Columns - Political Column

UNP cracking up, crackers for MR

  • Karu Jayasuriya's latest statement creates crisis within crisis, Sajith's agenda not clear
By Our Political Editor

Even if political cartoons, once much sought after, have become rare in the Sri Lankan media today, a few that still remain have not lost their thought provoking undertones or sense of humour.

There was one which referred to United National Party (UNP) deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya who said his dream during his life was to see his party in government. The remarks were made last Tuesday when a website in his name was inaugurated amidst a crowd of invitees at the Galle Face Hotel. An elephant that stood alongside was quoted remarking, "I am not sure whether I would live that long." The moral - the party may not last long to form a government in the future.

True or false, that epitomises the pathetic predicament of a grand old party battling on two fronts to survive. One is the riveting internecine struggles that have preoccupied the leadership levels. The other is the increasing inability, if not the will, to offer any cohesive opposition to the government. If the party was reputed for producing elder statesmen, presidents and prime ministers of repute in Asia, the assembly line for new leaders is choking.

This week's events will no doubt be an important new chapter in the party's darkening history. The leadership crisis has erupted again like a volcano, this time drawing battle lines and prompting angry factions into fighting each other. Buried in the melee is their legitimate role of taking on the UPFA government. Not even the salvo fired at them by the UPFA, that co-opted into their ranks Mohanlal Grero, Colombo District parliamentarian, seems to have had any effect.

Four months ago, co-deputy leader Sajith Premadasa declared at a news conference at Hotel Renuka that he had asked Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya to take over the leadership of the UNP from that day - July 28. Even if Premadasa did not have the power to offer the post of leader to anyone under the UNP constitution, the matter did generate controversy and drew considerable public attention. The announcement he made came after talks with Jayasuriya. An enraged leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, rushed to Colombo from London and pressure mounted on Jayasuriya. In a cautiously-worded statement which acknowledged he had offered to heed the request from within the party to be leader, Jayasuriya backtracked. If he took two steps forward, he took three backwards.

The weeks and months that followed showed a chasm between Jayasuriya and the Premadasa faction. A strong blow for Jayasuriya came last month when Wickremesinghe appointed Chief Opposition Whip, John Ameratunga to deputise for the leader. He left for London to attend the annual sessions of the International Democratic Union (IDU). Jayasuriya told colleagues if that was a "strong slap in the face," there were "more insults" in the form of being denied a speech on the budget debate on the opening day and the time given to him being pruned down. He had accused Ameratunga of treating him "shabbily." Ameratunga, however, denied the accusations. He told the Sunday Times: "The allegations cannot be accepted. Whatever time he requested was given. Besides that, there are other senior members in the party. We have only limited time and that should be shared among the party members. In any case Mr Jayasuriya is not in Parliament most of the time. This issue has nothing to do with the leadership."
Who is right, whether it is Jayasuriya or Ameratunga, is not the issue here. It was clear that Jayasuriya had been forced to play second fiddle to Ameratunga, after having served as number two.

Those developments were to spark a new relationship between the two factions, one led by Jayasuriya and the other by Premadasa. They met in different locations for talks that centred on many issues within the party. Several key personalities were involved in the behind-the-scenes consultations for both sides. The talks centred on many matters including the suspension of Matara District parliamentarian Buddhika Pathirana, the UNP deputy leaders not being consulted on matters relating to the party and what they called the growing "isolation of the party" from "grassroots level supporters countrywide".

Each to his own while MR pockets the rest. Pic Indika Handuwala

Consensus was reached late last week and a deal was wrapped up. It was agreed that once again, Premadasa would invite Jayasurya to take over the leadership. This time around, Jayasuriya would declare he would accept the offer. Publicly it was a replay of what happened in July. The difference, however, was that the Premadasa faction was assured that Jayasuriya would not back out.

In a two-page letter on December 3 to Jayasuriya, his co-deputy leader colleague, Premadasa said, "not less than sixty one (61) parliamentarians have crossed over to the government party" and added that "out of the 61 Cabinet Ministers, nearly 25 per cent were elected as UNP MPs" at last year's parliamentary elections, "the latest defection being our colleague Mohanlal Grero." Premadasa, alumni of the London School of Economics said "….. in addition to our party being branded as an elitist, political club dominated by English-speaking, unpatriotic clan, the undemocratic way the present leader is conducting its affairs is posing a fundamental threat to the cherished democratic rights and principles of our members….".

