The UNP at 70 | Daily News

The UNP at 70

The United National Party (UNP), which will be holding its 70th anniversary convention tomorrow, is one of the country’s two main political parties. Having been founded two years before the country gained independence, the party played a crucial role in the struggle for independence from the British. Although initially mocked as an elitist Uncle Nephew Party by opponents, it has since transformed into a common man’s movement with a solid vote base.

The party has now embarked on a new journey that has never really been previously experienced in Sri Lanka – a journey of unity with main political rival the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to form a Government of National Unity on the theme of Good Governance. Despite certain ideological differences, there is very chance that the agreement will last even beyond 2020.

This convergence of ideologies would have been unthinkable 70 years ago, when the UNP was founded by the late Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake. Sri Lanka’s two-party system began in the early 1950s, when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike broke away to form the SLFP. Since then, the two parties have been governing the country from time to time.

In Prime Minister and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, we have an astute politician who realised that divisive party politics can only take the country backward. With Sri Lanka on the cusp of the 70th anniversary of independence, party politics should not be seen as a force that can impede the country’s progress. This is why he backed the presidential candidature of Maithripala Sirisena, then the General Secretary of the SLFP and vowed to form a Government with the SLFP. This was achieved on January 8, 2015 and reinforced on August 17, 2015 at the General Election.

Many thought of the idea of a Government of National Unity as an impossible dream, but it has brought many benefits to the country from wider international recognition to domestic political stability. The two leaders’ commitment to achieving lasting peace and reconciliation, concepts the previous Government eschewed, has been proved by recent actions. The UNP has always been a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural party that has never discriminated against the minorities. In fact, some of its most well-known stalwarts have been Tamil and Muslim.

Apart from the ethnic reconciliation factor, since the National Unity Government came to power, Sri Lanka has also been able to extricate itself out of the quagmire of international isolation. The UNP leader has made extensive use of wide international contacts to gain assistance for technological and development projects in Sri Lanka. Technology will be a key factor for political parties in Sri Lanka in the future. The UNP has always pioneered new technologies as a political party and as a governing force. For example, it was the first to issue e-membership cards to youth members.

The UNP has faced many challenges from the very beginning, including stinging defeats, high profile defections and internal revolts, but the party has remained as a cohesive whole even as other parties splintered. In recent times, the formation of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) by party heavyweights Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake was one of the biggest threats then faced by the UNP, but today there is no trace of the DUNF. (There is a lesson here for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna too).

The UNP, and indeed the SLFP, are not parties based on a single person’s personality which is a factor that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to have forgotten. For the UNP leadership, it is the party that matters, not individuals. There is no personality cult in the current UNP and SLFP. Hence both parties will be contesting the February 10 Local Government Election purely on a platform of village and city development as opposed to promoting personalities.

The UNP was one of the first parties to propose a higher allocation of nominations for women candidates. It has been able to attract many professional women for the polls and has proposed the name of Ms. Rosy Senanayake as the Mayoral candidate for Colombo. This is a vote of confidence for women’s power in politics.

A resurgent UNP faces the challenge of getting youth on board, though this is not unique to the UNP. We must remember that both UNP and SLFP Governments have faced youth insurrections in the last 50 years. Addressing their concerns and frustrations is therefore vital, as is repelling their general mistrust of local politics. The healthy participation of youth at elections will be a boon for the country. We hope that parties and voters will give preference to youth, both men and women, at this poll because they can play a more dynamic role in the towns and villages.

The UNP-SLFP combination has started a new political culture in Sri Lanka that has taken aim at ending corruption. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have reiterated this stand in the wake of the Bond Commission Report’s revelations and recommendations. The potential elimination of corruption could possibly be the biggest contribution that the two parties can make collectively to the drive to develop Sri Lanka. 


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