Colombo, Politics and Governance

The UNP’s Leadership Crisis: An Individual Conflict with Catastrophic Prospects or Redefinition of Current Political Tasks

Image courtesy Transcurrents


The current crisis in the UNP has thrown its grassroots supporters into a sense of hopelessness and disappointment about the future of the party. No political party can afford to let itself disintegrate and disappear from the political stage. If the present crisis is not resolved, it leaves behind a power vacuum and renders whole section of society unrepresented. The UNP’s disunity has already undermined its power, a weakening that would be compounded by a hemorrhaging of its supporters.

Throughout its political journey into maturity and beyond, the UNP has always been able to attract ideologically and politically different individuals and social groups to face dramatic changes in the country’s political climate. From Philip Gunawardane a pioneering traditional Marxist and his MEP, in the 1960’s to the JVP more recently the UNP has demonstrated its ability to lure into their ranks, groups and individuals from widely differing political backgrounds. They made electoral pacts with the UNP despite the UNP’s bourgeois political views and reactionary political programs. But those individuals and groups had to pay a political price for these electoral pacts and alliances. When we were involved in the class struggle in the 1960’s and 1970’s onwards the correct political characterization of the UNP as “the enemy of the people” was somewhat obscured as the  class struggle was over determined by the ethnic issue by the beginning of the 1980s . During 1987-1989   the JVP’s anti-devolutionary Sinhalese armed rebellion was defeated by the UNP government. This military and political victory over the JVP was historic as it   saved the Sri Lankan parliamentary democracy from disappearing into a dark age of our political history. At present any possible demise of the UNP as a political party should be considered a serious issue for two reasons. For the democratic and political health of Sri Lanka, there needs to be a resolute and determined political opposition to challenge the   authoritarian tendencies of the current regime. Secondly the lack of a strong people-based democratic opposition to the regime always presents the danger of the possible intervention of armed groups within Sri Lankan politics.

This article attempts to reflect on the UNP’s current crisis, moving the debate forward from the current debate which has solely revolved around the salvatory figure of a new leader for the party

Moral, intellectual and political hegemony

The UNP is the second oldest party in the country and has been elected   into office a number of times in its political history. The UNP’s defeats as well as electoral successes cannot be considered in isolation from the highs and lows of other political parties which have contributed to their electoral fortunes. The UNP’s monumental and historic defeat in 1956 ushered a new social and political upheaval which mapped out the future political direction of the country until the present day. In that sense it was epoch making. The UNP was crushed without pity for the first time and it was not the last time. The underlying theoretical and political analysis of such defeats as well victories is well established. As Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Note Books (2007) points out “…the supremacy of a social group manifest itself in two ways, as “domination”    and as “intellectual and moral leadership”. …a social group can and indeed must, already exercise “leadershipbefore winning governmental power”. Gramsci further states that the continuation of this leadership as “the parliamentary expressionof “intellectual, moral and political hegemony” (pp.57-58).

Prior to the SLFP and MEP’s electoral victory in the historic 1956 election, it was apparent that the UNP regime had been severely weakened by the 1953 general strike, which had eventually led to the resignation of Dudely Senanayake.  The UNP, party of the big land owners and the rural and urban elites as well as the pro-imperialist contingency in Sri Lanka had not only lost its political leadership over the masses they had once enjoyed. The election demonstrated without any doubt the UNP had also lost the claim to moral and intellectual leadership. In a two party system, the other party always benefits from the losses of one. In the 1970 election the UNP was electorally crushed again by the SLFP led left- wing coalition. During this period, however, the SLFP led government (1970-1977) lost its popularity paving the way for the UNP to win back the governmental power by an unprecedented majority. The political repression and economic mismanagement as well as in the absence of solutions to the growing rural and urban poverty during the SLFP led coalition had made such a repressive impact on the masses, the UNP’s rise was clearly visible long before the elections were held in 1977.The SLFP-led left wing coalition had lost its mandate to govern.  With the UNP’s landslide then came the new constitution, political repression and the massacre of Tamils in Colombo by Sinhalese thugs in July 1983.

