Columns - Political Column

UNP embroiled in leadership crisis

  • Sajith speaks out powerfully for leadership change and more democracy in party
  • Rajapaksas take charge of important subjects; GL and Jayasundera also to play big roles
By Our Political Editor

It was the first baptism of fire for the new Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, last Wednesday. A Cabinet Minister concurred on an issue raised by two senior Opposition politicians. It was all over retired General Sarath Fonseka.

The first to raise issue was Anura Kumara Dissanayake, spokesman for the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). He complained that their alliance leader was not allowed to attend Parliament. He would not be able to cast his vote on the extension of the State of Emergency, he declared.

Backing him was Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He said a General Court Martial (which the retired General was to attend that Wednesday) did not have powers of other courts of law. "No one could give any command or order over-ruling Parliament orders," he said.

It was only on Tuesday, Gen. (retd.) Fonseka, the newly elected Colombo district MP had made his first major speech. It was during the debate on the extension of the State of Emergency. "I have come here as a political prisoner," he said. Then the man who led troops to the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas last year and the one who had then sought more powers for the military declared there was no longer a need for a state of emergency.

The issue gained more significance after Minister Wimal Weerawansa rose to support the two Opposition leaders. He said no one could prevent Gen. (retd.) Fonseka from coming to Parliament. "If we ignore this issue, it could set a precedent. Hence, he wanted the Speaker to give a ruling on the matter. Of course, Weerawansa did not hide his feelings when he said that if Gen. (retd.) Fonseka were to have been elected President, whether he could have upheld democracy was another matter. However, he said, he was entitled to his rights as a parliamentarian.

Symbolic of things to come? UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and leadership aspirant Sajith Premadasa seen together at the R. Premadasa memorial ceremony on May 1.

The move was to trigger off a string of behind-the-scene activity. As a prelude to a ruling, Speaker Rajapaksa telephoned President Mahinda Rajapaksa to ascertain the official position. He was also to mention that a Cabinet Minister had backed the issue raised by the two Opposition parliamentarians. Presidential staff at 'Temple Trees' in turn were busy connecting the President on the telephone with External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris and House leader and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, one a former professor of law, the other a former instructing attorney. They were not in the chamber. President Rajapaksa wanted them to immediately go to the well of the House and explain the Govern ment's position. He also began checking further with senior officials and security forces top brass.

Some details of what transpired emerged after the first meeting of the Cabinet on Wednesday evening. President Rajapaksa spoke with Minister Weerawansa. He said he had verified the matter and found that Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's counsel had agreed with members of the General Court Martial (GCM) for the conduct of sittings last Wednesday. Hence, it had been assumed that the former Army Commander had opted to take part in the proceedings of the GCM instead of attending Parliament. Neither Gen. (retd.) Fonseka and his lawyers nor his political party representatives had written to the GCM to say that the MP wished to attend Parliament.

There appeared to be a legal issue here. Government leaders believe that all correspondence regarding the GCM was directed to the Commander of the Army. This, they say, is on the premise that Gen. (retd.) Fonseka does not recognise the General Courts Martial. These leaders claim that the Commander of the Army is not the proper authority since President Rajapaksa as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces has appointed the two different GCM.

However, Gen. (retd.) Fonseka on Friday raised an issue of privilege over this matter. He complained that he had been prevented from attending Parliament. He wanted members of the General Court Martial (who convened last Wednesday) to be brought before the House. Parliament is yet to name a Committee on Privileges. The matter will come up only after the committee is constituted.

By adding his weight to an important issue, Weerawansa's voice was heard over his Opposition colleagues. So much so, President Rajapaksa sought to personally explain matters to him. For the one-time JVP frontliner, the words of Asgiriya Chapter Mahanayake Most Venerable Udugama Sri Buddharakhitta Thera, appear to have stuck. He had called on the prelate after being sworn in as minister. He was advised not to hesitate to raise issue when there was wrong doing.

Ahead of last Wednesday's first Cabinet meeting, President Rajap aksa invited his new ministers to tea. Later, at the meeting, he told the ministers they should not distance themselves from each other. He said they should all be committed to the principle of collective responsibility. Once a decision is made by the Cabinet, whether they were in favour or not, they should all back it.

Five days ahead of the first Cabinet meeting, President Rajapaksa signed a Gazette notification allocating the institutions that came under them. The notification also defined their powers, duties and functions. If there were significant re-arrangement of some functions to different Ministries, a glaring feature was the omission of Human Rights and Constitutional Affairs from subjects assigned to Ministries. The two subjects were dropped earlier from the Ministries itself.

