Jumbos in mire, Bud in overdrive
The UNP has reverted to the situation it was in prior to the 2015 regime change; it is faction ridden and in total disarray with the Sajith and Ranil faction fighting an internecine battle, which is sure to weaken the Grand Old Party further. At attempt to bring about rapprochement between the two warring groups failed, on Tuesday (26), as defeated DNF presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa said he would not be able to attend a meeting to be held at Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s private residence with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe participating. Jayasuriya, who is in an embarrassing position over the appointment of the Opposition Leader, sought to arrive at a negotiated settlement, but Sajith claimed he was indisposed. He has recognised Ranil as the Opposition Leader much to the consternation of the Sajith group. Never the twain shall meet. The UNP’s internal crisis is likely to ruin its chances of bettering its performance at the upcoming parliamentary election.
Sajith’s struggle to secure the presidential candidacy was reminiscent of his late father Ranasinghe Premadasa’s. In the late 1980s, when the country was caught in a nutcracker of terror with the LTTE carrying out attacks in the North and the East and the JVP unleashing terror in the South, Premadasa senior came forward as the UNP’s presidential candidate. He had made a name for himself as a man of the people and was widely seen as being different from the elitist UNP leadership in most respects. He had fought quite a battle to secure the presidential candidacy as there were other contenders including Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake; they came from elitist family and social backgrounds. The J. R. Jayewardene regime had become so unpopular towards the late 1980s that Premadasa’s entry into the presidential fray infused the electorate with hope and the battered party with vitality. The peopled thought it was a new dawn. Hope is said to spring eternal. However, he polled only 50.4% of the votes, and the JVP’s spree of violence created a situation where the ruling UNP could resort to election malpractices including the stuffing of ballot boxes in many areas. SLFP presidential candidate, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was at a distinct disadvantage, given the prevailing law of the jungle.
Premadasa senior succeeded in electoral politics mainly because he had proved himself as a national leader, having functioned as the Prime Minister and launched several mega projects. He also craftily projected himself as an alternative to the UNP leadership while being a part of it. This, he did by striking discordant notes with the party on certain key issues such as the Indian intervention. He was careful not to alienate the majority community, especially Buddhists, while maintaining healthy relations with the minorities. He remained the darling of the business community while retaining his appeal to the grassroots. He thought of everything in terms of elections and launched several projects to woo the ordinary public such as Janasaviya to alleviate poverty, Gam Udawa to provide shelter to the needy and the presidential mobile service to take state administration to villages. He ensured that all that he did received enough and more publicity, which he knew was the key in politics. Here is a story to prove that point:
Former UNP MP Hudson Samarasinghe, while he was the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, during a programme, revealed how the late President Premadasa had guided him in politics. He said the President had once asked him to do some social work and he had done as told. A few days later, the President asked him whether he had finished the work and he answered in the affirmative, but the former was not happy and said: “Hudson, when you do something make sure that the people know what you have done. Do you know why the tills in shrine rooms of temples are made of copper?” When Hudson answered in the negative and inquired why, the late President said: “You see, when you put a coin into the till the sound it makes reverberates around the room and you attract everyone’s attention.” Such was the late President’s political acumen!
The late President Premadasa also acted as an ombudsman by making himself available to the people at Sucharitha early in the morning and ensuring that all his orders were carried out. The result orientation of his approach to problem solving helped him endear himself to the masses.
Sajith tried to emulate his father but did not succeed in his endeavour. He also got publicity for his work and made numerous promises but he was not a patch on his father, a political heavyweight, who outfoxed even the Old Fox.
Sajith built houses for the poor and promised to be a servant of the people, but unfortunately for him, he did not sound convincing enough to inspire trust in the people to the extent of being able to outdo his rival Gotabaya Rajapaksa. His attempt to get even with the Rajapaksas, who were campaigning on a national security platform, by offering to appoint former army commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as the Minister of Defence in case of his victory, did not yield the desired result.
When Sajith’s father came forward to contest the presidential election in 1988, the people knew there would be a hiatus in the UNP administration as the incumbent two-term President J. R. Jayewardene was to retire. But in the case of Sajith, the people knew the same UNP government would continue with Wickremesinghe as the PM if he won. The full effect of the 19th Amendment, which reduced the powers of the President and strengthened the position of the PM, was to kick in, after the presidential election; the transitional provisions introduced for the benefit of President Maithripala Sirisena were coming to an end with his term. Wickremesinghe kept on saying that he would be the PM of a government to be formed by Sajith as the President. Having voted against the UNP overwhelmingly at the local government election in 2018 because PM Wickremesinghe’s government had become highly unpopular, and they did not want the same administration to continue after the presidential election. Thus, Ranil became a huge liability for Sajith. The Opposition succeeded in having the electorate believe that a vote for Sajith would be a vote for Ranil. But for the SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa it was the other way around; former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was eyeing the premiership, was a vote puller and many people must have voted for Gotabaya because they wanted Mahinda to be the PM.
Jumbos cook their goose
The UNF government cooked its goose the day it committed the first Treasury bond scam in February 2015. Without stopping at that it re-cooked its goose the following year, when it carried out the second bond racket. It has not yet recovered from the fallout of those financial crimes, which its leaders went all out to cover up, but in vain. All those who were associated with the bond scams were seen with Sajith on the same stage on the day of his inaugural campaign rally at Galle Face on 10 Oct.
