The Political Column

29th April 2001

The Disunited National Party

By our Political Correspondent

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The power struggle or the power-sharing struggle in the main Opposition UNP came to an unexpected crescendo this week with both sides making moves and counter-moves on the political chess board.

The chief protagonists are UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on the one side and Karu Jayasuriya with Gamini Atukorale and W.J.M. Lokubandara on the other.

The main charge against Mr. Wickremesinghe is that he deflated moves by the UNP Parliamentary group to defeat the government at the third reading of the Budget. Such a defeat would have compelled President Kumaratunga to dissolve Parliament or invite any another party to form the government.

The dissidents are claiming that talks with various parties including the CWC had set the stage to defeat the government but Mr. Wickremesinghe scuttled the move a claim hotly denied by the leader's camp which argues that talks Mr. Wickremesinghe had with Arumugam Thondaman were inconclusive on the basis that Mr. Thondaman did not want to risk crossing over because the UNP and the Opposition would still need six PA MPs to cross to be on the safe side considering the possibility of a double-cross from the UNP. Rajitha Senaratne was the man responsible for bringing at least three PA MPs across.

The dissidents also claim that Mr. Wickremesinghe virtually runs a one-man show and has delegated authority only to a few like his private secretary Sugath Chandrasekera who is accused of preventing even MPs from meeting Mr. Wickremesinghe.

But the Wickremesinghe group has a different story. They claim Assistant Leader Gamini Atukorale had harboured a grudge against Mr. Wickremesinghe since the day he was unceremoniously removed from the coveted General Secretary post as a scapegoat for the parliamentary elections defeat last October.

They say that Mr. Atukorale who did not have much influence over MPs had engineered meticulously to obtain the services of Karu Jayasuriya, who was to be the 'human face' for the revolt.

However, the dissident group in turn denies this, claiming the fight was against what they saw as inaction, apathy and excessive authority for a selected few.

Ironic as it may seem, those who planned the ouster of Ranil Wickremesinghe were these very people the UNP Leader had given a place in the UNP sun. Mr. Jayasuriya was made Chairman and now Deputy Leader; Mr. Atukorale, Secretary and now Assistant Leader, Ravi Karunanayake who had left the PA and the DUNF and some journalists had unlimited access to No. 117, 5th Lane much to the displeasure of many others who had toiled for the party over the years.

There were the "Perahera Ali" who strutted around all dressed up as the leader's right and left hand. The silent majority were the "Kotan Adina Ali", the working elephants.

The rumblings were simmering. One group complaining that the party leader is too snooty, others warning him of those very people under-cutting him. There were others like Malik Samarawickrema and Laleen Fernando who kept him informed. The two of them hold no party posts but they are known to be close friends of Mr. Wickremesinghe. For Mr. Wickremesinghe all this was like playing the flute to a deaf elephant! He chose to ignore all this, for which almost paid dearly.

Last Sunday, the battle lines were clearly drawn after Mr. Wickremesinghe cut short his visit to Norway and flew back amidst reports of a palace coup against him. It was Speaker Anura Bandaranaike who warned Mr. Wickremesinghe of the impending danger, by telephoning him in Oslo. When asked for more details, Mr. Bandaranaike had told his classmate to call him on a separate line because "Brutus is with you." With the April 11 defeat of the government being a non-event, Mr. Wickremesinghe left that same night for Norway.

Two days later Ravi Karunanayake, Rajitha Senaratne and some journalists spent Easter/Avurudu weekend at the Royal Palms Hotel at Kalutara. They did not hatch Easter eggs but a plot instead.

On their return to Colombo they set about their plan to muster as many MPs as possible for the ouster of Mr. Wickremesinghe as party leader. One problem was to contact these MPs, all of them being out of Colombo after the strenuous Budget sessions.

Mr. Jayasuriya, initially was a reluctant participant. He had categorically told Malik Samarawickrema that he was not interested. He had, after all, been in touch with Mr. Wickremesinghe on a daily basis. But he did not think it was necessary to tell the party leader of the under-currents in the party. He must have felt this was but a storm in a tea cup surely.