Some ministries have been assigned just one institution. Examples: Ministry of Public Management Refo rms will have under its purview only the Na tional Administrative Refor ms Council, whi ch is not even a depart ment. The Ministry of Water Supply and Drainage will have under its purview only the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWS&DB). Ministry of Local Government and Prov incial Councils will only have under its purview the Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance.

The Urban Develo pment Authority and the Land Reclamation Board have been bro ught under the purview of the Ministry of Defence. In the previous Government, these two key institutions came under the Ministry of Urban Development. The Urban Settlement Development Authority, however, has been placed under the Ministry of Construction, Engine ering Services, Housing and Common Amenities.

An important responsibility vested in the Ministry of Defence is the "control of entry of foreigners, their stay, employment and resident tax."

Such functions for the MoD will enable it to deal with Non Governm ental and International Non Govern mental Organisations. The Depart ment of Immigration and Emigra tion, which was earlier under the Ministry of Internal Security (functioning under the Prime Minister) had been brought under the Ministry of Defence.

The newly-created Ministry of Economic Development has been vested with the decentralised (DCB) budget allocations for MPs - a function previously handled by the Ministry of Finance. At present, each MP is entitled to an allocation of one million rupees for development work in the districts he or she represents. The Ministry of Economic Development also becomes a powerful ministry with rural livelihoods, tourism, wildlife parks, botanical gardens, foreign direct investment (FDI) through the control of the Board of Investment and poor relief through Samurdhi. In addition this ministry will also handle all "regional development programmes including district development programmes."

Even the Ministry of External Affairs has been strengthened. It has been assigned the Foreign Employ ment Bureau (FEB) and the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Agency. Earlier, these remained under a separate Ministry dedicated to the subjects. In addition, promoting external trade and tourism are major responsibilities for the External Affairs Ministry. Thus, the Minister G.L. Peiris is officially vested with dealing with matters related to the GSP plus trade facility.

As in the past, the Ministry of Finance retains fiscal management, national, economic, financial policies and strategies. Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, a veteran at the Treasury, is also Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Development. That appears to be a harmonious blend of two very powerful areas of administration. Dr. Jayasundera would be the pivot around which the two Ministries headed by the two Rajapaksa brothers will revolve. He would be the link between the two brothers who will carry the burden of this thrust to propel Sri Lanka to new economic heights in the coming years.

If the Government is set on going into high gear with its economic development programmes, the main Opposition United National Party (UNP) continues to remain embroiled in a continuing crisis. The week began with its Kurunegala district parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekera preparing a report for reforms at the request of party leader Wickr emesinghe. The five-page report in Sinhala set out deadlines for various tasks. Here is an English translation:

"Five point plan for the restructuring of the UNP - Dayasiri Jayasekara

1. Ensuring the victory of the UNP at the next General Election

Plan; Regaining the lost voter base for the UNP at the upcoming local elections, diverting the UNP towards the victory path at the next elections (most probably the provincial council elections) by winning at least half the number of provincial councils.

Objective: Winning 30 to 40 per cent of the local councils at the next local elections and thereby regaining the lost UNP voter base.

Introduction: The voter base of the UNP which was around 35 percent and the most popular political party has dropped to 29.32 percent at the Parliamentary elections in 2010. During previous elections too the popularity has been dropping. This shows the need for an urgent, forceful and strategic restructuring programme of the party.

There is no debate that the party is in a crisis. Three points can be elaborated to illustrate this point.

1: Crisis in the organization Research, development and strategy development - Lack of strategy
No process to develop human reso urces No policy on finance and budget within the party

2. Problems within the organization Individualism and selfish attitudes have become the base instead of team sprit and the need to develop as a team.

3. Having strategies which are not politically important Considering the above points priority should be to prevent the voter base from further eroding and regaining the lost voter base as the first challenge.
Therefore the first objective of the restructuring should be aimed at regaining the lost voter base of the UNP at the upcoming local government elections, secondly at the provincial council elections diverting the party towards a clear victory path at the provincial elections and thereafter facing the Parliamentary elections with self-confidence and winning the election.

Therefore a five point plan to be implemented in four months for the restructure of the party is being proposed. Each proposal has a particular time frame for implementation.

The plan has two approaches. One of them is to identify the ability and the talents of the youth and restructuring the party to go on simultaneously is the other.


01. Restructuring the party Constitution -

Appointing a three member independent committee aimed at studying the party constitution and broadbasing democracy within the party. The names could be proposed at the Working Committee and the appointments be made thereby. This committee should pay special attention to the powers of the party leader and the time frame (including the process of entering as the leader and leaving the post) and the organization management at the senior, middle level and rural level.

