Editorial/Opinion

The UNP and its obstacles to nomination

Screen to Print by Dinouk Colombage

With Gotabaya Rajapaksa unveiled as the presidential candidate for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), attention has now turned to the United National Party (UNP) and their ongoing debate over who will represent them at the upcoming presidential election.

On Sunday (11), ending months of speculation, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was announced by his brother and newly appointed SLPP Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as their party’s candidate. The newly formed political party based their nomination on the hope that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as the Defence Secretary that oversaw the end of the war will help overshadow his apparent lack of political expertise.

With the vocal public suggesting they will welcome a figure outside the established political elite, the younger Rajapaksa’s arrival on the scene seems fortuitous for the SLPP. He too has adopted the persona of a non-political figure, choosing to surround himself with former members of the armed forces and members of the business community. It was this apparent shunning of the old political guard that resulted in questions being raised over whether or not the SLPP will in fact nominate him.

However, the former First Family was able to once again re-exert their control over the political front by placing at the front a Gotabaya Rajapaksa-Mahinda Rajapaksa ticket.

UNP’s options

Contrary to the selection of the SLPP candidate, which was done by the Rajapaksa family and limited to their family members, the UNP is currently faced with three different options – Prime Minister and long-serving UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, UNP Deputy Leader and son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa – Sajith Premadasa – and Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya.

The UNP currently finds itself divided between the three candidates, with the greater majority divided between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa.

Wickremesinghe is the long-serving leader of the UNP, having assumed leadership following a turbulent period which saw the assassinations of Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulatmudali, and Gamini Dissanayake in quick succession. With the leadership of the party decimated, Wickremesinghe was forced to oversee the rebuilding of the party. This left them in the Opposition for 21 years with an interim three-year period in the early 2000s where the UNP was in government.

However, it was through the leadership of Wickremesinghe that the UNP was able to survive all those years in the wilderness of the Opposition and finally return to power in 2015 on the back of two successive electoral victories at the presidential and general elections.

Wickremesinghe has often been accused by his detractors as a politician who cannot win elections. However, while an argument may be made that he does not enjoy the grassroots level support some of his contemporaries do, Wickremesinghe has shown an uncanny ability to unite the political spectrum at a time of need.

In 2014, with the advancement of the presidential election by a year, it was Wickremesinghe’s decision to withdraw his name as the UNP’s presidential candidate which allowed for a common candidate to be named. In that instance, the official and unofficial support of the minority parties, the JVP, and even members of the Rajapaksa Government was secured.

With the powerhouse coalition formed, the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election was secured.

Once again in 2018, faced with a constitutional coup launched by the President, Wickremesinghe was able to unite the political parties in Parliament along with civil society and the public as a whole to defeat the illegal manoeuvres instigated by the President.

While Wickremesinghe has shown himself capable of leading the party, the question is whether or not he is capable of winning an election.

Sajith Premadasa launched his bid to be named the presidential candidate for the UNP in Badulla on Monday (12). With several senior members of the UNP supporting his bid, the Minister of Housing and Construction has certainly laid down a marker in UNP politics.

Premadasa’s drive to be the presidential candidate is built on the promise that he would continue the programmes his father began in the 1980s and 1990s. With the senior Premadasa having been a political strongman, securing the UNP leadership and subsequently becoming President despite strong political opposition from within his camp, high hopes have been placed on his son.

Premadasa is a relatively unknown political figure for those not fluent in UNP politics. Known as the son of the former President, and sometimes opponent to Wickremesinghe for the leadership of the UNP, Premadasa has not set alight the national stage in Sri Lanka. With issues such as national security, religious harmony/extremism, and the economy taking centre stage, Premadasa will certainly need to diversify his policies, no longer relying solely on his ambitious housing projects around the country.

KaruJayasuriya is the third contender for the UNP presidential nomination. A senior figure in Sri Lankan politics, Jayasuriya has enjoyed a topsy-turvy relationship with the UNP. Having unsuccessfully challenged Wickremesinghe for the leadership in 2007, Jayasuriya crossed over with 18 MPs to the Rajapaksa Government. He, however, crossed back the next year; unfortunately, he was unable to bring back all 18 MPs with him.

Since then, Jayasuriya has risen to the rank of Speaker of Parliament and was at the forefront opposing the constitutional coup last year. His performances in Parliament gained him many accolades, which resulted in his name being suggested as the presidential candidate for the party.

Age is a factor for those considering Jayasuriya, with the vocal UNPers calling for a younger candidate in the hope that they will woo first-time voters.

A party divided

The UNP candidate will now be facing Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is capable of unifying a larger portion of the SinhalaBuddhist vote block behind him. However, what this Rajapaksa is not assured of is the support of the minorities in the country.

The UNP has recognised this and has been in discussions with several political parties, including those representing the minorities, to form a broad coalition. Unfortunately, the party’s priorities seem divided, with one faction demanding the unveiling of a candidate while the other faction supports the formation of a coalition first.

For the UNP to be successful at the upcoming election, the support of a coalition made up of parties representing all ethnicities is a must. The success at the 2015 presidential election was due to the overwhelming votes cast in its favour from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

While Premadasa does offer a window to the youth vote, his lack of leadership experience and narrow policy portfolio will play against him. For Wickremesinghe, his ability to unite a cross-section of the political parties will be a strength that is needed. However, his ability to win elections will be placed in the spotlight.