It was only in March, this year that Premadasa wanted to make a bid for the party leadership himself. He declared his candidature but cowed down after he was offered the post of co-deputy leader. This was much to the ire of his backers who accused him of forgetting all the fundamentals and letting them down.
Premadasa added "….. I request you to stand for election for the post of Leader of our Party." The next day (December 4) Jayasuriya replied Premadasa. He said, "I am in receipt of your letter dated December 3, 2011, the contents of which I have taken into very serious consideration. Whilst extending my heartfelt thanks for the same I wish to make my intentions known to you and the rest of the country as well, in a brief press statement……"

Last Monday, Jayasuriya issued what appeared to be a nuanced media statement. No sooner it became public; he came in for severe criticism by the state run media. One print outlet even declared that the former Minister of Public Administration, who returned to the UNP fold, counted the support of only eight in the party's Electoral College that is made up of the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group. Jayasuriya's statement said: In the past several weeks, Most Venerable Maha Nayake Theras, members of the Maha Sangha, other religious clerics, my fellow colleagues in the United National Party, branch organisations, supporters, and civil society organisations, among others, have made representations to me.

"They have all voiced one serious concern - the United National Party, a venerated national institution since our independence, has deteriorated to a lowly position where it can no longer function as an effective, credible, independent, democratic opposition. Every day we are losing the support of our grassroots level membership and have become a laughing stock in the eyes of the public.

"It is a tragic irony that a handful, a small minority in the party is holding to ransom the vast majority of our supporters and our nation. I need hardly say that their love for the party is overshadowed by their lust for personal benefits. This is why the tireless campaign by me and colleagues in the party to seek reforms to ensure democracy, transparency and the creation of a vibrant opposition has failed. We have many a time taken up these issues with our leader, Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe. I say with great sadness and pain of mind that all our sincere efforts have failed. The only thing we have won is isolation. We are neither consulted nor informed of any matters that concern the party.

"We preach on the need for free expression. It is not allowed within our party. We preach for democracy. There is no democracy in our party. We preach on the need for transparency. There is no transparency in the party. We preach for unity in the party. Instead there is devious manipulation to cause disharmony and seek revenge. We complain of authoritarianism in the government but forget it is there in greater measure in our party. As co-deputy leader, Sajith Premadasa, said in a letter to me, this is why 61 MPs have crossed over to the UPFA government in the recent years. Some of them hold influential cabinet positions. This is why, as he points out, in sixteen years, commencing from 1994, our Party voting bloc has gone down from 45% to a dismal 29%.

"Can the actions of one person or a small coterie be allowed to continue this systematic destroying of our party? I asked myself whether the United National Party can continue to betray the public confidence reposed on it. I am convinced overwhelmingly that we cannot. We owe a duty to all our party followers, the public and the country.

"I must re-iterate that I have, during many statements issued before, made it unequivocally clear that I would give up positions, if it became necessary in the interests of the party. This was to demonstrate that I never yearned for positions but always had the interest of my party at heart. My long association with the UNP, as many are aware, was interrupted for a shorter period when I served in the government.

I was motivated by my resolve to support them in the fight against terrorism. The war is now over but peace has not arrived. Violence and corruption are on the rise. By hindsight I have often wondered whether I had made an error of judgement. However, I must emphasise that in doing what I did, I went through the front door and came back also through the same door.

"I can say, say very emphatically that I have not during my association with the UNP ever used the backdoor for any dialogue. I have therefore had no reason to change positions every now and then or to compromise the UNP in any way.

"I am most humbled by the many requests made to me to contest the post of leader of the United National Party. I declare that I have heeded this request and would be a candidate. I and my colleagues are fully conscious of the many pitfalls. We are also conscious that all forms of devious attempts will be made, as is already evident, to place obstacles in our way. Yet, I want to re-assure all those who have appealed to me that I will fulfil their request no matter what the consequences are. More than official positions, I love the United National Party most. I am contesting to both save it and unite it - a pledge I made to all those who have asked me."