This process should not be from the top to the bottom, but from the bottom to the to the top. Members elected to local and provincial councils should be given the opportunity to express their opinions. It is proposed that a secretariat be appointed for this purpose.

It is the responsibility of the working committee to ensure that this process takes place within a particular time frame. It is also the duty of the Working Committee to ensure that the process takes place in a transparent manner and the party convention is informed about the progress through the Executive Committee.

Time Frame: Four Weeks

02. Restructuring of the party

To achieve the above objectives it is important to immediately restructure the party and take strategic steps. Therefore it is the responsibility of the working Committee to ensure the restructuring process begins immediately from the village level. The current system of appointing 'selected persons to designated posts' has completely destroyed the democratic process of the party and has led to authoritative power spreading within the party. Therefore, it is proposed that the Working Committee considers the following proposals.

a. Selecting new members to all positions, excluding the party leader by a secret vote. The names can be proposed at the Working Committee and thereafter the secret ballot could be held.

b. It is the duty of the Working Committee to give them the powers and the facilities to achieve their goals.

c. A specific time frame should be provided to achieve the goals of the respective post. Pending party convention approval they should be able to start their work as an interim measure.

03 Revamping District organizations

Since several District organizations are currently inactive an urgent plan should be put into action to reactivate them. For this plan we should get the involvement of the party at divisional level and party branches. District organizers should be appointed immediately. To establish a second level leadership, new officials involving newly elected MPs, PC members and local council members should be appointed. As an example PC and PS members should be given the leadership at the second level in districts.

For every district there should be plans with specific time frames and the Working Committee should monitor them on a monthly basis.

It is expected that PC members and local council members are given powers and also would be able to voice their opinion when decisions are taken at district level. As an example at the electoral level the branches could be headed by a Pradeshiya Sabha member.

This should be implemented soon as local government elections are due shortly.
Time Frame: Three months

04 Financial Situation and Accounting

To implement the above proposals the Working Committee to assess the financial situation of the party. The Working Committee should appoint a Special Financial Committee for this purpose. The Committee should be able to submit a detailed financial report to the next Working Committee meeting after taking into consideration previous audit reports (at least the audit reports of the last three years). Based on that proposals could be made to develop the financial situation and implement a transparent financial policy.
This same committee could submit a detailed financial report to the next party convention and this tradition should be continued.

Time Frame: Three months

05 Party Convention

After the implementation of the above policies the party convention should be held within four months. At the end of three months the Working Committee should have an analysis about the performance and talents of the new office bearers. Based on this it could submit amendments to the list of office bearers and submit it to the party convention. Identifying the performance of the new office bearers and the restructuring programme should take place simultaneously. The officer bearers approved at the party convention should be in accordance to the new party constitution by the independent body (Reads with proposal 1).

Time Frame: Four months

Note: This process should take place under the current leadership. It is the responsibility of the Working Committee to ensure implementation within the given time frame.

Jayasekera's reform package came up for discussion at the UNP's Working Committee meeting last Wednesday. It turned out to be a heated and even acrimonious debate.

Proceedings began with Jayasekera getting up and saying that he recommended amendments to Sections 8.1 8.5 and 8.6 of the party constitution. Then he sat down.

Few, if any in the Working Committee had a indepth grasp of what on earth these sections referred to, so they asked him what they were. Jayasekera himself could not explain it in the first instance until someone passed him a copy of the party constitution. These seem to refer to some 1995 amendments that were passed during the party's Kataragama Convention and they stated that the party leader's post should be filled only if there is vacancy. The other provisions related to the posts of the General Secretary and the Treasurer.

Then came the fireworks. One of the focal points of the meeting was the role of Hambantota district MP Sajith Premadasa. Those who want to oust Wickremesinghe from the party leadership are promoting young Premadasa to a leadership slot but there are sections within the party who say he has not made any significant contribution to the party other than in retaining his seat in the Rajapaksa pocket-borough of Hambantota. They allege that he had not taken up any stance over national issues and often kept away from Working Committee or UNP parliamentary group meetings. His contributions in Parliament were few and far between. His whole world was Hambantota, his only claim to fame was that his father was Ranasinghe Premadasa and that he relied on certain sections of the media to make him a national figure. One of his critics said he was more close to some Colombo based diplomats than to his own party.

Premadasa hit out at Wickreme singhe during the meeting. It came after Wickremesinghe had spoken. He spoke on Jayasekera's report and the need for the party to expand at the grassroots level.

