Sirikotha, the UNP headquarters.

A firestorm of protest erupted in August 2019 following the publication of some pictures of an emaciated elephant brought to Kandy to take part in the Dalada perahera. The protests yielded the desired results; the animal, Tikiri, was withdrawn from the procession. Undernourished and ill-treated, Tikiri was a bag of bones, and veterinarians were surprised that the animal had lived that long; the poor creature breathed its last two months later. What has befallen the United National Party (UNP), which takes pride in having the elephant as its symbol, brings back memories of that unfortunate elephant aged 70. The UNP is far from dead, but it is now a ghost of its former self. It has just turned 75.

Why is the UNP, which used to be called Sri Lanka’s Grand Old Party in this predicament?

The UNP and the SLFP ruled this country alternately for about three decades after Independence (1948). The two parties had their ups and downs, but remained formidable political forces, whose strength others could not match. The main reason for their dominance in national politics was that they are big-tent political organisations, and the first-past-the-post electoral system, which did not favour smaller parties. The situation changed after 1977, and the 1978 Constitution had a deleterious effect on the two-party system; the Proportional Representation (PR) system it introduced was favourable to the minor and minority parties, and came into effect about 11 years later.

The UNP was able to dominate the political scene for 17 years from 1977 because of the SLFP’s dirigiste economic model, which caused untold hardships to the public between 1970 and 1977, election malpractices, the internal problems of the SLFP, and the like. The imposition of civic disabilities on SLFP leader Sirima Bandaranaike prevented her from contesting the 1982 presidential election, which President J. R.Jayewardene won easily; a section of the SLFP did not support its own presidential candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa. The UNP also retained its five-sixths majority in Parliament by replacing the 1982 general election with a referendum, which was heavily rigged in favour of the UNP. The JVP’s second uprising, which led to a disproportionate counterterror campaign carried out by the state, enabled the UNP to adopt oppressive measures and rig elections.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the SLFP woke up to the fact that the open economywould not go away and came to terms with it, thus, taking the wind out of the UNP’s sails on the economic front. Since 1994, there have been no fundamental differences as such between the UNP and the SLFP/SLPP where their economic policies are concerned.

Failed impeachment

The election of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1988 gave the UNP a new lease of life. But Premadasa’s attempts to consolidate his position in the UNP and his modus operandi led to stiff resistance from a section of his parliamentary group. There had been a lot of bad blood between him and other ambitious UNP seniors who had been eyeing the party leadership and the presidency.

Premadasa failed or did not care to win over his rivals in the UNP, who included political heavyweights such as Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. The clashes that ensued between the President and the party rebels led to an abortive impeachment attempt in 1992. Premadasa scuttled the move to impeach him, but his vengeful actions against those plotted to oust him, especially the expulsion of Lalith and Gamini, caused an irreparable split in the UNP. The dissident group formed the Democratic United National Front (DUNF), which grew phenomenally strong within a short period of time.

The DUNF carried out frontal attacks on President Premadasa, and the Opposition got revitalized as a result. Not to be outdone, the UNP unleashed unbridle violence to contain the DUNF so much so that when Lalith was assassinated in April 1993 during an election rally in Colombo, President Premadasa became the prime suspect. Premadasa vehemently denied any involvement in the crime, but it is doubtful whether he was able to clear his name. Allegations against him, however, were not substantiated. Conspiracy theories about the Athulathmudali assassination abound.

The DUNF leaders’ plan was to oust President Premadasaand take over the UNP. This is what Gamini did after Lalith’s assassination and that of President Premadasa in quick succession, much to the consternation of Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had become the Prime Minister under President D. B. Wijetunga by that time. The SLFP gained hugely from the split in the UNP and anti-government protests and regained lost ground under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s leadership. It was election ready by 1994.

Decimation of UNP leadership

The UNP had the JVP leadership decimated in 1989. Only Somawansa Amarasinghe succeeded in making good his escape. The same fate befell the UNP a few years later; all its frontline leaders including those who were in the DUNF at the time waiting to return to the party’s fold—Athulathmudali, President Premadasa and Dissanayake—were assassinated. The UNPleadership fell on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s lap, following the death of Gamin in in an LTTE suicide blast while he wasrunning for President in 1994. The setbacks the UNP had suffered by then proved irreversible.

Political analysts have not been fair by Wickremesinghe, who is described as a born-loser. They gloss over the fact that he toppled the Kumaratunga government in 2001 by engineering a host of defections; the crossovers included SLFP General Secretary S. B. Dissanayake. He almost won the 2005 presidential election; what prevented his victory was the polls boycott organised by the LTTE. Had the Tamil people been allowed to vote, they would have backed Wickremesinghe overwhelmingly, enabling him to beat Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There was no way anyone could defeat either President Rajapaksa or his United People’s Liberation Front (UPFA)government at the 2010 presidential election and parliamentary polls held less than one year after the defeat of the LTTE. But Wickremesinghe played a pivotal role in defeating President Rajapaksa and bringing down the powerful UPFA government in 2015 with the help of Maithripala Sirisena, who came forward as the Opposition’s common presidential candidate. Sirisena was also the SLFP General Secretary at the time of his decampment.It was no mean achievement for Ranil, but his problem is that he has not been able to retain power.