At one stage, the dissident group felt it had the support of upto 40 MPs. Armed with this thought, they asked for a meeting with a somewhat shaken Mr. Wickremesinghe who had rushed back to the island on April 21. The party leader's response was that he was ready to meet the three main dissident leaders, Mr. Jayasuriya, Mr. Atukorale and Mr. Lokubandara separately - not together. He said the meetings needed to be at different levels. But the dissident leaders were not ready for it. They feared Mr. Wickremesinghe was adopting a strategy that his guru J. R. Jayewardene had successfully used. So they said it should be all or none. This was the first compromise reached. The UNP leader met the three separately first, and then together.

At that first crisis meeting, the dissidents' leaders did not talk of power-sharing reforms. Mr. Lokubandara was quite diplomatic. He advised Mr. Wickremesinghe to go on a long holiday if he cared for the party and the country.

"It is in the best interest of the country that you go on a long holiday since the party men have felt that it would be rather difficult to defeat the government under your leadership," he said, or is said to have said.

Mr. Wickremesinghe was apparently not impressed. Significantly, he threw a hint at Mr. Atukorale by asking whether he had any personal problem. Mr. Atukorale rejected the claim, but Mr. Lokubandara hit hard again by saying other opposition parties also did not wish to work under Mr. Wickremesinghe. At the meeting with Mr. Jayasuriya, party chairman Charitha Ratwatte asked if he had anything else to say. Mr. Jayasuriya said, 'No'.

Little progress was made. Mr. Wickremesinghe proposed that a committee headed by him be appointed to draft and work out strategy on a no-confidence motion against the government. It was reportedly agreed that a media statement would be issued with the agreement of all. The Wickremesinghe group claimed that party mediaman Saman Wagaarachchi drafted the statement and read it to Mr. Wickremesinghe, Mr. Jayasuriya and Mr. Lokubandara. The latter made some alterations and it was issued saying that all's well that ends well.

But opinion is again divided on this. The dissidents who were assembled at Ravi Karunanayake's plush Battaramulla house, were furious. They came down hard on the trio and began telephoning radio and TV stations that night denying there was a compromise reached. The statement under the signature of Karunasena Kodituwakku, the party media spokesman, was a fraud, they said.

The dissidents that night huddled met at Karunanayake's residence busy collecting signatures to requisition for an emergency meeting of the party's parliamentary group where they apparently hoped to openly challenge Mr. Wickremesinghe. They required only ten signatures, but it was also meant to be a show of strength. If they could get 45 MPs to sign (the UNP has 89 MPs in all), it would show the country they had the majority. It was also believed that it was a non-UNPer who drafted the letter for usually letters addressed to the party leader say "Garu Nayakathuma" while in this case it only said "Mahathmayanani".

They mustered the support of at least 23 MPs and were hoping that more would join. The Wickremesinghe group claimed two of the 23 were their spies who had left their cellphones on for Mr. Wickremesinghe to be listening to the goings on from 5th Lane, which was not a reality.

One time Party Secretary Daham Wimalasena, reportedly visited Tilak Marapana, a former Attorney General, but he had declined. Then Mr. Wimalasena reportedly visited Upali Samaraweera at the MP's hostel at Madiwela and had better luck with him. He then requested Mr. Samaraweera to get the signature of Mahinda Ratnatilleke who lived in the house opposite.

Mr. Samaraweera showed the list of 22 names to Mr. Ratnatillake. They were; Karu Jayasuriya, Gamini Atukorale W.J.M. Lokubandara, M.H. Mohammed, Gamini Lokuge, Ravi Karunanayake, Samson Silva, Rajitha Senaratne, Jayawickrema Perera, Piyasoma Upali, Lilantha Perera, Rukman Senanayake, Tissa Attanayake, Lakshman Seneviratne, Upali Samaraweera, Ravindra Samaraweera, P. Dayaratne, Chandradasa Galappathy, Yasendra Bakmeewewa, Srinal de Mel, Daham Wimalasena and Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake.