The best opportunity for the UNP would be to unveil a president-prime minister ticket, aiming for both individuals to play off the strengths of the other. With the presidency transforming into a position of symbolism rather than legislative power post 19th Amendment, the question parties must ask is where true power lies and who they would want to wield that power.

On Sunday (11), ending months of speculation, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was announced by his brother and newly appointed SLPP Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as their party’s candidate. The newly formed political party based their nomination on the hope that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as the Defence Secretary that oversaw the end of the war will help overshadow his apparent lack of political expertise.

With the vocal public suggesting they will welcome a figure outside the established political elite, the younger Rajapaksa’s arrival on the scene seems fortuitous for the SLPP. He too has adopted the persona of a non-political figure, choosing to surround himself with former members of the armed forces and members of the business community. It was this apparent shunning of the old political guard that resulted in questions being raised over whether or not the SLPP will in fact nominate him.

However, the former First Family was able to once again re-exert their control over the political front by placing at the front a Gotabaya Rajapaksa-Mahinda Rajapaksa ticket.

UNP’s options

Contrary to the selection of the SLPP candidate, which was done by the Rajapaksa family and limited to their family members, the UNP is currently faced with three different options – Prime Minister and long-serving UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, UNP Deputy Leader and son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa – Sajith Premadasa – and Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya.

The UNP currently finds itself divided between the three candidates, with the greater majority divided between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa.

Wickremesinghe is the long-serving leader of the UNP, having assumed leadership following a turbulent period which saw the assassinations of Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulatmudali, and Gamini Dissanayake in quick succession. With the leadership of the party decimated, Wickremesinghe was forced to oversee the rebuilding of the party. This left them in the Opposition for 21 years with an interim three-year period in the early 2000s where the UNP was in government.

However, it was through the leadership of Wickremesinghe that the UNP was able to survive all those years in the wilderness of the Opposition and finally return to power in 2015 on the back of two successive electoral victories at the presidential and general elections.

Wickremesinghe has often been accused by his detractors as a politician who cannot win elections. However, while an argument may be made that he does not enjoy the grassroots level support some of his contemporaries do, Wickremesinghe has shown an uncanny ability to unite the political spectrum at a time of need.

In 2014, with the advancement of the presidential election by a year, it was Wickremesinghe’s decision to withdraw his name as the UNP’s presidential candidate which allowed for a common candidate to be named. In that instance, the official and unofficial support of the minority parties, the JVP, and even members of the Rajapaksa Government was secured.

With the powerhouse coalition formed, the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election was secured.

Once again in 2018, faced with a constitutional coup launched by the President, Wickremesinghe was able to unite the political parties in Parliament along with civil society and the public as a whole to defeat the illegal manoeuvres instigated by the President.

While Wickremesinghe has shown himself capable of leading the party, the question is whether or not he is capable of winning an election.

Sajith Premadasa launched his bid to be named the presidential candidate for the UNP in Badulla on Monday (12). With several senior members of the UNP supporting his bid, the Minister of Housing and Construction has certainly laid down a marker in UNP politics.

Premadasa’s drive to be the presidential candidate is built on the promise that he would continue the programmes his father began in the 1980s and 1990s. With the senior Premadasa having been a political strongman, securing the UNP leadership and subsequently becoming President despite strong political opposition from within his camp, high hopes have been placed on his son.

Premadasa is a relatively unknown political figure for those not fluent in UNP politics. Known as the son of the former President, and sometimes opponent to Wickremesinghe for the leadership of the UNP, Premadasa has not set alight the national stage in Sri Lanka. With issues such as national security, religious harmony/extremism, and the economy taking centre stage, Premadasa will certainly need to diversify his policies, no longer relying solely on his ambitious housing projects around the country.

KaruJayasuriya is the third contender for the UNP presidential nomination. A senior figure in Sri Lankan politics, Jayasuriya has enjoyed a topsy-turvy relationship with the UNP. Having unsuccessfully challenged Wickremesinghe for the leadership in 2007, Jayasuriya crossed over with 18 MPs to the Rajapaksa Government. He, however, crossed back the next year; unfortunately, he was unable to bring back all 18 MPs with him.

Since then, Jayasuriya has risen to the rank of Speaker of Parliament and was at the forefront opposing the constitutional coup last year. His performances in Parliament gained him many accolades, which resulted in his name being suggested as the presidential candidate for the party.

Age is a factor for those considering Jayasuriya, with the vocal UNPers calling for a younger candidate in the hope that they will woo first-time voters.

A party divided

The UNP candidate will now be facing Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is capable of unifying a larger portion of the SinhalaBuddhist vote block behind him. However, what this Rajapaksa is not assured of is the support of the minorities in the country.

The UNP has recognised this and has been in discussions with several political parties, including those representing the minorities, to form a broad coalition. Unfortunately, the party’s priorities seem divided, with one faction demanding the unveiling of a candidate while the other faction supports the formation of a coalition first.

For the UNP to be successful at the upcoming election, the support of a coalition made up of parties representing all ethnicities is a must. The success at the 2015 presidential election was due to the overwhelming votes cast in its favour from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

While Premadasa does offer a window to the youth vote, his lack of leadership experience and narrow policy portfolio will play against him. For Wickremesinghe, his ability to unite a cross-section of the political parties will be a strength that is needed. However, his ability to win elections will be placed in the spotlight.

The best opportunity for the UNP would be to unveil a president-prime minister ticket, aiming for both individuals to play off the strengths of the other. With the presidency transforming into a position of symbolism rather than legislative power post 19th Amendment, the question parties must ask is where true power lies and who they would want to wield that power.