The new government is sure to order a fresh probe into the bond scams. Former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal fired the first salvo last Thursday; in an article published in The Island newspaper, he challenged the credibility and impartiality of the presidential commission of inquiry which probed the bond scams. The new government is apparently planning to flog several issues to gain some more political mileage in time for the next parliamentary election, and one of them is the bond scams.
Sajith’s associates also antagonized the majority communities unnecessarily. They apparently thought in the southern electorates, the people would vote for the UNP anyway and they had to concentrate more on other areas. Some of them went to the extent of confronting Buddhist monks, who threw their weight behind Gotabaya.
What became the UNF government’s undoing was its response to the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. It failed to act decisively and was seen to be shielding the politicians associated with the terror outfit responsible for the carnage. The UNF leaders drew opprobrious remarks from the Catholic Church. None other than Bishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith tore into the government for having failed to protect the public and expressed his displeasure at the way investigations were being conducted into the terror attacks, which left more than 250 people dead and over 500 others injured.
The Easter Sunday attacks made national security the most important of all issues flogged during the election campaign. The UNF government failed to convince the majority of voters that it was capable of ensuring national security and public safety.
Gotabaya without saataka
Gotabaya Rajapaksa read the public mood accurately. He knew the Rajapaksa family remained popular but he had to woo others who were not well disposed towards his clan if he was to win the presidential election. He built his image as an independent leader while benefiting from the popularity of his family, especially his elder brother, Mahinda. In so doing, he apparently found the saataka, the trademark of his clan, an encumbrance of sorts, which he could do without. He did not wear either the national dress or saataka and, instead, he continued to be in his usual attire. He, thereby, sent a message to the electorate that he dared to be different from his family where necessary, and succeeded in winning over the voters, especially the enlightened sections of the middle class, who were averse to the Medamulana-centric, dynastic politics.
Gotabaya projected himself as a mature technocrat who meant business. Never did he utter a single word about his main rival and articulated his views. He is not a gifted orator and, paradoxically, this limitation was to his advantage. Politicians blessed with glib tongues tend to talk to the point of queasiness and bore their audiences in the process.
Gotabaya weighed each of his words and spoke in a measured tone without repeating himself at propaganda rallies. This went down well with the public, especially the educated sections of society, fed up with the run-of-the-mill politicking.
The 16 Nov. election result was similar, in most respects, to that of the 2010 presidential contest, which the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa won against NDF candidate Sarath Fonseka, who fared extremely well in the North and the East with the help of the TNA and the SLMC, but failed in other areas. Mahinda’s defeat in 2015 was due to two main reasons. His government had become unpopular owing to corruption and the arrogance of power among other things. Second, he failed to poll enough votes in the southern electorates to compensate for his loss with a huge margin in the North and the East.
Gotabaya worked on the mistakes his brother’s government had made and adopted several measures to shore up the image of the SLPP consisting of SLFP dissidents. While benefiting from his brother Mahinda’s popularity, he opted for a different approach and surrounded himself with professionals and intellectuals instead of politicians and moneybags with a dubious reputation. That way he increased his votes in the electorates his brother had won but not with huge majorities while wining the electorates the latter had lost. He also won some of the electorates his brother had lost in 2015. Mahinda bagged electorates with huge majorities. Some of them were Homagama (majority: 66,000) Kesbewa (majority: 62,000) and Kaduwela (majority; 57,000). At the 2015 presidential election, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa won those electorates but the majorities were not so impressive—Homagama: 14,000, Kesbewa: 13,000 and Kaduwela: 2,000.
When election results were released in dribs and drabs early in the morning on 17 November, at one point Sajith was leading with more than 50% of votes thanks to the TNA, which delivered its block vote to him, in the North and the East. Strangely, it was the results from the electorates in the North and the East that came in first much to the dismay of the SLPP supporters. But a couple of hours later results from the other areas began to pour in and Gotabaya’s percentage rose steadily before settling at 52.25.
The UNP’s dilemma
The UNP is bound to face another polls debacle come the next parliamentary election unless it sorts out its internal problems soon. The caretaker government of President Rajapaksa has announced substantial relief package for the public. Taxes have been slashed and some more relief is believed to be in the pipeline. It will be an uphill task for the UNP to regain lost ground within the next few months while its leaders are fighting among themselves.
This time around, it won’t be easy for UNP leader Wickremesinghe to stay put. A story is being floated that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya will be appointed the interim leader of the UNP until it puts its intraparty crisis behind it. Such haphazard methods are not likely to work and the time has come for the UNP to solve its leadership crisis once and for all. It looks as if the Grand Old Party had to hold an internal election with the participation of its Working Committee members and the parliamentary group to elect its leader. That was the method the late President JRJ adopted when he was faced with the question of selecting his Prime Minister. Sajith’s father won and became the PM. But in the case of Wickremesinghe, an election is a huge political gamble. Whoever wins the ongoing leadership battle, the rift in the UNP will widen, with the losing side trying to ruin things for the other.