Of them Samson Silva is the only new comer (2000) to Parliament and M.H. Mohammed the only minority MP in the list. A notable absentee was Naveen Dissanayake, son-in-law of Mr. Jayasuriya.

There are different versions of what happened after that. One version is that Mr. Samaraweera went to Mr. Ratnatilleke's house, discussed the matter with him and the latter suggested that they should go together and show the document to Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Samaraweera then went back to his residence. But when he learnt that Mr. Wimalasena was there, he refused to get down from the vehicle. Mr. Samaraweera had reportedly tried to get the document back, but Mr. Ratnatilleke had driven away and handed it over to Mr. Wickremesinghe. Mr. Ratnatilleke later announced at a meeting of Wickremesinghe loyalists that he had burnt the document to preserve party unity.

According to another version of the story, when Mr. Samaraweera was with Mr. Ratnatilleke and had gone to take a telephone call, the latter had slipped out through the rear and driven as fast as possible to Mr. Wickremesinghe's 5th Lane residence. Insiders say Mr. Ratnatilleke was advised by Vajira Abeywardene (Galle) to thwart the dissidents. Mr. Abeywardene had in 1994 supported Gamini Dissanayake against Mr. Wickremesinghe, but now he is said to be back in the Ranil camp and one of his biggest allies.

But one thing the dissidents had not calculated was that Mr. Ratnatilleke is a great buddy of Mr. Bandaranaike, having been once in the SLFP and has for long had political differences in the Sabaragamuwa area with Mr. Atukorale.

Though the plan was now out in the open, the dissidents were disappointed but not deterred. They were soon on the offensive again and told Mr. Wickremesinghe that there were more to follow besides the 22.

Mr. Jayasuriya and Mr. Atukorale asked Mr. Wickremesinghe to return the document saying it was only a move to call a meeting of the parliamentary group, but was told that the document had been destroyed.

After the "Ratnatilleke drama" the dissidents met Mr. Wickremesinghe once again on Tuesday. They reiterated the demand for an emergency meeting of the parliamentary group and the party leader reportedly agreed to have it on Friday, though he preferred May 2 after May Day celebrations.

While the dissidents had been collecting signature to effect the coup, countermeasures were being adopted from 5th Lane and Cambridge Terrace, the office of the Leader of Opposition. Spearheading these moves were the most senior MP Alick Aluvihara (Matale) with the support of Karunasena Kodituwakku, Mahinda Samarasinhe (bete noire of Ravi-Karunanayake), Vijira Abewardene, A.H.M. Azwer, Johnny Fernando and Rohitha Bogollagama (Kurunegala). They began rallying round the besieged party leader. The numbers game had begun. Who had more MPs it was shades of the 1992 impeachment motion all over again.

They persuaded more than 50 MPs to attend a meeting at Cambridge Place where Mr. Wickremesinghe explained that the move to defeat the budget would not have worked because Minister Thondaman having eventually pledged his support to the PA government. He explained reasons for the delay on the impeachment motion of the chief justice. Mr. Wickremesinghe maintained at this meeting that there was no crisis within the party.

According to Wickremesinghe loyalists, the party leader did not push hard for the move to defeat the budget because he believed President Kumaratunga would then dissolve parliament. The constitution prevents the President from dissolving parliament till one year after general elections, but she could do so if the government is defeated on a financial measure. Thus the Wickremesinghe camp believes it would be more prudent to move a motion of no-confidence in the government.

The dissidents have a different interpretation. They feel that after the budget was defeated, they could have moved a motion to impeach the President. If the Speaker entertained the motion, then the President could not have dissolved parliament.

By Tuesday evening after the Cambridge Terrace meeting with more than 50 MPs pledging to work under the leadership of Mr. Wickremesinghe the tide seem to have turned against the dissidents. The score card at the time was 50-22 in the party leaders' favour. In a bid to heal wounds and no doubt due to the pressure that 22 MPs or one-fourth of the Parliamentary Group had openly revolted Mr. Wickremesinghe did not or could not opt for the hardline. He decided to appoint a committee of seven-wisemen; party seniors who would hear grievances of the 22 MPs and report.