Premadasa said he went to see the leader (Wickremesinghe) because he had been invited by him. "I did not go alone because I did not trust him. He would have said a different thing to the media. I therefore went along with John Amaratunga and Kabir Hashim," he said. He referred to the party's vote base dropping to a new low of 29 percent of the total vote and said that this vote would drop even further in time to come unless there was a major restructuring of the party "from top to bottom".

He accused the party leader Wickremesinghe of creating posts in the past and leaving them vacant even after those holding such posts left the party - and then referring to the instance of when deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya left the party he said the post was not filled but given back to him when he returned to the party. He said now the post of National Organiser was vacant even after S.B. Dissanayake left the party.
This remark seemed to irk Karu Jayasuriya who said that when the late Minister Ranjan Wijeratne was assassinated, young Premadasa's father, President Premadasa had offered Wijeratne's portfolio to Jayasuriya, but as he was not one who went behind posts, he had not accepted it.

This did not deter young Premadasa from going on. He said that this was not the way to do things and that responsible people should be appointed to key posts, grassroots organisations looked into. He began mouthing strong words; "meka maha prodawak" (this is a big fraud) and "mewata palastara dala hariyanne ne" (you can't fix these things by putting plasters). He said that by the leader going in for coalition talks with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Mano Ganeshan's party, there was now a major uproar in the appointments to the National List as well.

At times, Premadasa tended to be insulting with back-handed praise of Wickremesinghe's "intellectualism" saying that he did not want the leader to leave the party because he wanted to discuss 'intellectual stuff' with him, though he certainly had no time to discuss politics with him.

At this point Wickremesinghe intervened to say that he had spoken to several MPs privately and it had been their view that Premadasa should be appointed as Assistant Leader of the party, a post now left vacant by the resignation of Rukman Senanayake when he was left out of the National List.

ickremesinghe said that in the circumstances, he would like to propose the name of Premadasa to the post of Assistant Leader. He asked if there were any other names. No-one seemed to propose the name of Ravi Karunanayake who had been canvassing for this same post privately. Having waited a minute or two, Wickre mesinghe said that as there were no other names he would like to appoint Premadasa as the Assistant Leader of the UNP, a post that in hierarchy is only next to the leader and the deputy leader.

At this stage, Earl Gunasekera (Polonnaruwa district MP) said that the party leadership must not be distributing "seeni bola" - (sweets). "Mehema seeni bola deela kattiyawa santhosa karala hariyanne ne" (you can't be distributing sweets like this and satisfying people). One was not sure if this was a critique of Premadasa's appointment or Wickremesinghe's method of pacifying critics. Gunasekera, the hotel owner cum businessman went on to say how much money he had spent on the party and that unless there was a complete revamp of the party machinery he would like to give up politics.

Premadasa was unfazed. Few have seen him speak with a sense of authority and confidence as he did that day. He was still on his feet. He responded to all this by saying that he was not going to accept the post of Assistant Leader because even that position must be contested at an election. "All the posts must be contested from top to bottom", he said.

Karu Jayasuriya said that he was prepared to stand down, and then Wickremesinghe also said that if those criticising him didn't want him to continue he was prepared to go. "Mama yannam" (I will go), he said, but those present said that "Na na, ehema yanna one naa, api meka hadamu" (No, no you don't have to leave like that; we will make this happen).

None of those who were identified as Wickremesinghe loyalists chose to speak at the Working Committee meeting. This included Ravi Karunanayake, who was reported to be insisting that whatever position is given to Premadasa should also be given to him as well. "Don't involve me," he declared when members were discussing the issue of Nuwara Eliya district parliamentarian Sri Ranga Jeyeratnam, who had broken away from the party no sooner he was elected to Parliament on the United National Front (UNF) ticket.

John Amaratunga, the party senior who was appointed Chief Opposition Whip called for changes in the party constitution. He spoke of the need to democratize the party process and strengthen its grassroots. He made no references to any need for changes in the party leadership, that the new constitution should address these issues.

Kabeer Hasheem (MP - Kegalle district) who had also been given a brief by Wickremesinghe to draft party reforms quickly spoke on how the restructuring process should take place. He spoke on how the party could gain the maximum number of votes through the restructuring programme. He asked if there was a need to increase the number of Working Committee members or reduce them. He too seemed to be of the view that the entire party leadership, including the leader should be elected.

Lakshman Kiriella (MP- Kandy district) lamented the fact that the UNP had lost the Sinhala Buddhist vote base in the bastion of Sinhala-Buddhism, i.e. the Kandy district. He said that the UNP needed to regain the lost Sinhala-Buddhist votes. He pointed out that there were some 780 Buddhist temples in the Kandy district and he couldn't find 52 among them that supported the UNP. Kiriella, a one-time SLFP Minister who made public his disappointment that he was not made the Chief Opposition Whip (Amaratunga's post) said that he was the only Sinhalese to be elected from the Kandy district and that the party had only two Sinhala-Buddhist in its National List.

