Do the people see SJB as a credible alternative to the government?
The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) celebrated its first anniversary recently. The event was marked with a rally in Colombo, but it was nothing in comparison to the ‘Mahinda Sulanga’ rally that heralded the formation of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
This begs the question: Is the SJB the natural successor to the United National Party (UNP) or is it the UNP in everything but name? The answer to the first question is probably ‘yes’ but the answer to the second question is still ‘no, it is not.
The more important question though is whether Sri Lankans, having experienced the Presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a Parliament with a virtual two-thirds majority for the SLPP, see the SJB as an alternative government? The answer to that question is also still not a convincing ‘yes’ but possibly a very tentative ‘maybe’.
For all intents and purposes, the UNP is dead, politically. It is just that Ranil Wickremesinghe is refusing to sign its Death Certificate so that the funeral can be conducted. Its only chance of resurrection is by merging with the SJB.
That is not beyond the realms of possibility but for that to occur Wickremesinghe must abdicate his decrepit throne of UNP leadership and handover the baton to a successor who would then have to be generous enough to make way for Sajith Premadasa to return to the fold and take over the mantle of UNP leadership.
This type of political transaction is not unheard of, especially in the UNP. Ironically, it was Sajith Premadasa’s late father who precipitated it. That was when the next tier of the UNP’s then leadership, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake left the UNP to form the Democratic United National Front.
After the assassinations of Athulathmudali and Premadasa within a week of each other, D. B. Wijetunge took over the reins of the party and ensured the return of Gamini Dissanayake. Dissanayake was installed as Opposition Leader- following a vote in which he defeated Ranil Wickremesinghe- and then, its presidential candidate.
Had Dissanayake too not been brutally assassinated while campaigning for the presidential election, he would have surely taken over the UNP leadership after Wijetunge’s retirement. History, in a most mysterious way, is repeating itself a generation later: this time, Dissanayake’s son Navin is still in the UNP but it is Premadasa’s son Sajith who has left the party!
Nevertheless, any future amalgamation between the UNP and the SJB can only happen if it is on terms agreed to by the SJB. That is because the SJB is the stronger party now and the UNP is nowhere near a position of being able to dictate terms. If conditions are to be imposed by the SJB, that would then surely be that Sajith Premadasa would be the leader of any ‘alliance’ between the two parties.
However, even if the UNP and the SJB do come together that is still a far cry from defeating the SLPP and forming a government. The average Sri Lankan voter is now happy to see the SJB as the major opposition party in the country, but they do not still envision the SJB as the party governing them next, despite all the mayhem generated by the SLPP and the Rajapaksa regime.
Why the SJB must ask itself. What is lacking among its policies and politicians that doesn’t make it an automatic choice for the voter disgruntled with the Rajapaksa government?
Consider the voting patterns of the presidential election in November 2019 and the voting at the subsequent general election in August last year. They make an interesting comparison.
In 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa polled 6.9 million votes. In 2020, the SLPP polled 6.85 million votes. In 2019, Sajith Premadasa, as the UNP candidate, polled 5.5 million votes. In 2020, the SJB polled 2.7 million votes, just half of the votes polled by Premadasa. The UNP itself polled less than 250,000 votes.
This is not an absolutely accurate comparison because, for example, those who vote for the Tamil National Alliance would have voted for Premadasa at the presidential election but the fact remains that nearly half who voted for Premadasa didn’t vote for the SJB. Therefore, the party has to enhance its standing in the eyes of the public if it is to make a dent in the tidal wave of support that is whipped up by the Rajapaksas’ propaganda machine.
For now, at least, the SJB needs to come up with a coherent set of rational and pragmatic policies that will appeal to the voter. They also need to be more robust in countering the SLPP within Parliament. A protest here and a protest there may get you the sound bites for the night time news but that does not necessarily make a lasting impact on the voter.
To its advantage, the SJB does have a mix of talented and experienced politicians in its midst. We daresay that they are less tainted with allegations of corruption than their counterparts in the SLPP. On paper at least, person for person, they have individuals with better credentials than those in the SLPP. That does not necessarily mean this will translate into more votes than the SLPP.
For that to occur, the SJB needs to decide what segments of the population have been alienated by the now-defunct UNP and look at strategies at wooing and winning them. That is no easy task. It will also need to analyse the demographics of each region and work out how best they can maximise their votes in that area- because some electorates, such as those in the deep South- have now become domains of the SLPP through years of domination by the Rajapaksas and concurrent neglect by the UNP.
The one mistake that the SJB should not be making is to assume that the electorate will be so disgusted with the Rajapaksas by 2024 that they will vote for Premadasa and the SJB by that time. Also, while the SJB should believe that it can emulate the SLPP by being a new party that captures the power, Premadasa must surely know that he still doesn’t have the stature and charisma of Mahinda Rajapaksa which was the driving force behind the SLPP’s victory.
The moral of the story is that, without appealing policies and a show of consistency and leadership over the next three years, the voter may prefer the known devil to the unknown angel.