The crisis committee comprising Alick Aluvihare, W.J.M. Lokubandara, Tyronne Fernando, Joseph Michael Perera, Karunasena Kodituwakku, Abdul Cader and Festus Perera.

Mr. Bogallagama and Mr. Kodituwakku had by then met Mr. Jayasuriya who reportedly told them that he had no desire for leadership, but a responsibility by the country. He recalled the motto of his school that the country comes first. The two emissaries, apparently keen to get Mr. Jayasuriya back in the Wickremesinghe fold, said party interest should come first.

On Wednesday morning, Tilak Marapana verified Mr. Jayasuriya's position and any claims to leadership.

Mr. Marapana who had played a similar role during the Dissanayake-Wickremesinghe dispute in 1994, met Mr. Jayasuriya who reportedly said he had no intention of challenging Mr. Wickremesinghe's position as the leader of the party.

That afternoon, Mr. Jayasuriya telephoned Mr. Wickremesinghe and told him that if the party leader thought he had made claims for the leadership, he was prepared to resign as deputy leader. Both Mr. Bogollagama and Mr. Marapana were said to be at Mr. Wickremesinghe's 5th Lane residence when Mr. Jayasuriya gave the call.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said there was no misunderstanding.

By Wednesday April 25 evening the see-saw battle changed dramatically again after the reported meeting of the Jayasuriya-Atukorale group with the seven-wise men committee.

Some of the committee members, were of the view that more power should be given to Mr. Jayasuriya to handle parliamentary affairs. The dissidents were getting a little agitated with Mr. Jayasuriya's softening approach. And before the crisis committee the dissident group could not talk with one voice. As one committee member put it; one of them was speaking about the colour green; the other about elephants and yet another about bananas.

One cogent suggestion made however as a compromise formula was to make Mr. Jayasuriya leader of the opposition and Mr. Wickremesinghe to remain as party leader.

Mr. Jayasuriya then made an emotional address.

He said it was soon after Ranjan Wijeratne's death that he was offered a cabinet portfolio by President Premadasa. Mr. Jayasuriya explained that he declined the offer and eventually he was posted as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Germany. Mr. Jayasuriya then narrated how he dreamt of Mr. Premadasa on the day of his assassination and the President had told him "they destroyed me."

Once again, he said Premadasa had appeared in his dreams just before the UNP defeat at the Southern Provincial Council elections and said, "the UNP has messed up."

Mr. Jayasuriya spoke of yet another dream where D. S. Senanayake appeared to tell him to unite the party.

That was soon after the UNP's defeat at the 1994 Presidential elections. It was clear that by now, Mr. Jayasuriya was no longer inclined to be the reluctant prince. Barkis was willing. The Jayasuriya-Atukorale group reiterated that Mr. Wickremesinghe should step down as the leader of the opposition.

Mr. Lokubandara who had gone to Cambridge Terrace the previous day to represent the dissidents at the pro-Wickremesinghe MPs meeting, took a strong stand at Wednesday's meeting of the crisis committee.

The crisis committee, after interviewing some 40 MPs, later met Mr. Wickremesinghe to give a briefing on the situation. The Wickremesinghe loyalists were not happy and in fact wondered whether the committee was suggesting that Mr. Wickremesinghe should step down as opposition leader.

It was argued that the UNP constitution does not permit this. Article 8 stipulates as follows; "Where the Leader of the party is not an MP he shall appoint a UNP MP to be the leader of the UNP parliamentary group." This is to fit in with the Executive Presidency and it was the case when President Jayewardene appointed R. Premadasa; and President Premadasa appointed D.B. Wijetunga and President Wijetunga had a vote between Gamini Dissanayake and Mr. Wickremesinghe in 1994. The interpretation of this Article was the party leader is an MP (and not the President) he remains leader of the opposition.

