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Political Establishment Under Siege: Crisis of the UNP, SLFP, SLPP, SJB

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by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The political establishment is under siege and it is the JVP-NPP that is doing the besieging. That’s the good news. The bad news is that opinion polls show another 30% uncommitted to all major political parties. That’s the real anti-establishment populist swing vote, which can go either Left, which is no bad thing, or to the radical nationalist Right, which is a very bad thing.

The siege of the political establishment is the result of the erosion of the social bases of the parties of the political establishment, the parties that have wielded state power. No erosion, no state of siege.

The parties of the political establishment are the UNP, SLFP, SLPP and SJB. The Old Left were a part of the old establishment but their performance during the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration was never forgiven by the electorate and they have been fossilized for decades now. The CPSL is showing welcome signs of life but will have to struggle harder to stay on the surface of politics.

UNP

The UNP collapsed parabolically and in the final stage of 2015-2019, implosively, under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Opinion polls show no sign of social recovery with the UNP still falling short of making it even into double-digits.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s modest recovery of popularity, to 19%, which is less than half of Sajith Premadasa’s 42% in November 2019, is unlikely to revive the UNP as an electorally viable major player.

SLFP

The SLFP’s collapse is even more dramatic than that of the UNP. Having been out of office for 17 years, it recovered splendidly to produce the country’s presidents and thereby lead the nation from 1994 to 2019, i.e., for a quarter-century.

Today though led by a former elected president, it is a pathetic heap of political dinosaurs heaving a last breath while suffocating beneath their carcasses, the one youthful politician who could conceivably lead them to an electorally viable existence: Dayasiri Jayasekara. (He should hit the ejector button and parachute-out as soon as he can).

So, what happened to the SLFP? Simply put, Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to accept an alliance with Ranil instead of insisting on Karu J as UNP leader and partner—a decision that was made for him by the key architect of Yahapalanaya, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga—that finished-off the SLFP.

The axis with Ranil was to the SLFP that the axis with Sirimavo was to the old Left, i.e., toxic to the point of fatality.That leaves the two new parties and some new entities that arose from the ashes of the SLFP and UNP, the two traditional pillars of the democratic political establishment: SLPP, SJB, FPC, Uttara Lanka.

SLPP

The SLPP’s situation is surreal. It was born in response to the SLFP’s alliance in office with the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. It knows that the embrace of Ranil is politically, socially, electorally fatal not only for centrist parties like the SLFP and SLPP, but for the UNP itself. And yet, it remains Ranil’s prop.

The SLPP knows that there’s no political enemy easier to defeat at a Presidential election than Ranil. It knows that Ranil is utterly polarizing and socially toxic. In short Ranil is kryptonite. And yet the SLPP hangs onto him. The SLPP knows that it grew rapidly by opposing Ranil, just as its parent party the SLFP did under CBK and MR from 1999.

It knows that Ranil is now implementing the same policies that he tried to in 2001-2003 and 2015-2019, which MR campaigned against and won, while Ranil plunged to defeat as result of those policies. And yet the SLPP is supporting those policies or not opposing them though that’s the only growth medium available to it.

The SLPP knows that the SLFP led the country for 25 years and was succeeded by its spinoff the SLPP, making a total of 28 years by being anti-UNP and broadly speaking nationalist. And yet the SLPP is allied with the UNP today while the UNP’s leader, President Wickremesinghe is adopting his most controversially anti-national, unpatriotic set of policies ever.

The SLPP knows that the SLFP came out of electoral exile in 1994 and stayed at the helm of the country by shifting leaders: from Sirimavo to CBK to MR to MS to GR. The disaster came with Gotabaya, because both GR and BR thought they knew better than and were greater than MR. Therefore, when GR became President, he took away MR’s powers instead of sharing power with him and having him as an elder statesman and guide. Had Chamal been the choice, things would have been far less insanely catastrophic than on GR’s watch.

The SLPP will pay with interest for three wrong choices: Gota instead of Chamal; an amendment which stripped MR of almost all power and influence and finally, Ranil rather than its (MR’s) own ideologue of 2005-2010, Dullas Alahapperuma.

Now the SLPP is paying for GR policies and will, on top of that, pay for Ranil’s policies too. This is not merely a question of right and wrong, but sane and insane. The SLPP is turning its back on everything that ever worked for it and embracing the very things that wrecked the UNP and SLFP, while it somehow expects a different outcome. That is an advanced version of Einstein’s definition of lunacy. It is actually a recipe for suicide—unless Namal Rajapaksa has the sense of self-preservation to make a sharp pivot back to his father’s populist-statist patriotism, with whoever may be willing to accompany him ( SWRD had only DA Rajapaksa).

FPC, Uttara Lanka

What of the FPC and Uttara Lanka? The FPC and some components of the Uttara Lanka have a future as an intelligent, social democratic center-left, in united actions with all Opposition parties to secure elections next year, as well as in a coalition with Sajith Premadasa’s SJB. A Sajith-Dullas ticket seems to me the closest approximation of a progressive centrist option.

However, that’s the optimistic scenario. The pessimistic one is that the FPC and Uttara Lanka will split along the lines of social democratic center-left vs. Sinhala ultranationalism (Wimal, Udaya, Gevindu, Channa Jayasumana).

Finally, that leaves the SJB.

SJB

The SJB has to decide between “readiness for constructive cooperation on progressive responses to national issues” with Ranil Wickremesinghe – arrant nonsense which grants that the latter is capable of such policies—and generating oppositional traction for a Presidential race next year against Ranil as incumbent and AKD as front-running anti-incumbent/anti-establishment candidate.

The SJB also has to decide whether it stands for a continuation of the economic policies of Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2001-2004 and 2015-2019, OR a continuation of the radically different economic policies of President Premadasa. Where does it pick up from and continue, 1993 and the policies of Premadasa abandoned by the UNP, or 2001-2004 and 2015-2019 and the policies of Ranil?

If it is to revive the progressive center and renovate the democratic political order, the SJB has to recover from its political schizophrenia.


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