Endangered national parties

by Sugeeswara Senadhira

The two national political parties − United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) − ruled the country for the last seven decades either as individual parties or giving leadership to combined fronts or jointly as seen in the last three years, are faced with internal crisis of unprecedented nature today.

The crisis in UNP began with the renewal of the demand, for a change of leadership. However, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe succeeded in defusing the situation, at least for the time being, by offering a restructuring package.
While Wickremesinghe remains the Leader and Sajith Premadasa and Ravi Karunanayake as Deputy Leader and Assistant Leader respectively, the other key office-bearers were changed.

Wickremesinghe loyalist Akila Viraj Kariyawasam was named General Secretary. Other changes are, Navin Dissanayake as the National Organizer, Kabir Hashim as the Chairman, Harsha de Silva as the Treasurer and Ruwan Wijewardena as the Assistant Secretary General.
There were no serious objections to the new office-bearers, except for Ravi Karunanayake. At least one person — Joseph Michael Perera — resigned from the Executive Committee, objecting to the Karunanayake’s appointment.

Wickremesinghe supposedly informed Karunanayake that his appointment was subject to a condition that he would be removed if he were found connected to the Central Bank Bond issue.
Apart from Joseph Michael Perera, there were other objections to Karunanayake’s appointment. Furthermore, there were some demands for a change in the leadership. The dissenting voices include Ajith C. Perera, Ranjan Ramanayake, Vasantha Senanayake, Sujeeva Senasinghe and Daya Perera.
However, to give momentum to the demand for a change of leadership, a front-ranker will have to give leadership. The dissidents are waiting for Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa to take a stand on this vital issue, but he keeps everybody guessing.
Although the leadership issue has been solved with the restructuring strategy, a substantial section of the UNPers has already expressed dissatisfaction with the reforms. The crisis is likely to resurface in the not so distant future.
The SLFP too are going in for reforms, but the party is officially in three segments – one as a Joint Opposition, the second group which consists 16 who are planning to sit in the Opposition while supporting the party President Maithripala Sirisena and the other group includes 23 odd MPs who are willing to continue with the Unity Government.
The future of the SLFP will largely depend on the performances of the Government in the next 18 to 20 months. The Government will have to show positive results to improve on 15 per cent votes the party obtained as SLFP together with allies in the UPFA.

On the other hand the Podu Jana Peramuna (PJP) too will have to improve its 40 per cent strong voter base if it is to form a Government. It will be a tough task, as the new party seems to be heavily dependent of Sinhala Buddhist votes and unlikely to get the support of the minorities.
On the other hand, the UNP will also find it very difficult to fill the gap between the near 30 per cent votes polled in favour of them at the 10 February Local Government elections and the magical figure of 50 per cent to form a government on its own.
It is too early to predict if the two national parties are at the risk of becoming extinct. To push UNP and SLFP into oblivion, strong alternatives will have to be found.

The JVP is the third force in the country and it is very clear that the people have no faith in the revolutionary left-wing party to elevate it to national level. The PJP will have to get at least 15 per cent more votes than what they had got last time, to be a national alternative.
In the democratic world, we have seen few examples of replacement of national parties, but they are very rare and time consuming.
Mother of Westminster Parliamentary System, the United Kingdom saw an emergence of the Liberal Party to challenge the powerful Conservatives in the 18th Century. In 1906, the Liberal Party won 398 seats out of the total 670 in Parliament and formed the Government, but by 1970, it could win only six seats.

The Liberal debacle was due to the rise of Labour Party, which won only a single seat in 1900. However, over the years the Labour Party grew steadily and managed to be the main Opposition, pushing the Liberal Party to the third place. Finally, the Labour Party defeated the powerful Conservatives to form a strong Government in 1945 winning 393 seats.
In India, the Congress Party ruled without a challenge for three decades. The Janata Party with the support of Jana Sangh and Congress dissidents led by Morarji Desai, managed to topple the Congress Party rule in 1977 for the first time. However, before long Janata Party disintegrated into fractions and paved the way for the Congress Party to come back in 1980.
Once again the Opposition unified behind Jana Sangh, which was then called Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to defeat the Congress.
Now in India we find two strong parties − BJP and the Congress Party. However, the Congress Party will not be able to come to power alone and it will have to get the support of minor parties and regional parties to come back to power in 2019.
In Sri Lanka, the two national parties are yet to become endangered species, but the time will tell if they will ride over the current turbulences or perish. Inner democracy in the two national parties should be the order of the day.

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