Leader of the UNP Ranil Wickremasinghe and leader of the SJB Sajith Premadasa have been fighting to lead the UNP for some time now. Will they soon be fighting each other for post of Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition?

The constitutionally stipulated timeframe for finalising amendments to party constitutions, changing symbols and submitting them for the Election Commission (EC) approval came to an end, at midnight, on Monday. The Samagi Bala Janavegana (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa has been compelled to adopt the telephone as its symbol because it failed to secure the New Democratic Front’s Swan or the UNP’s Elephant.

There is still some room for the SJB and the UNP to contest under the Elephant symbol if their leaders iron out their differences before submitting their nominations. The chances of the two factions of the UNP agreeing to this kind of arrangement, however, are bleak in that the SJB leaders will be at the mercy of the UNP leadership if they contest under the Elephant symbol; the MPs to be elected will belong to the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe who calls the shots in the UNP.

That Sajith would not be able to the secure the Swan symbol was a foregone conclusion. Sharmila Perera of the NDF and Sajith’s bete noire, Ravi Karunanayake, are friends; both of them worked for the late Lalith Athulathmudali together. Ravi, who wields tremendous influence on the NDF, stands accused of having tried to leverage the Swan symbol to make the SJB agree to his dictates. Sajith and his lieutenants were not ready to accept those terms and decided to forego the Swan symbol.

Sajith does a Mahinda  

So, Sajith has done a Mahinda Rajapaksa. The latter, having fallen out with the SLFP leader, Maithripala Sirisena, who went all out to foil his attempts to make a comeback, formed the SLPP. Sajith has founded the SJB, which is not a loose alliance of political parties, as such; it has the characteristics of a political party.

Sajith has done what his late father Ranasinghe Premadasa was mulling over as the Prime Minister in the JRJ government. There were at least four aspirants to the much-coveted presidency in the UNP in the late 1980s.  Among them were Premadasa, Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. (One may add Ronnie de Mel also to this list.) Premadasa was determined to contest the 1988 presidential election. Popular among the rank and file of the UNP, he had his Plan B ready because he did not trust JRJ, who had a soft corner for the elite. If he had been denied the UNP ticket to run for President, he would have considered confronting JRJ or forming a new political party to achieve his ambition. But he did not have to resort to such extreme action; the UNP leadership gave in and nominated him to contest the presidential election. The rest is history.

Having failed to tame the UNP leadership the way his father did, Sajith has had to put his Plan B into action.

SJB: Electoral Alliance or political party?

The SJB insists that its formation was approved by the UNP’s Working Committee (WC) and, therefore, there is no legal barrier for any UNPer to join it. But the Ranil faction argues that his rivals have bought over a political part instead of forming an electoral alliance. It maintains that the UNP WC granted permission for forming a coalition, and not a political party. It has thus sought to call the legality and legitimacy of the SJB into question in a bid to discourage UNPers from joining it. This argument, however, is not without some merit in that the SJB is now a separate political entity independent of the UNP for all practical purposes.

There have been quasi electoral alliances such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the United National Front (UNF), as we pointed out in a recent column. The TNA contested on the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) ticket and the UNF on the UNP ticket. The TNA and the UNF were not represented in Parliament. But the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (1994 t0 2004), which later became to United People’s Freedom Front and contested elections from 2004 to 2020 were  a recognised electoral alliance which had representation in Parliament. Constituents of those alliances were independent of the SLFP. The PA had the Chair as its symbol and the UPFA the betel leaf.

If the SJB and the UNP contest the upcoming general election separately, they will be represented in Parliament as two separate political parties. The SJB insists that its members are UNPers! The members of one party cannot hold membership of another technically!

If the SLPP manages to form the next government, there will be a wrangle between the SJB and the UNP for the post of the Opposition Leader. If the SJB and the UNP as well as its allies like the TNA/ITAK secure more seats than the SLPP and decide to form a government, then there will be a fight between the SJB and the UNP for the post of the Prime Minister and ministerial positions. They may be able to forestall such a situation if they enter into a pre-election MoU.

UNP’s split and its impact on polls

Ironically, the Telephone symbol of the SJB reminds the electorate of the telephone recording controversy the UNP got embroiled in because of former State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake, whose audio clips landed several prominent persons, including judges, a Solicitor General, female politicians and artistes in trouble.  That controversy died down following the COVID-19 outbreak, which has overshadowed even international issues.

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who is with the SJB is confident that their symbol will be easily recognised by the voters.
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who is with the SJB is confident that their symbol will be easily recognised by the voters.

The UNP’s split will become permanent in case the SJB and the UNP contest the forthcoming general election separately. It will place both factions of the UNP at a disadvantage as the pro-UNP vote will be divided. The SLPP will stand to gain from the UNP’s trouble.

The SLPP is planning to secure a two-thirds majority (at least 150 seats) in Parliament. This is an extremely ambitious target, which not even the SLFP led by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa could achieve in spite of its war victory, at the 2010 general election. He had to engineer crossovers from the UNP to achieve his goal. The UPFA led by him obtained only 144 seats. The SLPP is experiencing problems, which will cost it votes. The cost of living remains high and the SLPP has not been able to fulfill any of its key election pledges.

But the faction-ridden UNP won’t be able to carry out a frontal attack on the SLPP. The UNP and the SJB are likely to take on each other instead of confronting the SLPP. Their clashes will leave the UNP voters in a quandary. UNP supporters are known for their keenness to vote, but whether apathy will set in among them due to the split in their party remains to be seen.

Telephone and coconut husk

Will the SJB be able to make its Telephone symbol to the voting public within the next few weeks? This is the question being asked in political circles. This, in our opinion, won’t be a problem, given Sri Lankans’ keen interest in politics and the reach of the media, both mainstream and social. The Telephone symbol must already be known to each and every Sri Lankan voter by now.

Former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka speaking to the media, on Tuesday, gave the best answer to the aforesaid question. Asked by the media whether the SJB had enough time to make its symbol known to the public, he said even if they adopted the coconut husk (pol lella) as their symbol, there would be no problem.


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