ONE: “Premadasa’s Candidacy – Bringing Democracy to the UNP Machine,” in ISLAND, 8 October 2019
The two major political parties, in the south, have had a long tradition of being managed more like private clubs belonging to a particular family cabal than vital public institutions in a democracy. Whoever happens to be the leader has had an iron grip on the party. There is little inner-party democracy in such a set up. The significance of Sajith Premadasa’s victory over Ranil Wickremesinghe in the fight for the UNF presidential candidacy has to be evaluated against such a background
The UNP, once known as the “Uncle-Nephew” Party, was under the control of the Senanayaka-Jayewardene-Wickremesinghe clan since its founding in 1946, for 73 years. The only exception was the short period from 1989 to 1993 when Ranasinghe Premadasa assumed the leadership. As leader Ranasinghe Premadasa was also as authoritarian as his predecessors that caused other prominent leaders such as Gamini Dissanayaka and Lalith Athulathmudli to leave the party in 1991.
Th SLFP’s history is no different. The Bandaranaike family controlled it from its founding in 1951 to 2005 for 55 years. The Rajapaksas who took it over controlled it from 2006 to 2014. After Sirisena won the presidency in 2015 and became the SLFP leader Rajapaksa formed his own family-based party the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
Sajith Premadasa had to rely on an informal path in his fight against Wickremesinghe. He managed to put together a coalition from within the UNP that included some well-known Ranil Wickremesinghe loyalists who actually owe their political life largely to the latter. The Premadasa group also reflected, broadly speaking, the opinion of the party base. Led by Premadasa they challenged Wickremesinghe and overcame the grip that the latter had for over 20 years on the all-powerful UNP working committee.
The battle did not change the party constitution. If party rules and governance remain unchanged Premadasa’s victory becomes a temporary event. It also paves the way for him to control the party the same way that Wickremesinghe did. But that would be shortsighted. Wickremesinghe’s defeat is a lesson to Premadasa that he too can meet with the same fate if he tries to impose his will regardless of what others in the party think and want to do.
It is true that the UNP convention held last week adopted resolutions that allow Wickremesinghe to remain as party leader until January 2024 and also retain the premiership if the party retains its majority in parliament.
However, if Premadasa wins the presidency the political dynamic will change radically empowering Premadasa to adopt a new party constitution and democratize the party. He can give a greater voice to the elected MPs, provincial councilors, local government representatives, trade union leaders, women’s organization, youth organizations and district organizations and so on.
Such reform will have two main benefits, one for the party and the other for the country. More democratic inner-party governance is likely to make the party more attractive, especially to the younger generation. The country will benefit from having a major political party that is more broad-based and also compel other rival parties to consider their own reform.
The kind of changes that have been suggested above cannot be done overnight. However, Premadasa has the opportunity to at least hint of such change and gain some immediate mileage for his current campaign.
First, it will make the party activists more enthusiastic to support him. Second, it will highlight the difference between the party that he leads and the SLPP. Third, it may also persuade some of the minor Yaha Paalanaya (Good Governance) candidates and their supporters to back Premadasa. Fourth, and most importantly, it will be a signal to the voter that when Premadasa says he will usher in a “new leadership for a new Sri Lanka” he means what he says.
TWO: “Key Issues in the Presidential Campaign,” Island, 11 October 2019
With the holding of inaugural campaign rallies of the two main candidates, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s in Anuradhapura and Sajith Premadasa’s in Colombo this week, the battle for the presidency has taken off. Both candidates and their principal surrogates are promising the usual goodies to the voters. For example, both assure the farmers that their economic problems will be addressed with a higher guaranteed price for paddy, debt relief and so on. Both assure the youth that educational facilities will be improved and better paying jobs will be found. Public sector employees are being promised better salaries. More generally both sides promise to ease the cost of living and improve incomes, two issues that are almost always at the top of the list of voter concern.
But there are three issues, national security, bribery and corruption and ethnic harmony on which there appears to be a real difference between the two main contenders and a real fight.
