By Gitanjali Marcelline/newsin.asia
It all started on Friday, September 6, 1946 at 5.00 p.m in ‘Palm Court’, Albert Crescent, Colombo. A Tamil member of the State Council, S. Natesan, proposed that a new political party be formed and that it be named United National Party (UNP). A Muslim member of the State Council, T. B. Jayah, seconded the proposal, thus laying the foundation of a party which manifestly stood for national integration.
“United” – that’s what the UNP used to be in its heyday, when it was the ruling party from 1947 to 1956; from 1965 to 1970; from 1977 to 1994; from 2001 to 2004 and finally, from 2015 to 2020. In total, the UNP had governed Sri Lanka for 36 out of the 72 years since independence in 1948. The Party had control of the Executive Presidency (EP) for 16 years from EP’s institution in 1978 to 1994.
What made the UNP such a powerful and durable party? The answer lay in its having sound leadership and people-centric policies. From the time of Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake up to President Ranasinghe Premadasa, apart from representing the business community, the UNP’s leadership had adopted people-oriented policies on agriculture, power-generation and infrastructure development. It opened up the economy, thereby putting an end to excruciating and artificial shortages of articles of common use. It launched the “Swarnabhoomi” land grants program, and the “Mahapola” educational scheme. It set up two universities (the Ruhuna and Eastern). It fulfilled the Million Houses Program, launched the “Gam Udawa” “Janasaviya”, and the “200 garments factories” program. It also decentralized the administration, which appealed to the masses, especially at the grassroots level.
Getting on to the Ranil Wickremesinghe era, from 1994 –2001, the UNP was in the opposition. Wickremesinghe was a relatively young politician with pro-West views and a penchant for neo-liberal economic policies. But what he sorely lacked was the common touch and an understanding of the needs of the hoi polloi. However, he had a rare political skill which enabled him to keep the UNP under his thumb even in adversity. He remains the leader of the UNP even when it has been reduced to a rump, as indeed it is now.
By 2001 Sri Lanka was facing the worst economic downturn since independence, brought about both by the badly going war against the LTTE and gross governmental mismanagement. The GDP had shrunk by 2.5% and the growth rate was negative. Not surprisingly, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led government fell in 2001 because of the defection of disgruntled people from its ranks. In the ensuing elections the UNP-led coalition won and Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister. The UNP fought on a platform of peace with the LTTE so that economic development could be pursued, a cause which had the peoples’ support.
Wickremasinghe became the Prime Minister for the second time (the first time being in 1993-94) and began a ‘cohabitation’ arrangement with President Kumaratunga who belonged to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Two months into his Premiership, Wickremesinghe signed a controversial ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. The agreement was followed by intense peace negotiations to find a solution to the ethnic conflict. But President Chandrika Kumaratunga believed that there had been a sell out to the LTTE which resulted in her taking over some key ministries which in a way crippled the Wickremesinghe government. But more on that later.
With ceasefire in place, the UNP-led government maintained strict fiscal discipline and market-friendly policies, which led to a resurgence in the economy, large-scale investments, and rapid economic growth. The government created key economic institutions such as the Board of Investment, the Ministry of Small and Rural enterprise and the Information Communication Technology Agency. Economic growth continued to accelerate, reaching almost 6% at the end of 2003, while inflation was at less than 2%, an all-time low. Many local and foreign experts believed that Sri Lanka was poised to reach double-digit economic growth within a few years.
So, what went wrong for the UNP? Although peace reigned and the economy grew, the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE was not popular and more importantly did not have the support of President Kumaratunga who, took over some key ministries to cripple the UNP government. Given the nationalistic wave Kumaratunga created along with her alliance with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), her United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won the 2004 elections, throwing the UNP again into the limbo.
In the Presidential election of 2005, the UPFA’s new candidate, the then Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, beat Wickremesinghe, though the latter performed reasonably well by bagging 48.43% of the vote. However, it is widely believed that if not for the boycott of the polls in the North and parts of the East, due to LTTE’s intimidation, Wickramesinghe would have won. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged, that Wickremesinghe had lost much support among the Sinhalese majority because of his dalliance with the dreaded LTTE.
The second reason for his downfall was his penchant for supporting friends even when these friendships were costing him public support. In 2001, a friend, Arjuna Mahendran, was appointed Chairman and Director-General of the Board of Investment, where his conduct was reportedly controversial. He was to come back as Central Bank Governor in 2015 only to indulge in the US$ 11 million bonds scam.
After winning the 30-year-old war against LTTE in 2009, President Rajapaksa called for an early Presidential Election in 2010. The UNP and JVP backed Gen (Rtd).Sarath Fonseka. This was the first time UNP had backed a non-UNP member for President. Though Fonseka was a formidable challenger as a war hero, Rajapaksa won with 57.88% of the popular vote. In April, Rajapaksa called for parliamentary elections which the UPFA won, bagging 144 seats while UNP-led United National Front (UNF) bagged only 60. Rajapaksa was still seen as the war winner and his charisma was infectious.