Taking the issue of the National List was Lakshman Seneviratne (UNP- Badulla district), the long time critic of the Wickremesinghe leadership. He too was on the same theme as Kiriella, saying that the UNP had completely lost the majority Sinhala-Buddhist vote in the country and that there was a need to win it back. He said what had compounded the matter was the appointment of a leading light of the Assembly of God (AoG) Church in Eran Wickramaratne on the National List of the UNP in the backdrop of the loss of the Sinhala-Buddhist vote.

He asked Wickremesinghe on what basis Wickramaratne was appointed to Parliament, and went on to highlight what he called was the 'insidious work' of the AoG in converting people from the traditional religions in Sri Lanka. He quoted from a report of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress and said that the party instead of wooing the Sinhala-Buddhists was appointing a leading figure of the AoG to Parliament. He added that UPFA Minister of Power & Energy Champika Ranawaka of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) had told him that they were waiting to use this material against the UNP in Parliament.

Amaratunga interrupted Senevir atne and suggested that he should not bring religion into his argument. This seemed to enrage Seneviratne even more. "John ayya" (brother John), he said, I am a better Catholic than you are. My wife is a Catholic and I have just returned from pilgrimage to Velankerni, but facts are facts".

Premadasa was to say that when the elections were concluded the UNF had 60 MPs, but this week it has dropped to 57. More will follow unless some urgent reforms take place.

Jayasekera then asked that a decision on these matters be taken then and there, to which Amaratunga said that such decisions could not be taken in a hurry. Wickremesinghe then said that there needs to be new positions created in the party constitution like district leaders and that the matter be discussed with the grassroots organisations.

Some felt that Wickremesinghe was trying to delay reforms once again as they insisted on a time frame. Seneviratne asked why the Working Committee could not decide on these matters, and cheekily said that it would be even more embarrassing for the leader if the party branches (bala mandala) were consulted and they too overwhelmingly recommended a change in the party leadership.

Wickremesinghe then said that there were differences on how to set about these reforms, so he called for a report by next week. He said he would call the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group as well to discuss these reforms. He then announced that he would be going on long leave after a short visit to India soon, and that the party convention could come in July.

Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa was concerned that it would not be good for the party if it was known that Premadasa declined the post of Assistant Leader. General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, another Wickremesinghe loyalist, who kept silent throughout the nearly four-hour long meeting finally struck a sarcastic tone by asking if all these new appointments would guarantee a victory for the party. He asked if the party's trade union wing, youth wing and the women's wing also should not be brought into the fray. Seneviratne was to say that at least this would be a beginning.

The next day Gayan Karunatillake, the party spokesman was to issue a statement referring to the decision to form a committee to prepare party reforms, but this became a controversy by itself. While Karunatillake's announcement referred to elections to "all posts" in the party, the next day Attanayake as General Secretary said otherwise. According to him, the leader's post was not up for grabs by election.
Premadasa lost no time in contradicting Attanayake and insisted that the Working Committee decided that even the UNP leader should be elected. Thus, aptly showing the lack of unity in the UNP even to have one common position on what was decided at its highest decision-making body.

On Friday when the National Lawyers Association (NLA) of the UNP met, more than 200 party lawyers discussed these reforms. Dayasiri Jayasekera explained to the members what had been discussed at the Working Committee. Some members had backed Wickremesinghe, but finally it was decided that any recommendations members had should be sent either to NLA President Upul Jayasuriya or to Ronald Perera, the lawyer in the Committee appointed by the Working Committee.

The Committee appointed to formulate these proposals for the amendment of the party's constitution is headed by former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera and comprises MPs John Amaratunga, Kabeer Hashim, Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, Lakshman Kiriella and Attorney Ronald Perera. Committee members met twice over the weekend and seem to be proceeding on the basis of "elections to all posts - including that of the Party Leader". The question troubling them as well is whether those eligible to vote for these posts are going to be only the members of the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group, these two and the National Executive Committee or at the annual Convention. The report of the Committee is expected to be ready in the coming week and will be discussed at a joint session of the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group next week.

One would have to wait for next week then for the final outcome, if there would be a final outcome in the first place, of the common woes of a party in Opposition. Meanwhile, significantly as it may be, various parties are taking note of these developments within the UNP. Already, a foreign union of nations, which normally extends an invitation to the UNP through its leader for an MP to visit Brussels and study its parliamentary structure, has sent a direct invitation - directly - to young Premadasa to come there.

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