Immediately, there was another crisis meeting between Mr. Wickremesinghe and his loyalists. They agreed that there was no mandate for the crisis committee to discuss matters pertaining to leadership, and suggested having a vote of all the MPs all 89 of them, confident that they had a clear majority, but Malik Samarawickrema had said that though the Party Leader may win the vote, the vote would split the UNP down the middle.

A compromise was struck. All sides were to meet again at the residence of Malik Samarawickrema the next day. The participants were to be four representatives of the dissident group, Mr. Wickremesinghe, Tilak Marapana and the crisis committee.

That same night Imtiaz Bakeer Marker met another group including Gamini Lokuge, Lakshman Seneviratne, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, R. A. D. Sirisena and Ravindra Samaraweera.

He proposed a compromise to prevent a split in the party. The two groups agreed to appoint yet another committee as the confusion continues.

Mr. Wickremesinghe meanwhile was individually meeting Tissa Attanayake, Rajitha Senaratne and Mr. Atukorale on how to get dissidents back in the fold without losing face because it was the PA that is gaining on this, and how best to reorganise the party.

At Mr. Samarawickrema residence the dissidents asked for structural reforms. Mr. Wickremesinghe agreed that he would go into the reorganisation of the party and to renew the constitution. A proposal to activate the political affairs committee comprising Mr. Wickremesinghe, Mr. Jayasuriya, Mr. Atukorale and Party Chairman Charitha Ratwatte was agreed. Any decisions in the future were be taken jointly by the committee, and the leader was to make decisions in consultation and agreement with the political affairs committee, though presently the Working Committee of the Party (all appointees of the party leader) remains the highest decision making body of the UNP.

There were other proposals but no definite decision was taken. Among them was a proposal by Gamini Lokuge to make M. H. Mohammed the chairman, Gamini Atukorale the national organiser and P. Dayaratne the General Secretary.

By Friday the dust had settled. It had been a storm in tea cup or was it really? At the group meeting that day in the Parliament complex, discussions revolved around how to have a successful May Day rally at Katunayake the Free Trade Zone that the UNP government of yesteryear created as one of their economic successes.

Mr. Wickremesinghe emerged a battered victor. Whatever he lacks in the way of personality and drive, his political skills are not to be underestimated. Not only is he the son of Esmond Wickremesinghe, a political strategists of yore, but he must have learnt something sitting at the feet of his uncle J. R. Jayewardene, Machiavelli's elder brother. On the other hand the dissidents may have overestimated themselves. It is possible that they did not have the savvy to understand the mind of the rural MP. They relied too much on Mr. Lokubandara to deliver the goods from the provinces. Not a single MP from the entire south signed their petition.

Mr. Mohamed would have known the mentality of the MPs who side with the winner and how their loyalties to anyone are so fickle.

The dissidents may also feel that they have won the battle, that they have Mr. Wickremesinghe to know his leadership is not undisputed. That signal may surely have registered. But inevitably they may have lost the trust of Mr. Wickremesinghe.

It was at Mr. Karunanayake's residence that most of the dissidents met. That was where Mr. Wickremesinghe would be the last to leave after one of his many dinners.

Mr. Moragoda is his trusted man, for whom he broke all rules and appointed on the National List; with whom he must be on every foreign trip including the one to Norway.

While the embattled Mr. Wickremesinghe rushed back to face a vote of confidence of himself, his trusted Mr. Moragoda went to London to meet Benazir Bhutto and then was delayed awhile in Dubai. Was he watching which way the political winds were blowing here? Mr. Wickremesinghe will do better to take his entire party in to confidence, the way his uncle J. R. Jayewardene took in all the Dudley Senanayake loyalists, and be worthy of the leadership that has been entrusted to him, if the UNP is to defeat the an increasingly unpopular PA government.

This week's Mr. Wickremesinghe turned his house into a virtual Dansala, making some of his own loyalists say Vesak has come early for the UNP. He was indeed treating those who came to see him the way he always should.

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