Both UNF governments the UNP formed with the help of other parties in 2001 and in 2015 could not complete their first terms. This is because tact is not Wickremesinghe’s strong point. He confronted the Presidents, and his attempts to act as the de facto head of state because he had parliamentary majorities made him unpopular so much so that even his own party did not consider him capable of running for President thrice—in 2010, 2015 and 2019.

Third split in UNP

The UNP has suffered three major crippling splits since its inception in 1946. The first one was the breakaway of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and others in the early 1950s, and the second major split occurred in 1992. But the third split in 2020 has debilitated the party as never before.

The Ranil faction did everything possible to queer the pitch for Sajith’s Premadasa at the 2019 presidential election in the hope that he would become a nonentity in the UNP after his defeat. But it was a terrible miscalculation on the part of Ranil and his loyalists. Sajith craftily made use of the presidential contest to consolidate his position in the party, and break away with most of the prominent members including those in the constituents of the UNF coalition to form the SJB. It is said that Sajith’s later father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was contemplating a similar course of action when he was the Prime Minister under President Jayewardene because he was not sure of being nominated as the UNP’s presidential candidate until the last moment.

At the 2020 general election, the UNP could not poll, countrywide, at least one half of the (preferential) votes its leader Wickremesinghe had secured from the Colombo District at the 2015 parliamentary polls. Ranil received 500,556preferential votes in 2015, and the UNP could get only 249,435votes throughout the country, and was left without a single elected MP. This alone shows how devastating the UNP’s third split has been.

Multifactorial downfall

The reasons for the UNP’s downfall are numerous. It has failed to sort out its internal problems. President Jayewardene managed to keep his parliamentary group under his thumb by obtaining undated resignation letters from his MPs. There was a two-party system at the time, and the chances of forming a third political force were zero.

In 1989, the first general election was held under the PR system and that prevented the UNP from winning a steamroller majority. It formed a government but with a reduced majority,and this weakened the position of President Premadasa, who was also the party leader, considerably. The elitist elements in the UNP did not get on with Premadasa known for his anti-elitist outlook. The PR system also promoted the emergence of alternatives to the two main parties, which had to opt for coalition politics, as a result. The UNP rebels took on President Premadasa and a major breakaway ensued, as was said previously.

The Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, the creation of the Provincial Council system, the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) here, underhand deals with the LTTE, attacks on democracy were other factors that made the Premadasa government and the UNP highly unpopular. The IPFK was sent back, but Premadasa could not live down the provision of arms, ammunition, cement, other building materials and money to the LTTE for Prabhakaran’s war against the Indian troops. The LTTE turned those guns on the Sri Lankan military later on, and went on to assassinate President Premadasa in 1993.

The UNP-led UNF government, under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, also entered into a disastrous peace process with the LTTE, in late 2001. The ceasefire that followed was favourable to the LTTE, which used it to make preparations for the next phase of its separatist war. National security was compromised, and the LTTE infiltrated all parts of the country and carried out attacks in violation of the fragile truce, which the UNF government did not dare withdraw from due to foreign pressure. Having lost power in 2004, the UNF chose to belittle the military after the breakout of the Eelam War IV in 2006, and its disparaging remarks about the battlefield gains of the armed forces, its anti-war stance caused it to lose support among the anti-LTTE Sri Lankans, especially the members of the majority community.

The UNF, which came to power following the election of President Sirisena, in 2015, also neglected national security, and co-sponsored the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka. The Treasury bond scams tarnished the image of that administration irreparably, and dogs the UNP even today. The Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, which happened because the UNF government did not care to act on intelligence warnings of impending bombings, ruined the UNP’s chances of winning the last two election, and the breakaway of the Sajith faction sealed its fate.

JRJ’s dream shattered

If the 2020 general election had been held under the first-past-the-post system, the UNP would have been left without a single seat in Parliament. It managed to secure one seat thanks to the PR system the late Jayewardene introduced because he thought the UNP would be able to win more seats than others at all elections because of its solid block vote. He did not bargain for a split in the UNP and an erosion of its vote bank. He had no reason to anticipate such a situation because the UNP remained a formidable force even in defeat during his time. He also thought the UNP candidates would always have the edge on their contenders in presidential races because of the party’sblock vote. He served two terms as the President and his successor Ranasinghe Premadasa won the presidency in 1988 and was assassinated before he could complete his first term. The UNP never succeeded in winning a presidential election again. Thus, the UNP could hold the executive presidency, which it created, only for 16 years and others have held it for 27 years! During this period, the UNP has been led byJayewardene’s nephew, Wickremesinghe!

The UNP’s problem is neither the SLPP or the SLFP but the SJB at the moment. It has to eat into the SJB’s vote bank or grab the post of the Opposition Leader if it is to turn the tables on its offshoot. It will be a miracle if the UNP could regain all2,771,984 votes it lost to the SJB, at the last general election, or at least part of it. Before Wickremesinghe entered the parliament in June as a National List MP, the UNP claimed that it was capable of winning over enough Opposition MPs for him to be the Opposition Leader. But nothing of the sort has happened, Wickremesinghe sits alone in Parliament.

The UNP is very active on social media, and the exposure it gets in the mainstream media is disproportionate to its strength. But publicity alone will not help it regain lost ground. It will have to do a lot of grassroots politics and, in short, begin from the beginning. Nothing short of a miracle can help it achieve that goal under the current leadership.


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