29th April 2001

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Ranil's dilemma: Party or himself

By Victor Ivan

Although the government managed to avoid a defeat at the vote on the budget it has not been able to identify the persons who are adding to the 4 members of Thondaman's group, who had agreed to join the opposition for the purpose of defeating the budget and has also not been able to bring about a unity in the government ranks in order to prevent those members from taking such action in the future. This situation has led to a growth of instability in the government.

According to information, the opposition had come to an agreement with a selected group in the PA for the purpose of defeating the government at the budget vote and setting up an all party temporary administration for the sake of democratic reforms.

It had also been agreed to get the limited number of votes required to defeat the budget in the first round and subsequently to get another group to join the opposition and form an all party government to effect democratic reforms.

It is the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who is now accused of betraying this plan at the last moment. This situation has forced a massive revolt against Mr. Wickremesinghe in the party.

The view of a majority in the UNP's parliamentary group appears to be that, although there is a real possibility of defeating the PA government at any moment with the support of a group in the PA itself and setting up a temporary all party government for the purpose of launching democratic reforms, it would be essential to effect a change in the leadership of the UNP to achieve this purpose.

There is a strong opinion in the UNP parliamentary group that Mr. Wickremesinghe, due to some reason, is not really interested in defeating the PA government and that there is a secret understanding between the UNP leader and the reius of the PA government. In these circumstances there is a strong demand that, at this particular moment, Mr. Wickremesinghe should honourably give up party leadership after handing over the reins of the opposition to Karu Jayasuriya and the leadership of the party to Gamini Atukorale.

The performance of Mr. Wickremesinghe as the leader of the UNP and the opposition has been extremely weak. He may be considered a person who has arrived at leadership at an unexpected speed due to the assassination of a number of front rank leaders, although he had been very far behind in the queue for the top spot. At the time he became the leader of the party there were a number of persons senior to him in the UNP parliamentary group. There was also a group in the party who had voted for Gamini Dissanayake against him when he faced a contest for leadership. In such a complicated environment Mr. Wickremesinghe failed to establish himself in the party as a leader respected by all. He considered the seniors troublesome and thought those who had supported Mr. Dissanayke against him were untrustworthy. This fact damaged the unity of the party and contributed to factionalism inside it.

The manner in which Mr. Wickremesinghe as the leader of the opposition fought the government, too, was not a strong performance. He as the leader did not pose a serious threat to the malpractices and terrorism employed by the government to win the elections. Even on matters at which the government could have been pushed into an extremely difficult position, his attacks were perfunctory, and he refrained from taking the fight effectively to the opposite camp.

This weakened the standing of the UNP as the main opposition party to a great extent, and contributed to the opinion among the party members at the village level as well as among the business community that Mr. Wickremesinghe was a failure.

If an early solution respected by all is not found to the crisis in the party, the UNP's debilitation will continue inevitably.

Although the revolt in the party has been suppressed temporarily, it will be difficult to remove the dissatisfaction regarding party leadership.

In these conditions the party will achieve a new dynamism only if at least half the demands made by the rebels are met (that is to say if Mr. Wickremesinghe, instead of giving up both the party leadership and the opposition leadership, hands over the opposition leadership to Mr. Jayasuriya and retains the leadership of the party in his own hands).

In a broader sense, the UNP will gain new strength only if there is a fundamental change in the party leadership.

A change in the leadership will bring about a revival of spirit in the party, in the people, and in the party members who have distanced themselves from the party and have become inactive due to discontentment.

That will also inevitably bring the forces that aimed attacks on Ranil Wickremesinghe to a position of acting with a sense of responsibility and doing business with the UNP again.

The main challenge before Mr. Wickremesinghe today is to decide whether he is going to protect himself and not the party to be destroyed, or to give up his leadership totally or partially and protect the party.

This is certainly a serious dilemma. However, no leader can provide satisfactory leadership without the consent of the followers.

Honourable leaders are those who are modest enough to be able to listen to the voice of the followers and allow them to select a suitable leader when they reject their leadership.

The writer is the Editor of Ravaya

I am a mediator not a double dealer: W.J.M.

Opposition Chief Whip W.J. M. Lokubandara widely described as a dissident leader in the current UNP conflict and accused of playing double games has protested his innocence claiming he is neither a rebel nor a double dealer but a mediator. In an interview with The Sunday Times Mr. Lokubandara now acting as one of the two party spokesmen said the aim was to oust Chandrika Kumaratunga and not Ranil Wickremesinghe. Excerpts:

By Shelani de Silva

Q: What led to the crisis in the UNP ?

A: During the past few months and years the PA Government has heaped burden upon burden on the people. The recent budget instead of providing some relief asked the suffering people to further tighten their belts while a giant size cabinet and deputy ministers got more and more privileges.

Many UNP MPs and other opposition parties felt this was the right time and there was an opportunity to defeat the Government in Parliament.

But the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe looked at the issue in a different perspective. He got legal advice and said that if the Government was defeated on a Money Bill like the budget the President could dissolve Parliament. But other constitutional experts had a different view.

The leader believed that if a no confidence motion was passed later the President could not dissolve Parliament and would have no option but to invite the UNP to form a Government.

Several top members of the UNP took the initiative in the move to defeat the Government. Kauru Jayasuriya, Gamini Athukorale and Rajitha Senaratne were among those leading the move.

Even Government MPs extended their support. When the President got to know she threatened to dissolve Parliament.

