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This is my Nation


 What ails the UNP?

One primary aspect of the UNP’s downfall is that it appears not to have a cohesive set of policies to sell to the people, especially in relation to the ethnic issue. The UNP has long been seen to be ‘soft’ on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), especially since the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance has capitalised on this, projecting the UNP as a virtual LTTE proxy in the South. Hence the slogans that refers to an ‘ali-koti givisuma’

At the National Independence Day celebrations this week, seated adjacent to each other in the front row were three political figures: Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, better known as Karuna and Wimal Weerawansa. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words and in this instance it indeed was.

These three personalities with three absolutely different political ideologies were together because they all supported President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. And significantly, absent from the celebrations was Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe - his United National Party (UNP) was having its own ‘celebrations’ in Kundasale!

Last Wednesday’s Independence Day was celebrated by most in the country not because they were politically partisan but because it was the first time in many years that they could celebrate an imminent victory against terrorism. Yet the UNP, instead of joining in, chose to sulk and keep away. By doing so, they lost a valuable opportunity to tell the country that they indeed endorsed the war effort, politics notwithstanding.

All this begs the question: What ails the UNP?

It is quite convenient to heap all the blame on Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. As party leader he must take much of the flak but surely, Wickremesinghe is not the sole reason why the UNP is in the plight it is today.

One primary aspect of the UNP’s downfall is that it appears not to have a cohesive set of policies to sell to the people, especially in relation to the ethnic issue. The UNP has long been seen to be ‘soft’ on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), especially since the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has capitalised on this, projecting the UNP as a virtual LTTE proxy in the South. Hence the slogans that refers to an ‘ali-koti givisuma’.

Sadly the UNP has done little to counter this. Moreover, the Government’s recent successes in prosecuting the war against the Tigers has meant that the UNP’s popularity has dipped and the propaganda gurus in the Alliance can be trusted to exploit this to the maximum.

It has now reached a point where even hard-line UNPers concede grudgingly that the President’s war effort is something special. The less ardent average voter would of course express his appreciation by marking a cross on the ballot paper against the betel leaf!

There is little for the UNP to gain by raving and ranting that the Government is using the war for political mileage. Whether the UNP likes it or not, the war is being fought to a finish in the North and elections are being held in the South and the public psyche is such that for most people, relieved as they are that the war may finally be over, their way of saying ‘thank you’ would be to vote for the President or his party.

The UNP is yet to grasp this. It has now belatedly begun to heap praise on the war heroes but it seems to be too little, too late and keeping away from the Independence Day ceremonies last week underscores the fact that the party’s heart and soul is not with the war effort.

Then there are the personality conflicts and the absence of a clear hierarchy within the UNP. Wickremesinghe is still at the helm but the party pecking order becomes somewhat blurred thereafter.

There is Karu Jayasuriya, still No. 2 but not wielding the same clout since his return from political exile, and a host of others - S.B. Dissanayake, Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake and Vajira Abeywardene who consider themselves to be front-runners for eventual leadership in the UNP.

This ambiguity in terms of ‘who is next in line’ has resulted in many turf wars, compounded by Wickremesinghe’s concern about his own position as party leader. As a result, whenever a campaign is launched for an election, it is seen being a particular person’s campaign and not a party effort. Indeed, some in the UNP would wish for that campaign to fail, even if it hurts the party as it would leave the campaign spearhead with egg on his face.

A case in point is the Central Provincial Council election campaign. It has become S.B. Dissanayake’s campaign and many in the UNP fear that if Dissanayake wins, he would project himself as the man who finally won an election for the UNP and stake a leadership claim, if not now, sooner rather than later.

Hence, at a time when the entire UNP should have taken up residence in the Central Province where, in the entire country, it has the best chance of winning, there is hardly anyone to be seen save for Dissanayake loyalists. The UPFA on the contrary is leaving nothing to chance and even President Mahinda Rajapaksa has virtually camped at President’s House in Kandy, conducting most of his affairs from there.

If this trend continues, the UNP will soon face an exodus because persons with political ambitions who feel that the party will not come to power in the near future will cast their lot with the Alliance; already Thilanga Sumathipala, former UNP organiser for the Anuradhapura District and Rohan Abeygoonasekera former UNP MP for Hanguranketa have done so and this may just be the beginning of a long list of crossovers.

Clearly, the UNP has a mammoth task ahead, if it is not to be beaten into political oblivion. It needs to get its policies straight, establish who’s who in the party ranks and inspire confidence among its leaders. Or else, Sri Lanka will soon have an opposition it does not deserve although some would say it already has.

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