The Reformist groups’ attempt to oust the current leader of the United National Party seems to
have experienced some serious setbacks. Ranil Wickremesinghe is still the leader; his Working Committee is still intact and as committed to him as it was at the height of the crisis. Although the Party suffered yet another humiliating electoral defeat at the recently-held PC elections in the Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provinces, the state of denial that led it to present some crooked comparisons in order to show that the Party gained rather than lost, seems to have taken hold of the official UNP.
Dying fire of leadership change
No evaluation has been undertaken and any attempt at suggestions and complaints has fallen on deaf ears. The latest episode in Kandy where Ruwan Wijewardene, Gampaha District MP who happens to be Ranil Wickramasinghe’s close relative, was subjected to utter humiliation and discomfort by the UNP youth there, only helped to add more futile fuel to a dying fire of leadership change.
Slip sliding way
Yet, the initiative seems to be slipping away from the Reformists group; the group that seemingly
was bound by a common thread of anti-Ranil rhetoric has reached the end of its tether. Reports are that they cannot get more than two or three Parliamentarians together for a meeting. Only Karu Jayasuriya and another Parliamentarian from Kurunegala District are motivated to the cause, not necessarily to a change in leadership, but to gear the Grand Old Party towards a true revival.
Neither seen nor heard anymore
Those voices that were heard and faces that were seen over the “Sirasa” Television newscasts are no more heard or seen. In a real sense, the only battles that are left to be fought are ones in the courts of Hulftsdorp. If not for Maithree Gunaratne and Shiral Lakthilalka, two diehard, ideologically-driven stalwarts, the total movement would have collapsed. Yet when one visits the countryside, the street corners, boutiques, and when one talks to the three-wheeler drivers and others, one cannot help but hear the refrain: “If Ranil is not there, things would be different”.
Eroded voter base
To a certain extent, this was proven correct by the latest PC Election results. The Government’s vote bank as a percentage of the total valid polled is intact while that of the UNP seems to be continuing its slow erosion. More and more would-be UNP voters have chosen to stay away from the polling booth. It is also said that even Sajith was taken by surprise when the results of the North Central Province and Sabaragamuwa were announced. He may have based his judgment (which seems naïve) on the numbers that attended the meetings where he was the guest speaker in these two Provinces during the election campaign. You simply cannot dislodge a party in power which has fine-tuned its campaign over a period of nearly twenty years by an amateurish campaign of sprints across a province in three weeks.
The approaches adopted and put into action, by both the “official” UNP and the reformists are fundamentally flawed.
The UNP has not presented a viable alternative economic, social and political plan to the electorate in a format that could be easily understood by the ordinary voter and the absence of such an alternative vision is greatly felt by the educated class of people. The condescending attitude of the leadership towards its own MPs, Provincial Councilors, and other elected representatives, leave alone the ordinary man, is taking its eventual toll. What has happened to the UNP leadership is somewhat similar to the behavior of those who are resigned to a state of fatigue. There is no pep in their stride and all vibrancy and vitality have ebbed away. At the age of seventy one, J R Jayewardene had more vigor and vitality in his body and mind than what these relatively young UNPers display today.
If a lack of vision is the fundamental flaw of the “official” UNP, what is the basic flaw in the reformists’ group? It’s the same: a lack of vision. Instead of attempting to find an alternative to Ranil Wickramasinghe, they should have focused more on looking for an alternative to Mahinda Rajapaksa. When they, in their haste to replace Ranil Wickramasinghe, concentrated their fully-throttled rhetoric on scathing attacks on UNP leader- thereby exhibiting an unambiguous desire for grabbing power in the Party hierarchy-they willy-nilly alienated those who occupy the middle ground in party politics. This amateurish approach tended to gain its own momentum.
Ranil not the enemy
The country at large is certainly not overly engaged in looking for an alternative leadership in the United National Party. If at all, they are looking for an alternative to Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is felt by some that the present UNP leader is not willing to pursue a higher goal than that of the Leader of the Opposition. Yet, when one considers the extent to which he is entrenched in the Party, there does not seem to be any way in which he could be ousted in a democratic manner.
Criticise Rajapakse not Ranil
Nevertheless, if the reformists’ group had adopted a more positive approach of focusing their attacks on the ruling party and the Rajapakses and chosen to criticize the regime in the most unequivocal terms while opting to offer an alternative vision to the country, even the members of the UNP Working Committee would have read their approach differently. The lone voice in this regard is Karu Jayasuriya-he seems to be focusing on attacking the regime and he occasionally issues alternative formulae for righteous governance. The finest example is General Sarath Fonseka. Why are people flocking towards the General? Even though he has not made any concrete alternative proposals, he is most unambiguous in his attacks against the regime and the Rajapaksas. He shows a steel spine. A Karu-SF combination backed by Sajith Premadasa’s immense popularity, especially among the common masses in the country, would be a force that the regime would dread to confront.
But a vision is a must.
Could we envision a country that is devoid of racial discrimination, where each citizen is judged,
in the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr., “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”?
Can we envision a nation that is free of racial prejudice and “white vans” and a country and a people that enjoy the freedom to information, so that those who wield power cannot engage in underhand deals at the expense of the national coffers?
Can we envision an education system that is free of idiotic bungling of examination papers? Can we envision an educational set-up that produces not only the best of scholars, but the best of researchers and entrepreneurs for both the public and private sectors?
Can we envision a heath sector that treats the root cause of a disease rather than the superficial symptoms, so that a healthy nation emerges at the end of a program? Can we decrease our mortality rate and decrease the number of infant deaths? Can we envision a country that could boast of vim, vigor and vitality? Can we envision our roads to be free of choking congestion, where pedestrians too have a right of way, where motorists don’t toot the horn when a walking mother with an infant in hand is crossing at a pedestrian pass?
Can we envision a country in which power cuts are the exception, not the norm? And where a drought would not cause civil havoc but strengthen the spirit of the farmer community to look for alternative crops that need a lesser amount of water?
Can we envision a country where freedom of the press is respected and those who express their own opinions are judged, not in terms of their political affiliations but by the objectivity of their utterances? Can we envision a country in which all journalists could reach their homes after work without being harassed by the presence of the “white vans”?
Sinhalese feel the benefits of peace
We can and we must. If the Opposition can instill into the minds of the people that what they are after is a better place to live in and a more decent environment to bring up their children in, then the people might give them another chance. But time and again, the electorate has shown that the UNP alone cannot do it. The era of the UNP invincibility is gone, may be forever. A joint Opposition that is focused on a clear vision and strengthened by a prudent set of policies, principles and programs might have a chance at the next elections. Underestimating the ‘war-victory’ slogan of the Government is foolish and short-sighted. The rural masses and specially the Sinhalese Buddhists, more than any other segment in the country, have realized the real meaning of peace; the sense of peace that envelopes their lives today. The anxieties and anguish they went through during those rough times of suicide bombers are gone.
Give flesh and blood to the vision. There are academics and scholars who would be more than willing to write up a readable manifesto of liberal democracy. Until such a clear vision is spelt out, until such a vision is given credence to by understandable national goals and objectives, neither the UNP, nor any joint Opposition would stand a chance of a snowball in hell, at any future election against the Rajapaksa juggernaut.