The offshoot of the UNP the United National Freedom Front which held its first press conference some days ago, after gaining recognition as a political party by the Elections Commission could have serious implications for the UNP at any elections held in the future. This new political party is a natural outgrowth of the ‘kurundu polu clash’ that occurred in Matara in October 2014. This was to prevent a long march organized by Maithri Gunaratne and Shiral Laktilleke from Devinuwara to Colombo demanding that Ranil Wickremesinghe resign from the UNP leadership. The pada yathra began in Devinuwara with religious observances at the Devundara devale amidst disruption by pro-Ranil loyalists and got no further than the centre of Matara town when it had to be called off due to a mini-war between the UNP dissidents and Ranil loyalists armed with peeled cinnamon sticks. Thereafter the anti-Ranil movement died a natural death as the anti-Rajapaksa campaign picked up momentum.
When the 2015 January 8 change of government took place, both the opposing sides in the kurundu polu clash in Matara found themselves on the same side and while the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe runs the government, both Maithri Gunaratne and Shiral Laktilleke hold positions under President Maithripala Sirisena. The cohabitation has been uneasy. News coming down the grapevine indicates that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has on various occasions tried to pressurize President Sirisena to get rid of Maithri and Shiral but Sirisena had refused saying they had helped in the campaign to defeat the Rajapaksa government. RW was perhaps right in being wary about having an enemy inside the tent. Things would be OK so long as he had the upper hand but once things start unravelling as they inevitably do after a while, the enemy within the tent will become a formidable adversary. For the UNP, that moment seems to have arrived.
This is a period in which support for the UNP is waning in the country. The situation today is far worse than it was in early 2004 when they lost power after having won at the end of 2001. At that time, the entire government was in the hands of the UNP and a few goodies could be distributed to party supporters. Today however, having less than half the government (after providing two thirds of the votes to topple the previous one) the UNP has not been able to do anything significant for its supporters and the party organization is in a bad way. The UNP has been short-changed by Sirisena and the UNP voter in turn has been short changed by their party. There will still be the block that mechanically votes for the UNP no matter what. But there will be an inevitable falling off of voters. The most disappointed segment of the UNP is its activist base, the people who go around the village organizing and enthusing ordinary voters. The new party launched by Maithri Gunaratne obviously seeks to make use of this simmering discontent within the UNP to make its mark in politics. For this purpose the United National Freedom Front seems to be projecting itself as the revival of the old UNP that party stalwarts miss so much.
In addition to the rot that has set in as a result of being short changed by President Sirisena, the UNP has been shaken to its foundations by the revelations made by the Bond Commission. The party rank and file and indeed even a good number of its elected representatives feel that while they have got next to nothing for their pains, a small cabal in the party has been making money hand over fist. The amazement with which Ajith P. Perera spoke of the kickbacks amounting to over Rs. 390 million given to an individual in the Employee’s Provident Fund by PTL just for inside information is symptomatic of this growing feeling within the UNP. We wrote in this column some weeks ago, that President Sirisena’s own continuation in politics as a factor to contend with depends on the destruction of the UNP as a political party so that the displaced voters will have no option but to support him at the Presidential elections in 2019. One could see that the Bond Commission has been largely independent but not independent enough to be able to pose any questions to Ministers Malik Samarawickrema and Kabir Hashim.
How does one explain the manner in which Ravi Karunanayake was grilled and the complete absence of questions for Samarawickrema and Hashim? The Attorney General’s Department by refusing to ask them any questions made it painfully obvious to the whole nation that they had been prevailed upon not to give the latter two a hard time. The way the AG’s Dept. registered their protest was by not asking them any questions at all. Be that as it may, Sirisena has just about destroyed the UNP firstly by giving the best ministries to the SLFP and to his loyalists who contested on the UNP list and giving the UNP proper just the leftovers and then by appointing this Bond Commission which has destroyed the public image of the entire UNP hierarchy. All that remains to be done now is to initiate court action based on the findings of the Bond Commission and the process will be just about complete.
The biggest irony is that while Mahinda Rajapaksa never appointed any commissions against the UNP, the very President that the UNP so enthusiastically brought into power has appointed a commission that has cast a shadow over the entire UNP hierarchy and has even sought written clarifications from the Prime Minister himself. The UNP was in fact much better off under the Rajapaksas than they are under Sirisena. Even the ministerial portfolios the UNP has got from Sirisena could easily have been obtained from President Rajapaksa without going to all the trouble of overthrowing his government. The entire UNP hierarchy is going to rue the day they decided to field Maithripala Sirisena as their presidential candidate.
But its already too late to stop what is happening. With the disappointment that is spreading within the UNP due to the lack of patronage for the party rank and file, and the scandal involving Perpetual Treasuries, the United National Freedom Front has fertile ground to work on. The disadvantages it has is firstly, that it does not have any front rank UNPers in it – meaning those who have held cabinet rank. Maithri Gunaratne and Shiral Laktilleke hold no elected office at present and both got no further than the provincial council in electoral politics. Even though they have not been UNP front rankers, they make up for that by being educated professionals. In any event, the present front rankers in the UNP are such nonentities that not being a front ranker is more of an advantage than being one – especially when one is trying to present a new alternative for the UNP rank and file.
The present front rankers in the UNP are looked upon with contempt by the party rank and file as people who betrayed their trust. So not being a front ranker may not be much of a disadvantage as one may think. A significant advantage the new party will have is that Maithri Gunaratne has always been with the UNP and has never joined any other party – thus his message of wanting to restore the UNP to its former glory will ring true to the dazed and disappointed UNP voter. However the UNFF will face a real challenge when it comes to money and personnel to be able to carry out a country-wide organizational effort. If they are able to get their act together on those fronts, there is no doubt that the new party will make its mark on the political scene. In the long run, this new party may be of help to the UNP by preventing a proportion of their voters from going completely to the other side through the provision of an alternative UNP.