Since 1956 there has been a clear trend in both UNP and SLFP’s political history when electoral victories enabled them to consolidate their political and cultural hegemony over the other parties. However, this power base was limited to the Sinhalese community, excluding minority communities, particularly the Tamil speaking people in the North and East.  This has been chronic condition in the Sri Lankan body politic, a source of the current political instability of our democracy. More precisely it has been the failure of the capitalist parties as well as the traditional left parties individually or collectively to work towards a Sri Lankan nationhood by incorporating all nationalities in the country. They never achieved a political hegemony or intellectual, moral and political leadership beyond the Sinhalese polity. Any future leader of the UNP will have to shoulder this enormous historical and national responsibility. Furthermore, he or she will have to demonstrate political vision, direction and passionate conviction in achieving this historical task.

UNP’s current predicament

The genesis of the UNP’s current predicament has been partly historical and partly self- inflicted. Of the Sinhalese political parties, it has been the UNP which has borne the brunt of LTTE assassinations. The LTTE assassinated President Premadasa and the entire second tier of popular and able leaders such as Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranjan Senanayake.This paved the way for Ranil Wickramasinhe who is the last prince of the post-war political dynastic family of the Jayewardene and Wijewardane clan. In a country where the first qualification to be a political leader in capitalist political parties is to be born and brought up in the right family, what matters is not the talent or political capability to lead but dynastic credentials. Thus, political mediocrity is institutionalized in the party. The UNP under the leadership of Ranil Wickramasinhe was never able to reach a credible political assessment of the danger posed by the totalitarian LTTE towards the functioning of a political democracy and the threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.  When there was a crossover of large number of MP’s including current Deputy Leader Karu Jayasooriya to the government in February 2006 over the war issue Ranil Wickramasinhe still failed to get the message. When it became clear that the UPFA government was winning the war, Ranil was ridiculing the war efforts. This political misjudgment of the mood of the Sinhalese people led to an unprecedented victory for the UPFA.   The UNPs current political strategy continues to isolate and weaken it. It has to meet the urgent political task of maintaining an effective and unyielding political opposition to the erosion of democratic freedoms. This involves recapturing mass support amongst the Sri Lankan people and mounting an effective political opposition to the Government.

Changing the leader

The current UNP leadership crisis and their disunity has become a source of disappointment and disillusion to its members and grassroots supporters. Rienzie Algama’s self-immolation pleading for the party unity demonstrated this recently. Since Ranil Wickramasinhe leadership’s achievements or lack of it have raised strong doubts about his capacity to lead the party, Sajith Premadasa has raised his leadership stakes. Either Ranil or Sajith has a monumental task to achieve as they are facing so far the most popular post-colonial and post-war elected state amongst the Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka. This is despite the crucial need to challenge the current Government. An effective opposition is a vital part of a healthy democratic culture. Since Ranil has been responsible for the current predicament of the party, his ability to raise the party’s moral standing above the current regime is doubtful. The UNP will have to reach beyond the confines of the Sinhalese polity in order to incorporate the Tamil and Muslim community, its historical and traditional allies. In order to do this any UNP leaders need to address the minority issues with a clear program of devolution of power. Neither Ranil Wickramasinhe nor Sajith Premadasa has shown any real vision, resoluteness and foresight on this. Sajith has never expressed any views on the devolution of power. This silence demonstrates their intentions to focus only on winning support among the Sinhalese community.  This is despite the fact that the current regime is particularly vulnerable on issues such as human rights and the rule of law. A new leader with an effective strategy should aim to capitalize on this. Any more incidents similar to  Mervyn Silva’s unlawful acts, public harassments and humiliation of government officers can erode the government’s moral and intellectual hegemony fast.


If Sajith is able to become the new leader   of the UNP it would be a commencement of another political dynasty following his father reign in the party. However, Sajith’s capacity to convince the parliamentary party and to provide genuine leadership remains hypothetical at this stage. What is clear, however, is that Ranil’s ability to deliver what is urgent and necessary in making the UNP the vanguard of the anti-government struggle has failed dismally. This has given fresh opportunities for the government to exploit the UNP’s misfortunes further weakening its ability to reconstruct its electoral base. This outcome would only serve to further undermine the health of Sri Lankan democracy and the political predicament of its minority communities.