As is clear, Jayasuriya had directed most of his criticism at Wickremesinghe, if not direct in a veiled way, but making it too obvious. The statement notwithstanding, Wickremesinghe was at Jayasuriya's web launch on Tuesday. He sat flanked by Jayasuriya and Premadasa but left before the ceremonies ended. The UNP leader seemed little bothered and refused to react to queries at a media briefing on Monday.

He downplayed the issue by saying he had not heard of any statement from Jayasuriya though he had met him at Siri Kotha earlier that day. The briefing was held to provide details about the UNP campaign for the release of Sarath Fonseka from jail. At the meeting of the Working Committee on Wednesday, some had widely believed to have been the occasion for the election of a party leader, Wickremesinghe avoided making any reference to the Jayasuriya statement. If there were expectations by UNP supporters that elections would be held that day, there were none. Not even the resolution setting out parameters for the election of a leader, as revealed last week, came up for discussion.

The party also did not react officially to the Jayasuriya statement. The party spokesperson Gayantha Karunatilleke was cautious in his comments. He told the Sunday Times, "The decision of Mr Karu Jayasuriya to announce his decision to contest has created some interest among the party members. They are waiting to see the outcome. We will have to wait and see whether we can reach consensus or we will have to go to a vote to elect the members to the senior positions in the party. We believe that without going in for a vote we will be able to elect the leader by consensus."

UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and Party spokesman Gayantha Karunatilleke briefing the media. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

After General Secretary Tissa Attanayake had read out the minutes of the previous meeting, the Working Committee adopted a resolution to suspend Grero from UNP membership and initiate disciplinary action against him. Wickremesinghe who spoke thereafter responded to criticism that he did not attend courts when the case of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka was taken up or when judgment was delivered against him recently. He said he had lost faith in the judiciary. He was critical of a non-UNP MP who had prevented Anoma Fonseka from taking part in the Hyde Park rally. The person concerned, Wickremesinghe said, had not even made a maiden speech, leave alone espousing Fonseka's cause in Parliament. The Working Committee was then briefed by Jayalath Jayawardena (Gampaha District) of a countrywide campaign to seek the release of Fonseka from jail.

Yesterday, (December 10), a poya day, but even more significantly, World Human Rights Day, the signing of a mammoth petition seeking the release of Fonseka by UNP leaders and others took place at the New Town Hall. Thereafter, signatures of the public are to be obtained opposite the Fort Railway Station tomorrow. Jayawardena said that a million signatures seeking Fonseka's release would then be sent to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. It seemed ironic that a petition with million signatures should go to the UNSG and not to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. After all, Ban had no power to release Fonseka from jail except to be an additional voice over the million signatures that call for the former Army Commander's release. On December 31 campaigns are to be held at various places of worship including Kataragama and Sri Pada. Clearly, the UNP was trying to bring about international pressure on the Rajapaksa administration to have Fonseka released even if it ran the risk of asking for international intervention in Sri Lanka's internal affairs, an issue that the government exploits to attack the opposition, but is equally rattled by.

The UNP Working Committee also discussed the November 29 Hyde Park rally calling for the release of the former General. It was decided to reprimand some of the party MPs who had failed to bring crowds. The suspension of Buddhika Pathirana also came up for discussion. Attanayake said he and two party MPs have had an informal chat with Pathirana. The other two were John Ameratunga (Gampaha District) and P. Harrison (Polonnaruwa District). He said Pathirana had indicated that he was prepared to offer an apology for any 'misconduct.' Wickremesinghe said he had "no problem" with that and agreed that the matter could be considered.

Premadasa was to raise issue once again on why it had taken more than the agreed two weeks to complete the disciplinary inquiry against Pathirana. A response came from the party's legal secretary Daya Pelpola. He said Pathirana as well as Shiral Laktilleke, Western Provincial Councillor who were suspended on disciplinary grounds had responded to letters asking for their explanations by making various accusations against the party instead of answering the charges. He said the delay had been caused due to this.

