Thursday, November 6, 2014

Where the UNP has got it wrong

The title of this piece doesn't mean that getting things wrong is something the Opposition has been doing recently. Sure, there's the rhetoric of "good governance" and "democracy", but they don't fool anyone. The problem with those opposing Mahinda Rajapaksa and in particular the UNP from among them is that they've got some priorities wrong. Again, not a new thing. Now that an election will be called for in just two weeks' time (and, given the Budget, it's certain that this election's about vote-grabbing big-time), it might do well to run through where those contesting Mahinda have got it wrong, and where they can get back on track.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is going to contest, third term or not. That's a given thing, and despite the JVP's anti-MR poster campaign he's not going to back down. The focus of the Opposition however has been less on defeating the man than on preventing him from contesting at any cost. Sarath N. Silva's argument that he can't contest a third term holds water so long as the Opposition can prevent Rajapaksa from entering the election as the incumbent-candidate. That's bankrupt, and most certainly not the way to contest an election. 

I've always felt that the problem with Silva's argument isn't just the intepretation-gap between the government and the Opposition over the 18th Amendment. The problem is also that it focuses attention on one individual. I'm neither for nor against the argument that Rajapaksa is a dictator. Sri Lanka may be a dictatorship in the minds of certain kepuwath kola UNPers (predominantly in and around Colombo) and the "Boru Left", but the point is that their attempts at preventing the man from contesting pretends to be "pro-democracy" but reeks of "anti-Mahinda". That's not the point here. Even if Rajapaksa can't contest (doubtful) he'll probably let a close family member - probably Gotabaya or his son Namal - take over the reins. Given the credentials of both, I doubt whether the Opposition will have an easier time.

That's one issue. Here's another: the Opposition isn't organised. The Sarath Fonseka-factor is out, at least for the time being. But the common candidate fiasco isn't. There is talk about Shirani Bandaranayake becoming the common candidate. She has credentials, enough and more of them in fact. The problem with Bandaranayake however is that while this government is engaged with their smear campaign against her (there's that issue of her bank account, for instance), she can't really win credibility, at least from outside the kepuwath kola UNP and Boru Left stronghold.

This isn't the only reason why the Opposition is disorganised, of course. If there's one thing that has kept them from bringing up an effective campaign against Rajapaksa, it's that they stubbornly keep clinging onto their vote-base without spreading out. The UNP by far best illustrates this. It's all high and mighty to convene meetings and conduct a poster campaign around the country, but where's the hands-down approach? Where's the no-frills thrust into Rajapaksa's vote-base? The UNP's claim that the Party needs only a small portion of the Sinhala Buddhist vote will not go a long way. Neither will a campaign aimed at a predominantly English-speaking community get their message across the country.

There are some commentators who are of the view that the UNP needs a radical leadership change. I agree, but this doesn't absolve the Party should ever such a "purge" occurs. The problem with the UNP isn't Ranil Wickremasinghe. The problem with the UNP is that they're divided. The problem with the UNP is that they haven't come up with a proper, indefeasible manifesto, at least one that can be on par with the Mahinda Chinthana (I'm not, by the way, saying that it should be a carbon-copy). The problem with the UNP is that they refuse to look beyond the kepuwath kola heartland, which means that they project their campaign and proposals based on this tiny, minuscule vote-base (Colombo isn't Sri Lanka, after all).

Recently I had a debate over this with a friend of mine on Facebook. This friend is a kepuwoth kola-type, and it would be hard to find a more anti-MR Sri Lankan anywhere. I put it to him that criticising a dictator doesn't always absolve those criticising the dictator, an argument I would have put forward even during J. R. Jayawardena's presidency. I also put it to him that while Mahinda Rajapaksa may be a dictator in the truest sense of that word (a claim which needs some stretch of the imagination, but never mind that), those opposing the man seem to have more dubious track-records in accountability and transparency.

Here's what he said: "it absolves the critics if it does some good for the nation."

Does it, though? Should dictators be allowed to succeed dictators? It's after all a fact conceded to by some that Rajapaksa is quite able to dwarf some of the more horrendous abuses of power his predecessors committed. He hasn't, this much we know, notwithstanding the allegations of forced disappearances and media censorship.

My friend added the following wry comment: "We are obliged to serve our nation to develop our country... to save it from becoming a country left to ruin."

This argument is flawed, but not for the reasons most regime supporters will have you believe. If it's about "saving the nation left to ruin", then every predecessor to Rajapaksa had enough time to abolish the power he wields today. They didn't, of course, which hardly supports the argument that those opposing the man are democracy-lovers and not just regime-haters. The emphasis isn't on Rajapaksa's mandate, it's about preventing him at any cost. My friend doubtless would agree to this, but might add the following caveat: their opposing him is good enough reason to support them. Wrong again.

The truth is that the United National Party needs a face-lift, almost literally. They've got some things wrong. They're focusing attention on Colombo and the minorities in the hope of toppling this regime. It's too early to tell whether their focus on minority communities extend to the Muslim community, as evidenced by Rauff Hakeem's moves away from the government, but the point is that their admission that they need a smaller portion of the Sinhala Buddhist vote-base than what the regime currently courts points at a confession: Rajapaksa has wooed the majority, so there's no hope of getting them.

Mathematics aside, this argument does hold some water, provided the UNP manages to woo every Sinhala Buddhist in that portion they're aiming at. Even without Sobitha Thero, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, and the Left parties (particularly the JVP) contesting, this is going to be a problem. This may be why the UNP has tried to persuade Sobitha Thero into the common (sic) Opposition camp. He hasn't agreed to this, which may be a shrewd move on his part, and neither for that matter have the JHU. This means that the UNP, left to their own devices, will have to woo its usual base: in and around Colombo, the kepuwath kola heartland, and the minority communities.

The bottom line is this: regime-fatigue doesn't get any better as time passes. It gets worse. The people may not like Mahinda Rajapaksa. They may berate nepotism. They may criticise his foreign policy. They may despise the way this economy is being handled by his government. But in the absence of a viable, all-inclusive front by the Opposition and in particular the UNP, they might very probably not vote against the man. If they continue holding onto their usual vote-base, and cater their campaign to this minuscule, Colombo-centric community, the anti-MR movement isn't going to hold much water.

The Opposition needs to get itself together. It has become fragmented. I don't know about my friend or the rest of his kepuwath kola band, but the sad fact is that we probably have the most confused Opposition this world has ever known.