UNP: Still no light at end of tunnel | Daily News

UNP: Still no light at end of tunnel

UNP Leader Ranil  Wickremesinghe and former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya
UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya

Arguably the worst casualty of the recently concluded General Election was the United National Party (UNP) which formed the previous Government led by then President Maithripala Sirisena but was reduced to one seat at the August 5 poll, signifying serious questions about the future of the party.

The UNP is the second oldest political party in the country formed in 1946 by D.S. Senanayake. Only the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP), formed in 1935 is older but that too has declined in its strength significantly. Unlike the LSSP, the UNP has been in Government for more than 30 years.

It was not the UNP’s defeat at the August 5 election that took many by surprise, it was the scale of that rout that raised eyebrows. It was reduced to just one seat and that too from the National List, a vacancy the party has struggled to fill in what is again a reflection of the factionalism within the UNP.

In comparison, the UNP’s offshoot, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), won 54 seats. Hardly a few months old and born in the tumultuous times of the Covid-19 pandemic where taking a new political party to the people is difficult, the SJB is led by Sajith Premadasa, formerly the UNP’s deputy leader.

The SJB’s achievement is by no means a victory. However, an analysis of the results indicates that the UNP’s traditional vote base has transferred en masse to the SJB. For example, all the electorates in the Colombo city limits, the ‘last bastion’ of the UNP, was retained in total by the SJB at this election.

The question now is, where to from here for the UNP? Whether it likes it or not, the SJB, because of its performance at the election is now clearly the largest opposition political party in the country. Therefore, does the ‘old’ UNP invite the SJB ‘rebels’ back to its fold or try to go it alone?

The former would be the most rational political option. Those in the SJB are, after all, politicians who have been born and bred in UNP traditions and have left the party only because of the intransigence of party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, recent developments indicate this is not the case. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Wickremesinghe, through a statement issued by UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, said he would step down. Kariyawasam would not have made announcement to the media unless he had explicit instructions from Wickremesinghe to do so.

In that announcement, Kariyawasam also named three possible leadership contenders: himself, Ravi Karunanayake and Vajira Abeywardena. That list has now grown to include Navin Dissanayake, Ruwan Wijewardene, Arjuna Ranatunga and even Palitha Range Bandara. No one has opted out yet.

With so many aspirants in the fray, there has been no clear frontrunner. If one expected Ravi Karunanayake, who holds the inconsequential title of ‘assistant leader’ to be a clear favourite, that is not the case: there is a section within the mainstream UNP that is resisting his leadership ambitions.

This is not without reason. Karunanayake is implicated in the Central Bank Bonds scandal where investigations and legal proceedings are underway. Many in the UNP believe that a major reason for the party’s recent downfall was the notoriety it gained from the Central Bank bond scam.

Therefore, to now put the person at the centre of that controversy in charge of the party would be to commit political suicide, they feel. The Government would have a field day bashing the UNP and the party would have irreversible consequences if Karunanayake is prosecuted for his alleged role in the scam.

Among the others, the UNP’s National Organiser Navin Dissanayake did announce himself as a potential leader of the UNP but that was prior to the General Election. Dissanayake is the son of former Mahaweli Minister Gamini Dissanayake and son-in-law of former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

Since then, Dissanayake has kept a low profile, playing his cards close to his chest. It is also noteworthy that Dissanayake’s younger brother Mayantha Dissanayake has aligned himself with the SJB. The younger Dissanayake was given a National List slot in Parliament by the SJB leadership.

Ruwan Wijewardene is considered a contender by some but he has limited himself to saying that he would consider the possibility if the party wishes him to do so. Wijewardene is the son of newspaper magnate Ranjith Wijewardene and is also the cousin of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Wijewardene did not maintain a high profile in the UNP. He also came in for some flak as he was the State Minister for Defence in the previous Government when the Easter attacks occurred and has had to answer summons and queries from the many inquiries that have been conducted in to the attacks.

Among the other aspirants, Vajira Abeywardena and Palitha Range Bandara are not considered serious contenders for the leadership. Arjuna Ranatunga does have potential but his political credentials have consistently not been spectacular, in comparison to his cricketing achievements.

As the UNP was mulling these options, there were other party loyalists trying to persuade former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to consider taking up the party leadership. Jayasuriya, who will turn 80 next month, did not contest the recent elections and had expressed his intention of retiring from politics.

With the question of the UNP leadership unresolved, Wickremesinghe had also not resigned ostensibly because he wanted to ensure a smooth transition of the leadership before stepping down formally. In such a context, Karu Jayasuriya was being proposed by some as an ‘interim’ leader.

The first indications of Jayasuriya’s bid for leadership came in the form of a statement issued by him. It noted that he entered politics at the invitation of Ranil Wickremesinghe in 1994 and outlined the various contributions made by him including his role at the 2014 Uva Provincial Council election.

In his statement Jayasuriya states that, given the current state of confusion in the UNP and giving careful consideration to requests made to him by many persons, he was stating his ability to take on the challenge of leading the UNP for the betterment of the party and the country.

Jayasuriya played a stellar role during the 2018 Constitutional crisis as the Speaker and the decisions he took were later vindicated by the Courts of Law. However, considering that he would be 85 at the time of the next election, his role would necessarily have to be as an interim leader.

It was against such a backdrop that the UNP’s highest decision-making body, the Working Committee met on Tuesday. There was some expectation that a final decision regarding the party leadership would be made at this meeting. However, that was not to be and the meeting ended inconclusively.

It is clear that the UNP is still reeling from the aftershocks of the stunning defeat it suffered at the August 5 General Election. For it to have any chance of reinventing itself, Ranil Wickremesinghe should have resigned forthwith and a vote should have been taken to elect a new party leader.

Instead, Wickremesinghe has resorted to his usual tactic of prevarication, so much so that some are now whispering their misgivings and questioning as to whether the delay in electing a new leader was yet another ploy by the former Prime Minister to lead the party until the Provincial Council polls.

The Government had previously indicated that, after winning the General Election, it would proceed to hold the Provincial Council Elections- which have been postponed many times- without delay. Now however, with Constitutional amendments on the cards, this may not materialise soon.

However, if the UNP expects to reinvigorate itself and come up with a creditable performance at the PC Polls, they are out of touch with the political realities of the day. A provincial council election held now will only confirm- for a second time- the dire straits the UNP is in.

The tragedy for the UNP is that the factional infighting and leadership ambitions of the potential successors to Ranil Wickremesinghe are leading the party further into destruction mode. Therefore, the most viable political option - mending fences with the SJB - is not even being considered.

There had been some informal discussion between sections of the UNP and the SJB about reuniting. However, it was reported that Wickremesinghe had indicated that any such move should have the blessings of the leadership aspirants in the UNP- a condition that was met with disbelief and scorn.

Indeed, if there was to be a unification between the UNP and the SJB, it would have to be on terms dictated by the SJB- which commands 54 seats in Parliament- and not on terms suggested by the UNP which has been stripped of its popular base. This demand by Wickremesinghe was quickly dismissed.

Thus, the end of the road seems near for what was once the Grand Old Party of Sri Lankan politics. It is a sad end for a party that was instrumental in winning Independence for the country and for a party that ushered in significant economical and constitutional reforms. Now though, its days are numbered.