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Wither Sri Lanka’s ‘Grand Old Party’?

After a dismal showing in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections, securing just one National List seat, the United National Party (UNP) vowed to “accept responsibility for failures and shortcomings” with the party facing an uncertain future ahead.

The party, one of the island’s oldest, failed to win any districts with veteran party leader and three-time Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also losing his seat. It secured just over 2% of the island's votes, losing more than 100 seats from the previous parliament.

“The people have given a massive mandate to the SLPP and the UNP has encountered the greatest setback in its history despite many achievements which brought long-lasting benefits to the country and the people,” said a statement signed by party General-Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam.

“As a party, we faced many challenges internally as well as externally,” he added. “The UNP is prepared to accept the responsibility for failures and shortcomings, both the result of its own actions and the actions of others.”

“The party will be re-organized and re-structured to face the challenges and we will be moving forward with determination and visor as has been done on previous occasions.”

The disastrous electoral results for Sri Lanka’s ‘Grand Old Party’ comes as the breakaway Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) secured at least 54 seats in parliament, following an acrimonious split between Sajith Premadasa and Wickremesinghe earlier this year. 

Sajith, whose father Ranasinghe Premadasa as head of the UNP was once elected as president and prime minister of Sri Lanka, had run an unsuccessful presidential election campaign with the party in November. As tensions between himself and Wickremesinghe grew, Premadasa decided to form the SJB, taking with him a sizeable chunk of the party’s membership.

As in the presidential polls, Premadasa continued to run on a Sinhala nationalist platform, fielding a former army commander as a candidate, vowing to bolster Sri Lanka’s already bloated defence sector and pledging there will be “no room for separatism”.

In the run-up to the election, the UNP also attempted to make overtures towards Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, with senior party official, Ravi Karunayake, stating his party had now been cleansed of those who had been “speaking against Buddhism… and standing up only for the minorities” as defections mounted. 

But it was the Rajapaksas more extremist message that resonated, with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) sweeping polls across the south - winning in every district bar the North-East.

“The people in our country has given a good message to the United National Party led by Ranil Wickremesinghe to give the leadership of the UNP to Sajith Premadasa,” claimed Harshana Rajakaruna an SJB parliamentarian elected from the Gampaha District, in a call to UNP members. 

“We need to unite to embark on a new journey. Therefore, we urge all the members to join us unconditionally. Sajith Premadasa is the leader of us and yours now.”

Despite the heavy UNP losses though, Wickremesinghe still has not spoken of stepping down as leader. The party still has one National List seat that it has yet to announce its allocation for.

The Sunday Times reports that the party leader “ruled out any possibility of appointing himself as the sole National List MP from his party.”

 However, he told them that it “did not mean he was quitting public life altogether”.

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