Polls postmortems

Critics of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe danced in the streets, the other day, when it was reported that he had finally decided to step down as the UNP leader. But their joy was short-lived; he announced that he would lead the party until his successor was anointed. Now, he says he will be the party leader until the next provincial council elections!

Giving reasons for the UNP’s defeat, Wickremesinghe has reportedly told a group of unsuccessful party candidates, at Sirikotha, that the UNP-led government had to work with a hostile President and face the fallout of the Easter Sunday carnage. Curiously, the Treasury bond scams are not among the reasons he has given for the UNP’s electoral disaster.

The UNP’s fate was sealed the day the bond scams came to light. Its attempts to cover them up only made matters worse. All those who were held responsible for those financial crimes have lost their seats.

The most opportune time for the UNP to face a general election came when it turned the tables on the 52-day government and recaptured power in Parliament in 2018. An abortive attempt by the then President Maithripala Sirisena and his former boss Mahinda Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament, after failing to grab power, unified the UNP, as never before, with all its MPs and rank and file rallying behind Wickremesinghe, who was backed by even Sajith Premadasa. The UNP was revitalised in spite of its defeat at the local government polls a few months back. The SLPP and SLFP/UPFA leaders were reeling from their grand pratfall. Had the UNP caused Parliament to be dissolved at that time and faced a general election, it would not have had to face a disastrous split or the fallout of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, which ruined its chances of winning an election; it may not have been able to win, but its defeat would have been less humiliating.

Wickremesinghe has said that both the UNP and the SJB alienated the majority community. However, this is not solely due to ethno-religious factors. These two parties have not been fully backed by the minority communities either. Issues that led to their defeat are much broader. The TNA’s support base has also shrunk significantly with the SLFP, the EPDF and fringe groups eating into its vote bank. The SJB failed to gain the electoral boost it expected from the SLMC.

Theoretically, what has befallen the UNP, the SJB, the TNA, etc., can be explained in the light of the go-to poli-sci model, Overton window (OW), which basically refers to the range of ideas and policies that voters find acceptable; it transcends ethnic, religious and political boundaries. This window shifts and expands depending on issues and situations. What determines whether a political party will be able to secure enough popular support to win an election or not is its leader’s ability to figure out the OW and respond accordingly. The UPFA, during the second term of President Rajapaksa, failed to do so and faced an ignominious defeat, in 2015. At that time, public opinion was against attacks on democracy, nepotism, waste, corruption, cronyism and the like. But President Sirisena and the UNP-led government made a mockery of their commitment to the democratic ideals they had pledged to uphold, and the OW began to shift towards August 2015, as can be seen from the UNP-led alliance’s failure to secure a working majority in Parliament at the general election a few months after winning a presidential election. The bond scams, unfulfilled election pledges, threats to national security and the coronavirus pandemic upended the OW to the advantage of the SLPP.

The OW is bound to shift with the passage of time, and the anti-incumbency factor will bear on the current dispensation. The economy is in bad shape and most of the election pledges are likely to remain unfulfilled to the consternation of the public. Such an eventuality may provide the Opposition with a window of opportunity to better its electoral performance by the time the country goes to the polls again. This is apparently what Wickremesinghe is waiting for. He is a skilled political escapologist. Hope is said to spring eternal.

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