The United National Party is one of Sri Lanka’s main political parties with an illustrious history of years in power, as well as a record of strong opposition within the island nation’s parliament. Over the years however, the party has deteriorated into a shell of its once former glorious self and is now left with just one seat in the parliament; the same seat that Sri Lanka’s now longest serving politician has filled.
Much of the UNP’s downfall over the years is being attributed to the leadership of Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is seen by many of his critics to be a man unable to let go of his throne of leadership within the party.
The United National Party (UNP), which Wickremesinghe has been leading since 1994, suffered a major setback at the 2020 parliamentary polls when the party faced its worst election defeat in history. Wickremesinghe's UNP was bestowed with just two percent of the vote and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the breakaway UNP faction, became the main opposition party in the country by winning 40 seats as opposed to UNP’s embarrassing and solitary seat.
Although Wickremesinghe was a defeated candidate in the August 2020 parliamentary election, his entry to parliament has been made possible by the solitary seat the UNP won, through the National list of appointed members based on the cumulative votes polled nationally.
The current opposition leader, Premadasa, may lack the knowledge and sophistication of Wickremesinghe, but is a politician who can appeal to the poor and lower-middle-class voters
For 10 months, Wickremesinghe resisted the move to return to parliament. He said this week that he was forced by the party rank to return as a parliamentarian, to voice the concerns of the people of Sri Lanka who are facing widespread crises, both economic and pandemic-related. The irony of this reasoning is seen in the fact that a man whose party only won one seat, is claiming to want to speak for the people of a country that rejected him and his politics less than a year ago.
Speaking after taking the oath, Wickremesinghe blamed the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for the current economic problems and advocated a return to an International Monetary Fund bailout programme.
The heavy media attention given to him which owed to his becoming the talk of the town in Colombo, despite a plethora of other issues plaguing the country, prove that he is still one of the most prominent politicians in Sri Lanka. That he returned to parliament despite his longest time away from it, speak volumes of his stubborn determination to hold on to the position of party Leader as well as his old strategy of ensuring that no alternative leadership figures are allowed to emerge from within the party to challenge his position. It shows how far the UNP has fallen from the 1980s and early 1990s, when it had leadership figures in abundance, so much so that Ranil Wickremesinghe was not at the forefront of that pack. Today, devoid of a strong leadership figure to challenge Wickremesinghe, the grand old party has had to boomerang its future into the hands of the same figure that relegated it to the back of the line in terms of Sri Lanka’s main political parties.
The attention garnered by Wickremesinghe leading up to his return to parliament is also an indictment of the opposition and the fact that Sajith Premadasa has failed to strengthen and solidify his position as the leader of the opposition. Wickremesinghe has served as the prime minister five times and has held the UNP Leader position for over two-and-a-half decades, withstanding numerous challenges to his leadership. He has done this by biding time, being patient, and having a thick skin which has absorbed all criticism and insults directed at him. There is a lesson there for Premadasa, who is politically young compared to Wickremesinghe and now faces the most serious threat to his leadership since assuming his position as Leader of Sri Lanka’s opposition last year.
It is highly unlikely that Wickremesinghe could become the opposition leader of this parliament, but he could become the de facto opposition leader unless Premadasa can turn the tide in his favour. It is interesting in this equation to ask which of them would be preferred by the government as opposition leader. Wickremesinghe is a well-read, experienced, and knowledgeable politician who will attack the government on the important areas such as the economy and health in a pointed manner, as he did in his speech in parliament on Wednesday. However, despite all this clarity of thought and fact-based arguments and vision, it has been proven again and again that he cannot win an election. Ranil Wickremasinghe appears to be out of touch with the needs and sentiments of the common man; he represents a section of Colombo’s elite, therefore not providing any real or threatening opposition to the strong Rajapaksa dynasty of government.
The current opposition leader, Premadasa, may lack the knowledge and sophistication of Wickremesinghe, but is a politician who can appeal to the poor and lower-middle-class voters due to his father’s (former President Ranasinghe Premadasa) popularity and his own branding as a friend to the poor. Premadasa is capable of capturing the votes from the Rajapaksa voting base, despite his less-than-flattering image among urban circles.
The government is well aware of Premadasa’s vote pulling capabilities and would prefer a highly critical but electorally ineffective Wickremesinghe as the most prominent Opposition politician. Therefore, the return of Wickremesinghe will be a welcome sight for the government and an unpleasant challenge for Premadasa, who must now contend with a government treating the former as the de facto Leader of the opposition and a tool to divide the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and at the same time, fighting the well-established notion that Wickremesinghe is the more intellectual politician. It is the first major challenge to Premadasa since forming the SJB early last year, and it will be fascinating to watch whether he withers or blooms under pressure.
As for Ranil Wickremesinghe, the people of Sri Lanka can be sure that with this latest re-entry into active political life after his vacation of 10 months, will be the beginning of many more years of fiery rhetoric within Parliament, but empty echo-chambers within what is left of the UNP itself. Sri Lanka needs fresh-faced Leaders. It is the only real way to establish true change in a country which has long been short-changed by those who try to lead it.
The writer is a lawyer, teacher and political commentator based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She can be reached on Twitter @writergirl_11