The Government’s Opposition Leader
Yesterday (23), ending his longest time away from Sri Lanka’s Parliament, United National Party (UNP) Leader and veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as a MP and the only parliamentary representative of the UNP. Though lacking the power and influence he enjoyed before, the heavy media attention given and him becoming the talk of the town despite myriad other issues, prove that he is still one of the most prominent politicians in Sri Lanka.
That he returned to Parliament itself is a testament to his unmatched 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. Simultaneously, it proves once again 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 on 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 three times and has held the UNP Leader position for over two-and-a-half decades, withstanding numerous challenges to his leadership, including the latest one following the humiliating defeat suffered by him and the party in the August 2020 election. 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 that position 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. Here, the answer is quite straightforward. 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 yesterday when he went as far as to question the role of Army Commander and National Operations Centre for the Prevention of the Covid-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) Head Gen. Shavendra Silva in Sri Lanka’s pandemic response. 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, and has not come close to winning an election he fronted since the 2005 Presidential Election.
Premadasa, while he may lack the knowledge and sophistication of Wickremesinghe, is a politician who can appeal to the poor and lower-middle-class voters due to his father former President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s popularity and his own branding as a friend to the poor. Sajith Premadasa appears to have modelled himself on former President and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is ironic because it is believed that Rajapaksa modelled himself somewhat on Ranasinghe Premadasa. Either way, Premadasa is capable of capturing the votes from the Rajapaksa voting base, despite his less-than-flattering image among urban circles. This was aptly demonstrated when he managed to secure over 5.5 million votes, contesting despite all odds. He was contesting from the governing UNP, which was highly unpopular at the time; his campaign was limited to one month due to the delay in handing over the nomination to him, and he was running against the former Defence Secretary in a nation where national security had become the foremost concern of voters for the first time since the end of the war in 2009.
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 the pressure brings out the best in him or if it makes him wilt and retreat.