When the meeting neared its end, Wickremesinghe said that a date on when the annual convention of the party takes place would be decided at the next meeting of the Working Committee. He also said those willing to contest for office could inform the Working Committee, at their next meeting, of their intention to contest. However, he did not make clear whether an election of office bearers including the party leader would take place at the next Working Committee meeting itself or on some other date. UNP sources said yesterday that vacancies existing in this Committee are likely to be filled by December 15 and the election for party posts could take place on December 18 (next Sunday). In the meanwhile some senior members of the party are to lobby Jayasuriya to withdraw his candidature so Wickremesinghe, the leader, could be re-elected uncontested.

On Wednesday afternoon, Attanayake held a news conference to brief the media on the outcome of the Working Committee meeting. Here are edited excerpts: "The working Committee presided over by leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met today. We reached several decisions. One of them is something which you have been regularly asking about. That is the appointment of the officials and the future action of the party. Mr. Wickremesinghe informed the Working Committee today that in accordance with the party constitution the Working Committee will be informed about the appointment of the officials within the next 10 days. Accordingly, the officials for 2012 should be appointed before December 31. We are not sure whether there are groups who would be contesting for the positions, but according to the party constitution, the priority is that the appointments should be made by consensus. In the event consensus cannot be reached under clause 8.2 of the party constitution, the Working Committee and the Parliamentary group should collectively make the appointments. Within the next 10 days a Working Committee meeting will be summoned to discuss the appointment of the officials and holding of the convention. This was one of the main matters discussed today.

"According to the party constitution, persons representing various fields should be appointed to the Working Committee. As an example, nine members should be appointed from the Pradeshiya Sabhas, the Municipal and Urban Councils. The criteria were decided upon at the Working Committee. Accordingly two members each from Municipal Councils and Urban Councils and five members from the Pradeshiya Sabhas should be appointed. It was decided that the Mayor of Colombo or the leader of the UNP group in future should be included in the Working Committee. Accordingly through our district organizers and through the councils the names should be sent to me before December 10.

"Those names will be submitted to the Advisory Committee which meets on December 12 and thereafter it will be forwarded to the Working Committee. The other criteria have been specified. Accordingly two of the nine representatives appointed should be females. Four of the representatives should be from trade unions. One of them should be a female. Of the three members who will be appointed from affiliated organizations, one should be a female. There are other vacancies in the Working Committee which should be filled at district level. They consist of the Trincomalee, Puttalam, Matale and Wanni districts. This will be discussed at the December 12 meeting and finalized. Accordingly the new officials will be selected by a complete Working Committee. After the announcement is made, discussion can be held about reaching of a consensus on the positions contested. That was the main decision reached today.
"The second issue disused was the protest rally held on November 29 by the UNP. It was decided that the event was successfully held. A decision was taken to thank the committee which organized it. Also a decision was taken to initiate action against electoral organisers and others who failed to contribute towards organizing this event. A report has been called for.

"Thirdly it was decided to suspend the membership of Mohan Lal Grero who crossed over to the government during the budget and take disciplinary action against him. A report to the disciplinary committee will be forwarded.

"December 10 (yesterday) was the World Human Rights Day. We have decided to collectively sign a petition and send to UN Secretary Gen Ban Ki-moon calling him to protect the human rights of General Sarath Fonseka. On this day, at 10.30 a.m. we will collect signatures of party leaders, and then go on to collect signatures at electoral level. We hope to collect one million signatures demanding the restoration of the rights of former General Fonseka. The issue on Buddhika Pathirana's disciplinary action was also taken up. The Working Committee gave approval to resolve the matter in way it does not harm anyone and in keeping with the party constitution."

"Q: Did Karu Jayasuriya inform the Working Committee about his decision to contest for the leadership?"
"A: He has not officially informed the Working Committee. However, this morning he sent me a letter drawing reference to a press release he has issued. He says in that he wants to contest the leadership. He did not make a proposal to the Working Committee about this. This was because the leader announced that Working Committee will be meeting in 10 days to discuss the issues."

