By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, March 9: A few who depend on a united and strong United National Party (UNP) to win seats in the April parliamentary elections, are still clinging to the hope that a split in the party will be averted even at the eleventh hour.
But most UNPers are expecting the split to be formalized any day now.
The UNP and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) have sent separate letters to the Elections Commissioner telling him about their intention to contest. This is generally taken as a definitive sign of an impending split. But those still hoping to keep the party united argue that sending separate letters does not mean much. All parties do it, they point out.
“This is a normal practice. It does not mean that the party has split,” a supporter of the unity move said.
However, most UNPers see the writing on the wall quite clearly: the party is heading for a split or has already split into two antagonistic groups, one headed by party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and the other led by Sajith Premadasa.
In fact, the Sajith faction has opened its headquarters. Crowds of supporters have begun congregating in Sajith’s office. Cutouts of Sajith have also come up. Likewise, Ranil’s followers are gathering at Sirikotha.
Party insiders say that about 80% of UNP’s leaders and cadres are with Sajith. Among the rest, some may not vote at all, and others may give their vote to another party, fed up with the UNP’s squabbling leaders and its non-performance while in government.
Sajith is entering the electoral fray confident of victory, citing the “lackluster” performance of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government led by Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa. But this may be wishful thinking. It is in fact too early to criticize the government of the Rajapaksas. It is only a few months old. Their supporters are aware of the time constraint. It is also generally accepted by the supporters of the Rajapaksas that the government can perform only of it ceases to be a minority in parliament. It has to get a majority in parliament. People still believe in the potential of the Rajapaksas to deliver if given the levers of power. The majority of Sinhalese voters are expected to give the levers of power to the Rajapaksas in the April elections.
Therefore, the SLPP and its allies are assured of a majority in parliament. But a two thirds majority through a vote is a pipe dream given the Sri Lankan election system. However, as indicated by SLPP leaders themselves, the SLPP will stitch together a two thirds majority after the elections, by getting defectors, preferably from the two factions of the UNP.
The SLPP has shut its doors to “religious” parties like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will also be out of the reckoning partly because it is “racist” (Tamil) party, and partly because the TNA itself is ideologically against participating in governments at the Center before it gets a federal constitution.
The SLPP will find it easier to poach on UNP if it is split. A united and strong UNP will be difficult to poach on, as was seen in the October 2018 crisis when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempts to get cross overs from the then united UNP failed miserably. Therefore, the SLPP will be a major gainer if, in the coming parliament, the UNP is split and is collectively weak.
Contradictions in SJB
The Sajith-led SJB has internal contradictions, which some, who are now with him, hope to exploit to overthrow him or make him a puppet.
It is said that caste, support among the Buddhist clergy and Sajith’s style of functioning will be three key factors in this regard.
Sajith is not from the top two Sinhalese castes which is a handicap in Sri Lankan politics. Additionally, his links with the hardline Christian groups have been noted. The latter affects his claim to being a “hardcore” Buddhist. These debilities could be exploited by some of his present-day supporters like Champika Ranawaka, who is a favorite of the Buddhist clergy cutting across party lines. It is also said that as a minister, Champika had cultivated India and China, two countries which have a direct interest in Sri Lankan political affairs.
Sajith’s arrogant style of functioning and his passion for exercising power might generate dissent. Not being from the traditional Lankan social elite, he would be forced to prove himself all the time to be in the same place. And in his anxiety to do that, he could step on sensitive toes.
Further, Sajith does not have the creativity and drive associated with his father Ranasinghe Premadasa who relentlessly battled social and political odds to win the Presidency. But Premadasa Sr. had to be continually ruthless to stay in the Presidency which made him unpopular among a large number of Sri Lankans.
It is noteworthy that the only major spilt in the UNP (after SWRD Bandaranaike left in 1951) took place at a time when Premadasa was battling against the traditional elite led by Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali in 1992.
Many UNPers are with Sajith only to win the coming elections by getting a decent number of Sinhala-Buddhist votes. But actually there is big deficit on the Sinhalese side in his case, a deficit which had caused his defeat in the November 2019 Presidential election.
Having realized that Ranil Wickremesinghe cannot help win elections, his closest associates either crossed over or are planning to cross over to Sajith’s side. It is said that some of his closest friends are advising him to hand over the party to Sajith and take an assignment in the UN or any world body, which will be happy to take him, given his interest in, and knowledge of, international affairs.
Ranil himself had toyed with the idea of being an international roving lecturer in the past after one of his earlier defeats. But it is significant that he never actually left the leadership of the UNP. It is expected that he will want to continue to be the leader till at least 2025, when his current term officially ends.