That will, sadly, be Ranil Wickremesinghe’s footnote in history.
Everything, Lord Buddha said, is impermanent. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s wasn’t around at that time as the leader of the United National Party (UNP).
Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka more than anyone else, five times to be precise, but never President, continues to be leader of the UNP, once the most dominant party in the country but now reduced to ruins under his leadership. Even so, he is not quitting.
It is not for nothing that the UNP was known as the Uncle Nephew Party. Wickremesinghe’s uncle was J.R. Jayewardene who introduced a shy and awkward 25-year old as the organiser for the newly carved out Biyagama electorate. Wickremesinghe waltzed into Parliament with a resounding majority in the 1977 UNP landslide.
For the next seventeen years, while J.R. Jayewardene changed Constitutions, became Executive President, disenfranchised Sirima Bandaranaike, postponed general elections and held a referendum before finally passing on the baton to Ranasinghe Premadasa, Wickremesinghe remained in government, finally landing the plum job of Prime Minister by default following the assassinations of Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali and by virtue of Gamini Dissanayake not being in the UNP at that time.
When Dissanayake returned to his rightful place in the UNP under D. B. Wijetunge’s Presidency, Wickremesinghe was ousted, both as Leader of the Opposition and presidential candidate, the former by a secret ballot. Unfortunately for Dissanayake, the candidacy was a poisoned chalice- he was assassinated a few weeks later and Wickremesinghe returned to lead the UNP after Wijetunge’s retirement. That was, believe it or not, almost twenty seven years ago.
Wickremesinghe’s achievements are no mean feat: he contested the presidential elections twice, in 1999 and in 2005 and lost to Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. To be fair, on both occasions, he could consider himself unlucky. Kumaratunga was wounded in a bomb attack just before the poll, swinging the sympathy vote towards her. Velupillai Prabhakaran prevented some 700,000 voters from voting in the North and East when Wickremesinghe lost to Rajapaksa by 180,000 votes.
Since then, Wickremesinghe has not contested a presidential election despite being UNP leader, ‘outsourcing’ the task to Sarath Fonseka, Maithripala Sirisena and, in 2019, at the eleventh hour to Sajith Premadasa after a desperate attempt to be nominated against Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Not co-incidentally, the UNP has not won a presidential poll for the last thirty-two years and six elections!
When Wickremesinghe entered Parliament in 1977, the UNP was at its zenith, winning a five-sixths majority, or 140 out of 168 seats. Under Wickremesinghe the UNP (or alliances led by the UNP) secured 89 seats in 2000, 109 seats in 2001 (when it formed a government), 82 seats in 2004, 60 seats in 2010, 106 seats in 2015 and just the solitary National List seat in 2020- for which a parliamentarian is yet to be nominated.
By 2020, the UNP has disintegrated into smithereens. Sajith Premadasa, the obvious heir apparent, sick and tired of being marginalised by Wickremesinghe, formed the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and hardly a couple of months after being recognised, managed to win a decent 54 seats.
The UNP, which secured 37 per cent of the vote at the 2010 general election even in the aftermath of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s war victory in 2009 and then enhanced that percentage to 46 per cent to win the 2015 general election, plummeted to just 2 per cent in 2020, polling less than 250,000 votes in the entire country, less than even the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. The UNP-by-proxy infant in the political arena, the SJB, polled 23 per cent, a clear indication that the ‘hard-core’ UNP voter has abandoned Wickremesinghe and switched allegiance to Premadasa.
All that is left of the Grand Old party now are the buildings at ‘Sirikotha’ and a few hangers on such as Ravi Karunanayake, forever tainted with the Central Bank bond scam, and political failures such as Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Vajira Abeywardena. Ruwan Wijewardene is the nominal ‘deputy leader’ but he must surely be wondering who or what he is indeed leading or whether it is he who is being led up the garden path.
Soon after the general election results were announced, there was speculation that Wickremesinghe would resign forthwith, paving the way for a successor to take over. Navin Dissanayake made some public statements that he would put his hat in the ring. That never happened and the official explanation is that Wickremesinghe would stay on until the New Year to ensure a ‘smooth transition’ of the leadership.
The New Year dawned and surprise, surprise, there was yet another announcement: Wickremesinghe would stay on for a further six months. This time, the explanation was that it is to ensure that the party was ‘restructured and reorganised’. Accordingly a new set of officials- the same ‘yes men’ holding different titles- have been appointed. After this latest exercise in procrastination, even Navin Dissanayake and Arjuna Ranatunga have distanced themselves from the UNP.
Where to from here, not for Wickremesinghe, not for the UNP, but for the political opposition? The SJB, the single largest party in the opposition has an unenviable role to play. It has to grow up quickly-by 2024, when the next presidential elections are due- and become the UNP reincarnate. Premadasa has a massive challenge ahead of him, having to confront the might of the Rajapaksas and their now well-oiled propaganda machine.
Had Wickremesinghe left the UNP soon after the 2020 debacle, history may have been kind to him despite all his failings as a Prime Minister. He did not. By lingering on like a bad smell, he has polluted Sri Lanka’s democratic environment by presiding over the destruction of the UNP, thereby providing an alibi for the Rajapaksa regime to create mayhem, without being held accountable.
It is ironical that Sri Lanka’s Constitution can be changed- and is indeed amended quite frequently- but the UNP’s Constitution which allows one man to run the party to ruin cannot be changed. Unfortunately for the UNP, what D.S. Senanayake fathered, what the likes of John Kotelawela and Dudley Senanayake nurtured, what J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa strengthened has been killed off by Ranil Wickremesinghe.
That will, sadly, be Ranil Wickremesinghe’s footnote in history.