become overwhelmingly unpopular.
The UNP has not really progressed beyond what it was in 1956, being
‘corrupt and autocratic’, whose ‘leaders were wealthy landowners who
were not averse from rigging affairs to suit their own convenience’ (in
the words of Britain’s Commonwealth Secretary).
If the UNP is to become a serious modernising force in Sri Lanka,
going beyond mere aping of Western political fashion (as well of
European sartorial mode), it has to modernise its oligarchic internal
structure, to shed its subaltern, pro-colonial compradore attitudes and
to democratise its internal administration.
The question remains whether Ranil, a scion of the Wijewardenas, will
be up to the task, or whether the party needs to carry out a
thorough-going sweeping out of the dusty pachyderm political mansion.