Sri Lanka: Holding the flock together or what



N Sathiya Moorthy,  28 May 2018

Reports that ruling UNP ‘Leader’ and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe held at least one round of talks with the existing allies of the loosely-knit United National Front (UNF) part of the present government combine makes for interesting reading. If the talks were to lead to the UNP-UNF obtaining a holistic character with a common election symbol and all, as reported, then it should make news. Whether such a course, if it came to that, is good for the nation, or work on the ground is another matter.

As is known, the UNF now comprises desperate parties who have shown a singular, common intention to stay on in power, whatever the political environment, electoral circumstances, reasons and justification. Barring the UNP, every other party in the UNP, including the ‘moralistic’ JHU, were partners in the predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, led by the UNP’s SLFP rival at the ideological and national level.

If some of the Upcountry Tamil parties had stayed away from the Rajapaksa regime, possibly not that they did not want a share in power (all in the name of ‘serving our people better’, as was the slogan of others), but only because the parent CWC’s Arumugan Thondaman would have them, if at all, only on his terms. And the Rajapaksas were in no mood to get involved in another intra-ethnic political feud that it entailed.

Yet, the real ideological breach came when in 2015, the UNP happily joined hands with a new-found Sirisena faction of the rival SLFP, and formally so. There are few political leaders in the country who have not crossed over from the UNP to the SLFP, or in the reverse direction. Present-day President Maithiripala Sirisena was one, and he did it in 2015, and became what he is today.

That way, the SLFP as a party owes its formation and existence to a similar split in the parent UNP very long ago that none of them even seem to remember and recall that the latter was an umbrella organisation, for all Sri Lankan (then, Ceylonese) nationalists worked for the nation’s Independence. It could not have split, post-Independence, be it on ideological lines or on personality-lines, but the fact it that the pre-Independence UNP did split, as was only to be expected under the circumstances.

The same can be said of the SLPP, as it exists now, a breakaway faction, if any, of the SLFP. Earlier, too, the SLFP had split when founder S W R D Bandaranaike’s daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, walked out of the party, to float one of her own. She would return later, to claim back the party and also to become the nation’s President, almost at one go – the latter, still it was through democratic elections.

Common symbol

For the UNP now to try and form a new party – and it would be one if they were to choose a new, ‘common symbol’ – is as much intriguing as it is interesting. It remains to be seen if down the line whether ‘UNPer families’ for three and more generations would want to accept such a character-change. For, any change in the election symbol from the existing ‘Elephant’, could well have to be accompanied by the party having to give up its ‘Green’ standard with which it has been identified for long.

It is not as if the UNP would have to give up both the Green standards and the ‘Elephant’ symbol all at once. But if they were to contest under a new symbol, under a new scheme registered with the Election Commission, then they cannot confuse their old and new, collective voters, whether in the South or North, East or West, with their old symbol. The ‘Elephant’ would have to put to rest, at least for a time.

If nothing else, this is what happened to the SLFP rival when they tried to give a common character and symbol to the UPFA that they founded. No one talks any more about the SLFP’s ‘Hand’ symbol, but have settled for the UPFA’s ‘Betel Leaf’ poll brand.

It is interesting yet that the non-existent SLPP’s ‘Flower Bud’ symbol defeated them all, by sheer identification with just one man – Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa. That way, the Rajapaksas and the SLPP-JO could not have asked for more, in the form of 10 February local government elections, nation-wide.

The SLPP-JO combine did sweep the polls in the Sinhala South, yes, but even without it, they could reach out their new electoral identity and branded symbol to their electorate at one go. The question thus arises if the SLPP-JO’s LG poll-sweep owed to the new symbol or the personality of President Rajapaksa? The answer to this one question could well hold a message for the UNP and allies as they discuss the prospects of a new ‘symbol’ for them.

Splits & defections

The question then arises what benefits could the UNP-UNF partners get by opting for a new, common election symbol? The obvious possibility is that the smaller partners may then find it difficult to walk out of the alliance at will, and thus upset the UNP’s election and post-election strategies. Splits may become difficult, but that is not going to stop individual defections – or, will it be so?

