The warring factions of the UNP are said to have agreed to contest the upcoming general election under the Swan symbol of the New Democratic Front (NDF) as the party leadership is determined not to allow the new alliance to use the Elephant symbol. If the Ranil faction does not change its position within the next few days, the UNP will have to contest a parliamentary election under a different symbol—most probably Swan—for the first time since its inception in 1946.
UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who is loyal to the party leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has gone on record as saying that the UNP cannot contest a general election under any symbol other than the Elephant. If so, the question is what the UNP will do if the UNP-led alliance under Sajith’s leadership chooses to use the Swan symbol.
Electoral alliances have contested parliamentary polls under different symbols, in the past. The SLFP-led coalition has used the Chair and the Betel Leaf as their symbols. But none of the coalitions have adopted the symbols of either the SLFP (Hand) or the UNP (Elephant).
Pseudo alliances: TNA and UNF
Unless the Jathika Samagi Jana Balavegaya (JSJB), led by Sajith, gets a separate symbol of its own — Heart or Swan (with the consent of the NDF) or anything else to be determined by the Election Commission— it won’t be a legally recognised alliance. The UNP cannot give its symbol, the Elephant, to the JSJB and get it back. The same will happen to the NDF if it allows the newly JSBP to use its Swan symbol at the upcoming parliamentary election; the Swan will cease to be the NDF symbol. Hence the reluctance on the part of the NDF office bearers, to let the JSJB use their symbol.
The JSJB is now left with three options as regards the symbol. It can settle for a symbol to be given by the EC or contest under the Elephant symbol or the Swan symbol. Unless the UNP or the NDF donates its symbol to the newly formed alliance and loses it in the process, Sajith will be leading a pseudo electoral alliance such as the United National Front (UNF), which contested under the UNP’s Elephant symbol and the Tamil National Alliance, which contested under the House symbol of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachdi (ITAK). Those who came under the UNF banner were elected as UNP MPs and their TNA counterparts as ITAK MPs.
This is seen in the official results of the 2015 general election published on the Parliament website:
One can see that there is no reference to either the UNF or the TNA.
If Premadasa’s JSBJ contests under the Swan symbol without the NDF giving it up, its MPs to be elected will be at the mercy of the NDF office bearers. Worse, if it ever decides to contest under the Elephant symbol, its MPs will be under UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe! It is doubtful whether the diehard UNPers will ever want to be under the NDF leaders after being elected MPs. If push comes to shove, they will agree to contest under the Elephant symbol in spite of their dislike for Ranil while being members of the JSBJ. Sajith and his loyalists will be back to square one in such an eventuality. This may be Ranil’s battle plan.
Disputing his rivals’ claim that he was responsible for the UNP-led alliance’s loss at the last presidential election, Ranil has said that Sajith was not leading in any of the pre-polls surveys. He left it unsaid that Sajith’s loss had come as no surprise. In 2010, Ranil let Sarath Fonseka run for President as he knew Mahinda Rajapaksa was ahead of the race. Fonseka lost. In 2015, he agreed to field Maithripala Sirisena as the presidential candidate because it was popularly thought Mahinda would secure a third term. Sirisena, who was expected to lose, turned out to be a dark horse.
The odds are stacked against the UNP as for the upcoming parliamentary election, and that may be the reason why Ranil has allowed Sajith to lead the UNP-led alliance. Sajith will cease to be the Opposition Leader when Parliament is dissolved, but Ranil will continue to lead the UNP. If the former fails to steer his alliance to victory he may not get the post of the Opposition Leader again.
Sajith is in this predicament because he doesn’t fight any of his battles to a finish and opts for reconciliation and Ranil always has the last laugh. His modus operandi is in sharp contrast to his late father’s. When Ranasinghe Premadasa crossed swords with someone he ensured that the latter was vanquished well and truly. He took on Ranil’s Uncle, President J. R. Jayewardene, or the Old Fox, as he was popularly known, and succeeded in being nominated to run for president in 1988. He also did not relent in fighting a bitter intraparty war with political heavyweights such as Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake and ousted them from the UNP.
The SLPP, the SLFP and their allies have banded themselves together as the Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Sandanaya (SLNPS), and decided to contest under the SLPP’s Lotus Bud symbol. Thus it, too, is a pseudo electoral alliance and its MPs to be elected will be at the mercy of the SLPP, which is controlled by the Rajapaksa family. Ironically, former President Sirisena has done to the SLFP, as its leader, what he did to that party, as its General Secretary, in 2014. He defected from the SLFP to win the presidency with the help of the UNP, the TNA, the JVP, etc., in 2015, took over its leadership and ruined the chances of the SLFP-led UPFA winning the last general election to prevent the Rajapaksas from making a comeback. Now, he has, as the SLFP leader, agreed to contest under the SLPP symbol. If he is elected at the upcoming parliamentary election, he will be an SLPP MP! What will happen to the SLFP, some of whose seniors are also said to be planning to join the SLPP?
The SLFP is likely to end up being an empty shell after the next parliamentary election. But it will be far from dead. Sirisena and other SLFP seniors may be able to retain control of that party even as SLPP MPs because PM Rajapaksa is not likely to make an issue of it. But it is only wishful thinking that the SLFP will be able to bounce back in the foreseeable future. In such a situation, how the SLFP stalwarts who have resisted the SLPP-SLFP tie-up will react, remains to be seen. The likes of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Kumar Welgama are likely to rebel against Sirisena and his loyalists and try to wrest control of the SLFP
Sirisena, after being elected the President went all out to destroy the Rajapaksa family politically. His government had some of them arrested and prosecuted. Retaliation became the sole purpose of being for the Rajapaksas. In 2018, President Sirisena revealed that he had offered the premiership twice to Sajith before ousting Ranil and appointing Mahinda to that post. Subsequently, UNP MP Range Bandara disclosed that President Sirisena had tried to make UNP Ranjith Maddumabandara the PM after Sajith had rejected that position, but that plan had gone awry. Thus, Sirisena appointed Mahinda PM for want of a better alternative with a view to having himself nominated the common presidential candidate. Finally, Sirisena and the Rajapaksas have come together. Political expediency also makes strange bedfellows. They have proved that there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends in politics; there are only permanent interests.