National security was not a major issue in the 2015 election. Following the April 21st, 2019 terrorist bomb attacks, it is now. The April 21 attacks made the government look weak. President Maithripala Sirisena as the Defence Minister has to take primary responsibility for what happened. Sirisena is now in the Gotabhaya camp. Nevertheless, Gotabhaya sees national security as his strong suit and stresses his record as Defence Secretary as evidence of his competence to prevent such attacks from occurring in the future. The SLPP asserts that the government is collectively responsible for the failure to prevent the terrorist attack. In the past few weeks Premadasa looked quite vulnerable on this issue.
Now the UNP has come with an answer. Premadasa has promised to make Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, the defense minister of the next government if the UNP is returned to power. Fonseka’s credentials for the position are impeccable. The UNP response may resonate with many “floating” voters, including those in the business community that worry about industries such as tourism, who consider preventing such terrorist attacks an absolute priority.
Bribery and corruption
The second issue is bribery and corruption. In an all-island poll taken in early January 2015, a few days before the January 7th poll, about 50% of the voters identified “bribery and corruption” as a “very serious problem” and another 36% as “somewhat serious.” That is over 85% were concerned about the issue. Only two issues, the “high cost of living” (95%) and “insufficient income to live” (91%) were of greater concern to the voters. Civil society groups strongly backed Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015 in the belief that they would fight corruption. But they failed to deliver.
The government has failed to file a single successfully prosecuted case against politically powerful individuals that have been suspected of taking bribes and illegal commissions. Even as recently as last month President Maithripala Sirisena alleged that Rs 2.b had gone “missing” from the Lotus Tower Project when it was under the Rajapaksa administration. Ranil Wickremesinghe who was known as “Mr. Clean” in Sri Lankan politics got his image tarnished as a result of the Central Bank bond scandal. There are several other prominent members of the present administration who have been accused of corruption.
The SLPP campaign strategy on the corruption issue appears to have two components. The first is for Gotabhaya to avoid addressing the issue. For example, in a speech that he gave to Viyath Maga in early September there was no reference to the issue. The second is for surrogates of the candidates, including former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, to remind the voters of the Central Bank bond scandal. Although nobody has pointed a finger at Premadasa over the bond fraud, SLPP asserts that the entire government is collectively responsible for the financial crime that was committed.
At the Galle Face meeting the Premadasa camp came up with its response. Premadasa in his speech pledged to run a clean government, but that is a tune that voters have heard before during elections since 1977. What may be more convincing to the voter is the barrage of criticism that Patali Champika Ranwaka unleashed against the Rajapaksa administration and especially against Gotabhaya for the alleged misappropriation of public funds.
It is left to the voters to choose which narrative to believe.
Both parties are wooing the ethnic minority vote that accounts for about 25% of the total electorate. Both candidates promise to address the problems of the minorities and pledge to work for national unity.
In the last three presidential elections a majority of the Sinhala-Buddhists voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa. The minorities voted overwhelmingly for the UNP candidate. It is reasonable to believe that Premadasa must get a substantial share – in the 75% to 85% range – of the minority vote to win the election. The presence of some of the most prominent political leaders of the plantation Tamil community (4% f the voters) and the Muslim community (10% of the voters) on the UNP platform in Galle Face last Thursday suggests that a significant majority of the voters belonging to those two communities are likely to vote for Premadasa.
In 2010 and 2015 the Sri Lankan Tamils voted overwhelmingly for the UNP candidate. The TULF that usually commands the bulk of the Tamil vote in the north and east is yet to reveal its preference this time.
In a closely fought election every vote can matter. For that reason JVP candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayaka’s performance is likely to have an impact on the result. But it is premature to hazard a guess as to in which direction such an impact would occur.There is no reason to be lieve that any of the minor party candidates will poll a significant number to make an appreciable difference to the final result.
There are forty-two days for the poll. That is an eternity in politics. Something totally unanticipated could happen that can shake the political calculus.