It is not without reason. Today, the SLFP-UPFA is the parent organisation, but a substantial number of their MPs and almost all of their voters nation-wide is with the ‘breakaway’ SLPP-JO. The irony of the present situation is that SLFP boss Sirisena is also the President of the country, but then he controls the party even less than he controls the nation, or the ruling ‘GNU’ (Government of National Unity) combine.

The other major question in context is the interest and willingness of the non-UNP partners in the UNF partners to agree to a common symbol. True, as with the UNP, they all may retain their current name and symbols, but then with a common symbol floating around, they cannot hope to keep their afloat for too long.

The existing example of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) doing it in select regions and districts of the nation, whenever contesting in UNP’s company, cannot work on a larger plane. Here, the SLMC is using some other symbol, where they do not really have the winning votes on their own. That would not be the case if they were to surrender their electoral identity in the East, or even Colombo city and the larger Western Province, where their flag can continue to fly high, even after so many splits in the parent party.

It could well be so in the case of the different Upcountry Tamil parties, now in the UNP’s company. Who knows, some of them may want to consider an SLFP option, and still others, an SLPP choice as well. Their problem is not the Rajapaksas per se, as with the Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT) and their TNA. Their problem is not even with the parent CWC. Their problem is only with Arumugan Thondaman. The Rajapaksas were too busy with themselves that they preferred to leave the Upcountry Tamil parties in their company to themselves. It need not be the case anymore, as they have to make every vote count – for them.

Ego trip and all

Barring the post-split JHU (the other faction is in the SLPP-JO camp), the multiplicity of political parties that are UNP’s partners in the UNF broadly represent either the Muslim or Upcountry Tamil communities. They are there not because of any ideological differences or political reasons. They owe exclusively to ego clashes among leaders who think larger-than-life of the self.

For the UNP to hope to manage them under a larger umbrella, using the common symbol as an enticement and threat at the same time could only re-introduce the forgotten faction-feuds of the pre-2015 in the party, but in ways that the leadership is unaccustomed to handling. From their independent view, it is not unlikely that they may be apprehensive about handling the Ranil leadership, which has always successfully contained rebellion within the UNP, by playing Peter against Paul – or Ravi K against Sajith P, or whatever.

The last time a smaller party added substantially to the vote-share of the purportedly larger alliance leader, the JVP contributed to CBK’s record, 62-per cent vote-share in the presidential poll of 1994. Other factors and constituencies, including the SLT, were known to have voted her in at the time. But the point is that when the JVP quit CBK’s SLFP-UPFA combine a decade ago, after the latter had come under Mahinda’s command, the party found itself in the dumps.

The JVP is yet to recover from that shock and the vote-loss. It is anybody’s guess if any of the UNP partners in the UNF would want to try their luck at it. This is more so in the case of the Muslim parties, which have enjoyed autonomy and freedom to walk across, from the SLFP combine to the UNP’s, and the reverse, all through their existence. If they are going to lose their electoral identity and base, then why try their luck with a scheme that could cut either way, and for good?

Whatever be the current phase of their discussions on a common symbol, the UNF partners do not have much time to decide, either way, if they are serious about doing it ahead of the next presidential polls – due by 9 January 2020 but may well be held a month or so earlier, in end-2019. Under the law, they would have to register the new symbol with the Election Commission, as per the routine, in a few months time.

The last time someone talked about a ‘common symbol’, the TNA was trying to grabble with it, post-war. The non-ITAK partners of the Alliance would flag it ahead of every election since, but settle for the party’s ‘House’ symbol, in return for more and some of their choice seats. Today, the TNA is split, the EPRLF, which anyway did not bring in too many votes to the pool, or to the self, is out.

Independent of all these, the TNA has weakened between the post-war presidential polls, when they made the Tamils vote for war-time army commander, Gen Sarath Fonseka against incumbent Rajapaksa – and, now the LG polls of February 2018. Independent of all these, the TNA is also at odds with itself, even in the Alliance-ruled Northern Provincial Council.

The Alliance inherited a strong vote-base, but is losing it to itself, and because of the self. Who then said, a common symbol can help diverse and desperate groups that now constitute the UNF, and that the UNP can hold the combine together – in the absence of a Rajapaksa-like personality at the helm, or an LTTE’s Prabhakaran-like character directing and dictating the TNA constituents?

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University