By Professor S W R de A Samarasinghe
The two major political parties, in the south, have had a long tradition of being managed more like private clubs belonging to a particular family cabal than vital public institutions in a democracy. Whoever happens to be the leader has had an iron grip on the party. There is little inner-party democracy in such a set up. The significance of Sajith Premadasa’s victory over Ranil Wickremesinghe in the fight for the UNF presidential candidacy has to be evaluated against such a background.
The UNP, once known as the “Uncle-Nephew” Party, was under the control of the Senanayaka-Jayewardene-Wickremesinghe clan since its founding in 1946, for 73 years. The only exception was the short period from 1989 to 1993 when Ranasinghe Premadasa assumed the leadership. As leader Ranasinghe Premadasa was also as authoritarian as his predecessors that caused other prominent leaders such as Gamini Dissanayaka and Lalith Athulathmudli to leave the party in 1991.
The SLFP’s history is no different. The Bandaranaike family controlled it from its founding in 1951 to 2005 for 55 years. The Rajapaksas who took it over controlled it from 2006 to 2014. After Sirisena won the presidency in 2015 and became the SLFP leader Rajapaksa formed his own family-based party the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
Sajith Premadasa had to rely on an informal path in his fight against Wickremesinghe. He managed to put together a coalition from within the UNP that included some well-known Ranil Wickremesinghe loyalists who actually owe their political life largely to the latter. The Premadasa group also reflected, broadly speaking, the opinion of the party base. Led by Premadasa they challenged Wickremesinghe and overcame the grip that the latter had for over 20 years on the all-powerful UNP working committee.
The battle did not change the party constitution. If party rules and governance remain unchanged Premadasa’s victory becomes a temporary event. It also paves the way for him to control the party the same way that Wickremesinghe did. But that would be shortsighted. Wickremesinghe’s defeat is a lesson to Premadasa that he too can meet with the same fate if he tries to impose his will regardless of what others in the party think and want to do.
It is true that the UNP convention held last week adopted resolutions that allow Wickremesinghe to remain as party leader until January 2024 and also retain the premiership if the party retains its majority in parliament.
However, if Premadasa wins the presidency the political dynamic will change radically empowering Premadasa to adopt a new party constitution and democratize the party. He can give a greater voice to the elected MPs, provincial councilors, local government representatives, trade union leaders, women’s organization, youth organizations and district organizations and so on.
Such reform will have two main benefits, one for the party and the other for the country. More democratic inner-party governance is likely to make the party more attractive, especially to the younger generation. The country will benefit from having a major political party that is more broad-based and also compel other rival parties to consider their own reform.
The kind of changes that have been suggested above cannot be done overnight. However, Premadasa has the opportunity to at least hint of such change and gain some immediate mileage for his current campaign.
First, it will make the party activists more enthusiastic to support him. Second, it will highlight the difference between the party that he leads and the SLPP. Third, it may also persuade some of the minor Yaha Paalanaya (Good Governance) candidates and their supporters to back Premadasa. Fourth, and most importantly, it will be a signal to the voter that when Premadasa says he will usher in a “new leadership for a new Sri Lanka” he means what he says.