By Harim Peiris
Former MP and State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardena, was recently elected UNP Deputy Leader and consequently the leader-in-waiting, by that besieged party’s working committee. For a party, which has only a single National List seat in parliament, on which it cannot agree who should be nominated and which received less than half the votes, the fourth placed JVP did, the rather long drawn out process of finally replacing its leader, has begun. That this leadership transition only formally began once the party had been all but wiped off the electoral map, is a testament to the anachronistic nature of the UNP’s internal decision-making processes. The UNP’s only contribution to current politics was to weaken the opposition and enable the SLPP to secure a two-third majority in parliament.
Wijewardenas replace Senanayakes as UNP’s first family
The electoral defeat of the UNP, in the 1970 general election, witnessed the end of the domination of that party’s leadership by the Senanayake family and saw a transition to the Wijewardena family, the maternal wing of both JR Jayawardena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, with a brief interlude for the leaderships of Ranasinghe Premadasa and DB Wijetunga.
A similar situation was also witnessed in the UNP’s arch rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was dominated, since inception, by that party’s founding family, the Bandaranaikes’, which domination ran its natural course for over half a century, since 1951, and witnessed a more natural and dignified transition to a fellow founding member’s clan, the Rajapakse family, in 2005.
The Wijewardena clan can also celebrate a half century, since 1970, of dominating the United National Party (UNP) leadership, even at the expense of finally running the party to the ground. The clan’s control and near dominance of the party leadership has certainly not run its course. Accordingly, it was no surprise, at least to this analyst, that from a crowded field of pretenders to the UNP throne, ranging from Karu Jayasuriya to Naveen Dissanayake and including such colourful figures as Ravi Karunanayake and Arjuna Ranatunga, that the soft spoken and relative new comer to politics, Ruwan Wijewardena, would receive the nod from his near kinsman and by extension the rest of the handpicked working committee, to take over the now nearly defunct party.
The SJB option or perish
Ruwan Wijewardena, the UNP leader-in-waiting, whom media reports state has to wait, yet still more, till next year, to take over the party, has only one realistic course of action open to him. It is the only viable option for a party with a grand history but no future. That option is for the UNP to become a constituent party of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), rather like the JHU and the other regional parties. However, for this option to take place, Mr. Wijewardena must be prepared to accept, or enforce, the easing upstairs or retirement from politics of some of those, whom the SJB correctly believes to be liabilities rather than assets in its attempts to be a credible check and balance and eventually a viable alternative to the Rajapaksa led SLPP government. The UNP’s only hope for survival, even as a shadow of its former self, is in the shade and as a part of the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). This option is similar from the other side of the aisle, most obviously to the course taken by the SLFP under former President Maithripala Sirisena or even the Dinesh Gunawardena-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) – both parties with proud histories, but with no future on its own.
However, the odd thing with the UNP leadership contest is that despite having no real option than join the SJB, the UNP leader-in-waiting has to parrot the mantra, that he will be rebuilding the party to its grand old days. There were breakaway parties that believed that having the party nameboard, the head office premises, and the symbol, was what popular or public support was all about and were rudely surprised to realize that this is in fact not so. In the Tamil polity, the best example would be the TULF, still around under veteran leader V. Anandasangari, but despite fielding candidates, under its well-known rising sun symbol, which was in 1977, the second largest party in parliament, is now existent, only in name.
A second decimation in the PC polls
There is a significant preference, within the SLPP, to have the provincial council polls. This preference comes mainly from the compelling internal need to provide secondary positions to party loyalists and activists who were unable to enter parliament. Doing so sooner rather than later, will help keep the opposition off balance. Having the PC polls, will also remove a potential irritant in the relationship with India. However, for the UNP, a pending PC polls, sans a tie up with the SJB, spells near doom. Superficial analysis which assumes that the UNP will retain the 2% of the national vote, or 250,000 votes country wide, which it garnered in the August parliamentary elections, is naïve. The UNP, if it contests alone, will be again wiped out, but worse. At the general election, there was some doubt, however small, about whether it would be the SJB or the UNP which would emerge on top, in the battle to be number two. Now that doubt not only no longer exists, but the UNP has such weak public appeal, that it polled less than half the JVP vote and failed to secure a single district seat in parliament. UNP support or the famed party machinery, has conclusively and permanently moved lock, stock and barrel to the SJB. Should young Mr. Ruwan Wijewardena seek to roll back the clock and have a rematch on the fight with the SJB, he would fare far worse than his cousin Ranil Wickremesinghe did. If on the contrary he accepts the political leadership of Sajith Premadasa and crafts a course for the UNP, which challenges the SLPP Government and is steadfastly a part of the opposition, he will generate for the UNP, a new lease of life and a new path, not as a leading party, whose heyday is over, but as an appendage to the SJB, in much the same way as the SLFP and the MEP are within the SLPP.