UNP, SJB conflict ahead of crucial polls | Daily News


UNP, SJB conflict ahead of crucial polls

Elections to be held on August 5 under strict health guidelines
Elections to be held on August 5 under strict health guidelines

Sri Lanka’s next General Election, postponed twice due to the Covid-19 global pandemic and now being held on August 5, 2020 is likely to see the emergence of a new political trend for the first time in the country’s post-independence history.

Until now, the two major parties in the Sri Lankan political arena have been the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The former was founded by the country’s first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake in 1946 as a vehicle for the country to gain independence from Britain.

The SLFP was founded five years later by S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike who was originally a member of the UNP. Some historians suggest that Bandaranaike wished to chart a course different to the right-of-centre policies of the UNP. Others contend that the decision to form a separate party was prompted by Bandaranaike’s realisation that the leadership of the UNP would pass on to Dudley Senanayake.

For the past seven decades, in every General Election fought in Sri Lanka the main contest has been between these two parties or alliances led by these two parties. It is noteworthy that while the UNP has captured power on its own, the SLFP has never done so, always forming alliances to win polls.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa during the Presidential Election campaign  

There have been times when other parties have been major contributors to the SLFP’s electoral success. In the 1970 General Election when the SLFP led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike formed the United Front and obtained a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the SLFP won 91 seats and its allies, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) won 19 seats and the Communist Party (CP) won six seats.

Similarly, at the General Election in 2004 the SLFP led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga contested as the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that included the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and won 105 seats. Of them, as many as 39 members were from the JVP because that party cleverly manipulated the preference votes towards a few chosen candidates.

In the first 30 years after independence, power was shared equally between the UNP and the SLFP and the Sri Lankan voter was used to a system of voting in one party at an election and then voting out the same party and voting in their rivals at the next election five years later, a trend that came to be known as the ‘thattu maaru’ system.

PR system

With the introduction of a new Constitution, a Presidential system of Government and a Proportional Representation (PR) system of voting in 1978 by the UNP’s far-thinking J.R. Jayewardene, the party enjoyed a long stint of 16 years in power. That was indeed Jayewardene’s intention.

Stung by the UNP’s defeats at General Elections in 1956 when it was reduced to eight seats and in 1970 when it retained just 17 seats, he correctly surmised that a PR system of voting would avoid similar defeats for his party in the future.

However, since the UNP’s reign under Jayewardene and then under Ranasinghe Premadasa ended in 1994, it has only been in power for a brief two and a half years between 2001 and 2004 and for five years between 2015 and 2019 and that too under Presidents from the SLFP. In between, alliances led by the SLFP have held sway.

Despite the ascendancy of the SLFP, disaster befell the party in 2015 when its longest serving General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena defected to run as a presidential candidate against then SLFP leader and incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena won, confounding most predictions.

The SLFP had earlier enacted a clause to the SLFP Constitution which dictated that if a member of the SLFP was President of the country, he would also become the leader of the party. By virtue of this clause, the leadership of the SLFP reverted to Sirisena who then began a campaign to actively undermine Mahinda Rajapaksa’s role in the party.

It will be recalled that at the August 2015 General Election, although Mahinda Rajapaksa contested as a candidate for the Kurunegala district from the SLFP-led alliance, Sirisena took the unprecedented step of declaring in an Address to the Nation that he would never appoint him as Prime Minister.

Although Mahinda Rajapaksa continued to enjoy the support of the majority of Parliamentarians within the SLFP-led coalition, Sirisena as President continued his efforts to marginalise him within the party after the election leading to the formation of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership.

The fledgling party made history when in 2018, it swept the board at the Local Government elections, winning 231 of the 340 local councils on offer. The UNP won only 34 councils and the SLFP was reduced to nine councils with just 12 per cent of the vote. That election signalled the beginning of the end for the SLFP.

At the forthcoming election, for the first time since its inception in 1951, the SLFP is contesting in a coalition led by the SLPP, rather than being the main party leading the coalition. There is also speculation that many candidates from the SLFP who could win at the election may join the SLPP after the election to secure their own political futures. Thus, this election may well seal the fate of the SLFP as a major political entity in the country.

The fate of the UNP is not dissimilar but for different reasons. That there were divisions within the party was evident even in the lead up to the 2019 Presidential Election when party leader and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe entertained hopes of contesting the poll for a third time. He had previously run unsuccessfully against Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1999 and against Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005.

If Ranil Wickremesinghe’s popularity surged during the 2018 constitutional crisis triggered by then President Sirisena appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and then dissolving Parliament, it plummeted equally in the aftermath of the Easter bombings in April 2019. Even his loyalists in the UNP such as Malik Samarawickrema and Mangala Samaraweera were of the opinion that he should make way for Sajith Premadasa to take over the party leadership.

However, Wickremesinghe prevaricated on the issue of a presidential candidate and yielded only when the pressure from grassroots party organisations became palpable. That resulted in limited campaigning time for Premadasa and further soured relations between the duo.

UNP leadership

After the presidential poll, a section of the UNP began to see Wickremesinghe as a liability at the General Election and demanded that Premadasa lead the party. Wickremesinghe acquiesced to Premadasa leading the elections campaign, the formation of an alliance with other parties and being the prime ministerial candidate - at an election that the party was extremely unlikely to win - but resisted calls to relinquish the UNP leadership.

At the eleventh hour the two factions were squabbling over the election symbol with Wickremesinghe thwarting calls for the use of the ‘elephant’ symbol. Matters were further confounded by the Covid-19 crisis that was developing at that time which made frequent meetings and dialogue difficult. In the end, the Premadasa faction submitted nominations under the newly formed ‘Samagi Jana Balavegaya’ (SJB) and its ‘telephone’ symbol.

It is felt that the dispute between the two factions has now gone beyond the point of reconciliation. This became more evident in the UNP’s aggressive responses to the SJB. First, one of its candidates challenged nominations submitted by the SJB on the grounds that the declaration of the SJB as a recognised political party was irregular. That challenge has been dismissed by courts.

Then, UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, a staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist, has served notice on those contesting from the SJB, seeking to suspend them from the party. In return, SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara has sought legal redress, seeking an injunction against the proposed suspension. A decision on this matter is expected on Monday, June 22.

The net effect of the division within the UNP is that anti-government votes will now be split between the mainstream UNP and the SJB. As most former Parliamentarians have opted for the SJB, it is expected that the new party will gain more seats than the mainstream UNP.

Staunch UNPers contend that this wouldn’t be so and that most die-hard loyalists will remain with the party and vote for the ‘elephant’ symbol as they had done for generations. However, the widespread recognition of the ‘lotus bud’ as the symbol of the SLPP - as opposed to the established ‘hand’ symbol of the SLFP at the 2018 Local Government polls proves that the Sri Lankan voter is easily able to differentiate between parties and is less enamoured with symbols.

The SJB does have disadvantages to contend with. Given that the election is being conducted in a climate of heavy restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it has limited time and opportunity to take its message to the public. It is also fighting on two fronts, on the one hand, a formidable Government and on the other hand, the mainstream UNP which is sparing its harshest criticisms for the SJB.

The fallout for different parties from the August 5 General Election will be different. For the SLPP, it is whether it will be able to secure a two-thirds majority. For the SLFP, it will be about whether it will exist at all as a viable entity. The same question should worry the UNP. As for the SJB, it would be about how much impact it would have on its political debut.


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