She also got round the SLMC and the CWC which had earlier indicated they would support our move. When this happened some of our leading members met to plan new strategy to defeat the Government. That was the purpose of the meetings- not a coup against our leader.

Q: Was Mr. Wickremesinghe aware of those meetings?

A: He was. But he was abroad while the number of MPs attending the meetings got larger.

The state media then started concocting the stories about a conspiracy against the leader.

Q: Why did Mr. Wickremesinghe cut short his tour of Norway and return to the country ?

A: It was really due to a throat infection. But once he came here and read all those reports he called a meeting with us and decided to appoint a committee to draft the no confidence motion against the Government.

Q: Did he ask questions about the meetings you had in his absence?

A: No, because we did not do anything behind his back. He only asked questions about various media reports. We also discussed some issues.

Q: Such as….?

A : The impeachment motion against the Chief Justice and the no confidence motion against the Government which he wanted in June but we wanted in May. The leader agreed. There were some questions over a special meeting of the party parliamentary group- whether or when it should be held. Finally there was agreement to appoint a committee to look into the matters. This committee met on Wednesday.

Q: Was the proposal to appoint Mr. Jayasuriya as the Leader of the Opposition taken up at this meeting ?

A : It was thought that Mr. Jayasuriya could do a good job as Opposition Leader. But he said the decision must come from Mr. Wickremesinghe. Within the party there will also be some structural changes to strengthen and streamline our work.

Q: There are wide spread and conflicting reports about a document or petition circulated and signed by some MPs. Some reports described this as a plot against the leader.

A: We did sign a document calling for an urgent group meeting and for effective steps to defeat the Government. This document was leaked out and interpreted by some who were obviously seeking more marks from the leader.

If there was anything against the leader I would not have signed the document.

Q: You have been widely described as a dissident group leader. Is that correct?

A: I have been firm in the effort to defeat the government, in and out of Parliament. I wanted this to be done jointly. That is why I held talks with Mr. Jayasuriya and Mr. Athukorale on one side and Mr. Wickremesinghe on the other. I was not a rebel or a double dealer but a mediator.

Q: The Party now officially says disputes have been solved and all's well. Is it so?

A: The disputes were solved on the basis of a common strategy to oust Chandrika Kumaratunga and not Ranil Wickremesinghe. Within the party there will also be some structural changes to strengthen and streamline our work.

Q : Did Mr. Wickremesinghe object to any proposed restructuring ?

A: No, he agreed they were necessary.

Q: Will confidantes of Mr. Wickremesinghe be removed from top posts?

A: There will be many changes. We were given two weeks to give in our recommendations. If anyone has to be removed, it will be done. Party interests will take precedence over personal interests.

Senior ministers ready to cross, Rajitha claims

UNP activist Rajitha Senaratne, believed to be a prime mover in a bid to defeat the PA Government, claims the joint opposition can muster 116 votes with several PA MPs including ministers ready to crossover.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Dr. Senaratne said the joint opposition after defeating the PA hope to form a government of national reconciliation. Excerpts:

By Ruwan Weerakoon

Q: In your opinion what was the basis of the crisis in the UNP and what was the settlement? A. For some times we have been discussing the need to set up what we see as a government of reconciliation comprising parties which in good governance. So the Democratic Alliance put forward 11 points to form a good government. We discussed these matters in the party and there were differences of opinion on how to achieve this goal. We have come to an understanding with the Leader that he will not block the formation of a government of reconciliation. He has agreed to go ahead with the motion to impeach the Chief Justice. The party constitution will be changed. Q: How many PA members are ready to support this move? A: I cannot reveal details. The leader has been informed of the numbers. There are senior ministers supporting the move and the numbers are increasing. Q: Why didn't the "dissident" group speak directly to the Leader without having secret discussions? A: After the third reading of the budget I believe the situation was mishandled. The leader left for Oslo the next day and our meetings were held after that. It just happened that way, it was not planned. Q: What about the signature campaign? A: That was for a letter addressed to the leader. After all we have a right to write to the leader. Q: But one member leaked it to the leader? A: We did it openly. But one member Mahinda Ratnatilleke leaked it to the party leader. I think he acted foolishly. He did what he did on the prompting of another person. I believe it was Mahinda Samarasinghe. Q: What happened to the letter? A: After Mr. Ratnatilleke took it to Mr. Wickremesinghe's residence, we demanded the letter back but we were told it had been destroyed. Q: Some reports suggest that a number of UNP members do not have confidence in Mr. Wickremesinghe. Is that correct? A: It is not a question of confidence in Mr.Wickremesinghe. Other opposition parties want a person who could be accepted by all for the formation of a government of national reconciliation. Q: Are you confident of having the support of 113 members to pass a no confidence motion against the Government? A: Not 113. We have 116. Q: Why was the impeachment of the CJ delayed? A: I cannot understand why it was delayed. We have sufficient evidence to bring a no-confidence motion against him. The draft will be now prepared. Q: How do you hope to do it? A: Once the draft is ready we will circulate it among the Opposition MPs including the JVP and Tamil parties. We need only 75 signatures to present it. Once we present it, a Parliamentary Select Committee will be appointed. Then the CJ will have to stop hearing cases. Q: So what is the agenda for the coming months? A: After defeating the PA, a government of reconciliation will be formed. We need a period to bring in the legislation for the independent commissions and then we will dissolve Parliament and go for fresh elections.

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