"Q: Was that letter officially submitted to you and presented to the Working Committee?"
"A: That cannot be presented officially. Under the party constitution it is possible to make a proposal (to contest) only after an announcement about elections is made. I think it was sent to me to inform me. You have to check with him whether it was sent officially or not."
Asked for his comments whether his statement was a formal notification to the party, Jayasuriya told the Sunday Times "that was my announcement to the public. I will of course notify my intention (to the party) when nominations are announced."

A counter to Karu Jayasuriya's announcement to contest the UNP leadership came on Thursday. It was from John Ameratunga, Chief Opposition Whip who had deputised for Wickremesinghe during his visit to London. He told a news conference, "Karu Jayasuriya has no moral right to contest for the leadership in the UNP, after he deserted the party with 16 others to support the government. As a senior member in the party, though I have more qualifications than Mr Jayasuriya for the leadership, I do not believe in shortcuts.
"We accept that in future the leadership should change and the youth should take over. But currently the only suitable person as leader is Ranil Wickremesinghe. A party loses when the people do not want it. In 1977 the people went against the then government because they became unpopular. The government has not become unpopular so far, because their popularity after the military victory still remains. But the cost of living has been rising. Until a government becomes unpopular among people it is difficult to defeat them. If people within the party are working against the party, it is difficult to see that a party wins. Persons such as Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Authlathmudali, G.M. Premachandra formed a new party and destroyed the UNP for the first time. In 2007 Karu Jayasuriya with 16 members supported the government and destroyed the party for the second time. The best opportunity to defeat the government was lost because of Mr Jayasuriya".

"When Mr Jayasuriya wanted to return to the UNP empty handed most of the seniors were against it. At that time it was Mr Wickremesinghe who intervened and prevented disciplinary action against Mr. Jayasuriya. He was also offered the deputy leadership of the party. He has forgotten the assistance given to him and is now trying to contest for the leadership. When he was taken back to the party, he promised Mr. Wickremesinghe that he would never do anything harmful to the party. Mr. Wickremesinghe trusted him. I came to politics in 1960 and even in 1985, I was not allowed to contest. But I did not leave the party. I respected the decision of the leadership".

An angry response to Ameratunga's remarks at the news conference came from Ranjit Maddumabandara (UNP - Moneragala District). Mounting Dhooshana (corruption) and Bheeshana (fear psychosis), he told the Sunday Times had made the government very unpopular. "I doubt whether Mr. Ameratunga is speaking for the government or for the UNP. It was only last year he was quoted by the national media as saying that his electors had wanted him to join the government. Does he have the moral right to say those things? Is it not clear who is behind all this?" he asked.

Maddumabandara alleged that most publicity for Ameratunga's remarks was given in the state-run media and that bared the background to his remarks. He accused Ameratunga of having 'one leg in the government and one in the UNP.' He should not have been appointed to deputise for the leader when he (Wickremesinghe) was away from Sri Lanka, he added.

That Jayasuriya erred at the beginning in accepting Sajith Premadasa's invitation to lead the party, no doubt, is one chapter. Another is Wickremesinghe's decision to deny him the opportunity to deputise in his absence. That has now led to the latest bout of open political warfare within the UNP.

Most UNPers say Wickremesinghe commands the majority vote in both the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group. Hence, they claim he would be the winner when elections are held. If that happens, no doubt, it would be the end of Jayasuriya's political career unless some form of rapprochement takes place.

In the event of a Jayasuriya victory, how much unity he could forge with the Premadasa faction remains a big question. With the passage of time, Premadasa is bound to stake his claims and has his eyes cast as the next presidential candidate of the UNP. Even before that, Premadasa and his backers have their own agenda not only on how to run the party but also on who should get what position.

For the time being, whatever happens to Jayasuriya, paradoxical enough, Premadasa is in a win-win situation. He may still be a deputy leader unless Wickremesinghe chooses to make a clean sweep and ensure his loyalists take full control purging all those who back Jayasuriya. Such a possibility, party insiders say, is unlikely. Either way, as the cartoon projected, the question is for how long the United National Party, the country's premier opposition, could survive with a split in the middle.

This time around too, that the UNP is in deep crisis is the biggest Christmas and New Year present for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He could not have hoped for more even if there is a drop in his government's popularity. The UNP has made up for all that and more.

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