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What went wrong with UNP?

By Kanishka Ratnapriya
There is a conflict within the grand old party. But conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. It can lead to constructive change. Particularly in Hindu thought, conflict can be a destroyer but it can also be a creator of something new. Furthermore, no single person is responsible for causing conflict. This is based on the Buddhist concept of Pratityasamutpada or codependent origination. Everything grows together in mutual causation and we all share the responsibility for conflict.
On the other hand, resolving a conflict will need the right people to take the right decisions. Based on Christianity, we see that responsibility ultimately rests with individuals. It is their individual responsibilities, decisions and actions that promote the resolution of a conflict. Finally, if we were to follow Islamic thought then we would understand that true strength comes from working together towards a common goal, including responsibility for the well being of all. In interpreting this thought, we go beyond working together in resolving a dispute to benefit each other and move towards resolving a dispute to benefit others. Resolving a conflict so that we can work together to help a wider constituency that needs help. There are 4 premises here which deal with how conflict changes any entity, how everyone shares a stake in the creation and end of conflict and finally, how it can be solved together for the benefit of all.
However, coming from an outsider perspective into the UNP’s internal dynamics it was necessary to understand the complexities and intricacies of the UNP’s current context. For this purpose it was necessary to speak to select political leaders about their views regarding what the current problem in the UNP was, what solutions were available and immediate steps could be taken to redefine and redesign the UNP. The answers of political leaders were quite analytical and complex, but constructive. Following are the excerpts:

Members removed from Working Committee should be reinstated

The UNP MP for Kurunegala District stated that there are a number of steps that can be taken by different groups within the UNP to resolve its problems. These steps must be based on a number of key principles. All members of the UNP leadership must take up national social issues and question the government. It is the opposition’s duty to raise people’s issues into the limelight and talk on behalf of them.
Everyone has the right to believe and express their own political ideology especially in a political party. The UNP is a party in which different views come together to work as one. After resolving any leadership issue we must work with everybody. We must unite all groups back into the party and not discard them.

MP Jayasekara had some practical suggestions on how to resolve the present crisis. Firstly, the leadership must understand that this is a very serious issue and that it must be resolved once and for all. There must be no more games.
Secondly, UNP voter perceptions should be represented in the party working committee. Hence, the working committee should be democratic in nature and not authoritarian. Members that were removed from the Working Committee should be reinstated. And there should be a wide representation when the working committee takes future decisions.
Thirdly, once you have retaken the members you should have a fresh vote for the post of national organizer. Change the party constitution if you must, but the main point here is that you must have a just vote. The impediment of a legal process in this regard will be removed.
Fourthly, we must be allowed to have conceptual disagreements within the party. This is the only way that we can make a party which appeals to all sectors of the population. We have differences in opinion but we work together as a opposition for the people.
Lastly, although there may be a legal problem in appointing a new leader due to a one year term stipulation, if there is a consensus for a new leader then the necessary changes must be made to allow him to become the leader. It is essential that we join together. We have a lot of national issues such as poverty, corruption and a deteriorating democratic condition. We need a strong opposition to raise these issues.

UNP needs overall change in outlook and politics

UPFA Cabinet Minister for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Dr. Rajitha Senaratne stated that the present problem of the UNP is connected to its ideological line during the war against terrorism.
The UNP’s stance during the war was in opposition to the government and the people perceived this to be unpatriotic. He stated that there should be an overall change in the outlook and politics of the UNP to a more nationalistic persona.
Dr. Senaratne suggested that the UNP should be self critical of their activities and politics. There should be a deeper look into the UNP leadership and its leadership structures with an emphasis on choosing a new policy path. The leadership must be willing to resolve the crisis in a way that it will benefit the party leadership.
When asked whether Dr. Senaratne would go back to the UNP if there were any major changes within the UNP and the political climate, he stated that the political climate of the country will not change because the government has a sustainable policy plan up to 2016. Even if the UNP goes through a reform process it will not be able to parallel the government’s vision.

We must ‘rebrand’ ourselves

The UNP MP for the Kegalle District felt that ‘on the outside’ the UNP’s conflict looks like a leadership problem but this was only one problem. He stated that to solve the UNP conflict we must look deeper into the party. Historically, the UNP stood for a particular set of values, vision and policy from 1994 to 2001 as a part of the ‘old package’ of the UNP.
After 2001 the UNP package was seen to be focussed on a liberal economy and western thinking. This was not anybody’s fault. The leadership at the time assessed the dire economic situation and had to take certain decisions such as cutting down welfare measures. Hence, although traditionally we had supported the poor and welfare, we were seen as a ‘world bank dictated’ party.

Hence, when the ethnic issue started to gain momentum, Mahinda Rajapaksa started to gain power and ethno nationalism was given credence, the UNP took a major beating. For this reason the present UNP suffers from an ‘inferiority complex’ in which people perceive the UNP to be less nationalistic. They see our policies and principles as being anti national. But without addressing this problem we have only fought amongst ourselves.
MP Hashim suggested a number of strategies to counter the dualistic problem of a leadership crisis and continuous defeat. He stated that a leadership change will not be the only way out. There must be a complete repackaging of the UNP’s economic, social and political policies. It must move away from its Liberal Economic policy and move towards Social Democracy maybe. In the international sphere the liberal economic model has failed and countries have discovered that more state intervention is needed in economic policy.
The UNP has always had a good policy in this regard with a firm belief and a good model of state intervention. The J. R. Jayewardene years are a good example of this. On this other hand since 1994 this government has not had a stable economic policy. It has adopted various economic positions to secure its local vote base. In truth this government actually privatizes and are more open market oriented than us, because they sell rupee bonds to foreign powers.
The UNP is naturally nationalistic but bad at marketing its image in this sense. For example the JVP says that we are elitist. But the UNP distributed free school uniforms, food, housing, health and took effective welfare measures during its terms in power. So what we need to do is actually ‘rebrand’ ourselves. After this we must associate and recruit the right people to market our party from inside the party. We must promote talented young people in our party into the right positions.
Hashim said that J. R. Jayewardene had identified the right people at the right time and put together a good team that cut across societal cleavages. All sections of Sri Lankan society were represented. Lastly, Mr. Hashim stated that the grass roots organizational structure of the UNP must be put back together. There must be an active and operational UNP branch organisation in every village. The UNP must start to network and get down to the basics. It must have UNP activists in every part of the country and be able to mobilise at least 1 million people at once. For this purpose organisers appointed to every electorate must get down to the ground, build and network with people.

Think of the party at this current juncture

The UNP Member of Parliament Ramiah Yogarajan stated that the party is finding it difficult to win elections. Hence, people are blaming the current UNP senior leadership for this situation when in truth it is not the leadership that must bear the brunt of the blame. Furthermore, the media is not available to the UNP. There is a blackout on what we have to say. Hence, the whole party; especially leaders, members of parliament and organizers must go to the grass roots and start to work very closely with the people. Because the media is unavailable to us, we must go the grass roots and explain the current predicament our country is in right now.

We must also explain what strategies the UNP will employ to rectify the political, economic and social imbalances in our country. All leaders must not think of themselves at this current moment. They must not try to create a niche for themselves at the expense of unity. They must unite this party and give leadership to the people at the grass roots level. Our leaders must be selfless in this regard. The very next step we must take is to sit down together, discuss our issues and resolve our disputes. We must think of the party at this current juncture. We must initiate programs at the grass roots level like the Grama Charika. We must also bear in mind that we should not discuss internal party issues out in the public forum. It is essential that we talk about these issues inside the party and resolve them.