Puffed up with pride, President Rajapaksa, called for an early election in 2015 to seek a third term, not knowing that his corruption and misrule had dented his image greatly. The UNP and several other parties backed the rebellious SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena emerged victorious with 51.28% of the popular vote, in an election which saw a record turnout of 81.52%. Immediately after Sirisena was sworn in, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister for the third time in his political career.
Being Sirisena’s main prop, the UNP took 70% of the ministerial posts. Wickremesinghe felt free to pamper his buddies and cohorts with plum positions in the cabinet and other semi-government organizations. Charitha Ratwatte’s brother Suren Ratwatte was appointed CEO of Sri Lankan Airlines. Towards the end of Ratwatte’s 6 months’ probation, when the Board failed to unanimously agree to confirm him, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe pushed for his confirmation. The same year, Wickremesinghe’s other buddy, Malik Samarawickrama, was appointed to Parliament on the National List. Later he became the Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade and Chairman of the UNP.
In 2015, Arjuna Mahendran was appointed the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka without the consent of President Maithripala Sirisena. And as pointed out earlier, during Mahendran’s tenure, a financial laundering scam took place in the CBSL which caused an estimated loss of more than US$11 million to the nation.
On 20 August 2015, the major political parties UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) signed an MOU to form a National Government for at least two years to resolve serious issues in the island. On 3 September 2015, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe presented a motion to exceed the limit imposed on the number of cabinet and non-cabinet ministers. According to the 19 th.Amendment, the cabinet cannot exceed 30 ministers. But in the event of the formation of a National Government, the number could go up. Parliament approved the increase of Cabinet Ministers to 48 and non-cabinet ministers to 45.
On 9 September 2015, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe formed a National Government with a total of 46 Cabinet Ministers, 19 State Ministers and 22 Deputy Ministers.This was the first time in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history that two major parties had formed a National Unity Government.
However, partly because of personality differences between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe and partly due to the contradictory provisions of the 19 th.Amendment, the government became dysfunctional. This state was on public display when, despite the availability of accurate intelligence from India, the government could not prevent the multiple bombings carried out by Islamic terrorists on Easter Sunday in 2019.
Prior to that, in 2018, the UNP had suffered a crushing defeat in the 2018 local bodies’ elections. It was able to secure only 34 councils out of 340, while Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proxy the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won 231 councils. The SLPP got 44.65% and the UNP 32.63% of the votes.
Because of its failure to address the concerns of the people and its failure to win elections, the party was in turmoil with many calling for Wickremesinghe’s ouster. Eventually, Wickremesinghe was forced to give up his ambition of standing for the Presidential election again. He agreed to support Sajith Premadasa, the party’s Deputy Leader. But the SLPP’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the election with 52.25% of the votes and Sajith got 41.99%.
The defeat led to a formal split in the UNP with the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) emerging as a separate outfit under Sajith Premadasa. The UNP and the SJB fought the August 2020 parliamentary elections separately. The split was one of the factors which helped the SLPP win 150 seats out of 225. The SJB got 54 and the UNP none.
The UNP had suffered its worst-ever defeat in its history, receiving only 249,435 votes, which was 2.15% of the valid votes cast. For the first time in its history, it had failed to win a single seat in parliament. It got a National List seat though thanks to the Proportional Representation System. Clearly, Wickremesinghe had made a grievous mistake by not giving the leadership to Sajith and cooperating with him at the appropriate time.
So what ailed the UNP? Leave alone disunity at national level, the party old guard did not want to give way to the young. The leadership was more intent on helping and safeguarding its friends and political cohorts’ interests than in meeting the needs of the people and the party cadres.
I am in no doubt that the founder members of the Grand Old Party must be turning in their graves. It is amazing that even with the party in ruins, Wickremesinghe is refusing to vacate the leadership. The fact that the few leaders still left in the UNP have not been unable to oust him and elect a new leader shows that disunity still plagues the party. A party which was led by stalwarts like D.S. Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake and R.Premadasa is now nothing but a coterie of Lilliputians.
However, the UNP, as an ideology, cannot be written off as its voter base is not inconsiderable. In the 2018 local bodies’ elections, it got 32.63% while the SLPP got 44.65%. In the November 2019 Presidential election, it got 41.99%. And in the August 2020 parliamentary elections, the SJB, which is but an offshoot of the UNP, got nearly 24%. Therefore, what the UNP got was a drubbing and not annihilation. If the UNP/SJB’s constituency is consolidated by the emergence of a suitable mass leader, it can be revived.
Alternatively, the SJB can be deemed to be an incarnation of the old UNP and built up as such, just as the SLPP has emerged as the new incarnation of the SLFP and is building itself up under the Rajapaksas. There is light at the end of the tunnel for UNP supporters.
(The featured image at the top shows Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa when the UNP was united)