The Political Column

10th December 2000

UNP gearing to go JR way

By our Political Correspondent
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The UNP having lost all the elections held since 1994 is introducing internal reforms to strengthen the party.

The 46th annual sessions held in Kandy last Sunday, according to party sources, was successful and it has stirred hopes in members that leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would lead the party to victory in the near future.

It is important that every political party revamps itself from time to time especially when in the opposition.

The SLFP, too, while it was languishing in the opposition for 17 years had tried various ways and means to reinvigorate the party and attract grassroots level support, which the party lost after the historic victory of J. R. Jayewardene in 1977. 

Studying the strategy used by the UNP leader during the 1970-77 period is important for the UNP if it hopes to build up the party once again. One important step taken by the then UNP leader Dudley Senanayake in 1970 was to divide the Parliamentary group leadership and allowing his deputy, J. R. Jayewardene, to take the reins as the leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Jayewardene, a man of innovative skills, explored every possibility to bring down the government, but at the same time cooperated with the government in matters of national importance. 

In 1971 when the JVP insurgency broke out, he took a firm stand to support the government to crush it because he believed that democracy was threatened.

He went along with the government to promulgate the new Republican Constitution in 1972 but opposed the United Front governmentís move to extend the life of parliament under the new Constitution. No doubt that he arrogated powers to himself with the death of Mr. Senanayake in 1973, but he delivered the goods which made UNPers to have confidence in him. With the party under his control, he faced one of the worst ever by-elections in the annals of the Sri Lankan political history. Yet managed to secure Dedigama for the new entrant Rukman Senanayake amidst ruling party sponsored violence.

In 1975, he resigned his Colombo West seat in Parliament in protest against the decision of the government to extend its term by two years and faced the by-election, which he won overwhelmingly.

He resorted to the Gandhian tactic of Satyagraha to protest against the misuse of power by the government which was in any case losing its popularity over economic hardship and rising cost of living. He took his campaign to every nook and corner of the country, including the Bandaranaike stronghold of Attanagalle.

At the 1977 general elections, the rout of the SLFP was so humiliating that it could not even become the chief opposition party, an honour that went to the TULF.

Such was the strategy and astuteness of Mr. Jayewardene. But it is interesting to study what caused the fall of the UNP, especially after the sudden death of President Premadasa in 1993 and the rise of D. B. Wijetunga, lack lustre politician.

It was largely due to inept strategies adopted by the party under his leadership that the UNP was relegated to the Opposition benches after the 1994 elections. Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister of the 1993-94 UNP regime has to take some responsibility for the debacle, though.

It was observed during this period that Mr. Wickremesinghe was to an extent in political isolation in spite of holding the important position of Prime Minister. At times President Wijetunga would send emissaries to bring him to discuss various developments.

Often Mr. Wijetunga's trusted lieutenant Tilak Marapana undertook these assignments. Soon after the final results were announced in the 1994 general elections, Mr. Wickremesinghe decided to quit as the Prime Minister though Mr. Wijetunga and others were mulling the possibility of forming a UNP government.

It was poor strategy and lack of cooperation and internal bickering that brought defeat to the UNP in 1994.

The communal line toed by Mr. Wijetunga that kept the SLMC led by M. H. M. Ashraff away from the party finally proved to be disastrous.

Analysts believe that there was nothing basically wrong with the party or its structure at the time but that it was the poor strategy adopted by the party that drove them into a political wilderness.

Therefore, last Sunday's statement by Mr. Wickremesinghe that he accepted a rudderless party and a barren land could be an overstatement.

What the UNP leadership is yet in the process of understanding is that the government in power is at enormous advantage due to the 1978 Constitution - a UNP creation -which introduced the Executive Presidency and the PR system of elections.

Therein lay the crux of the problem. The party hierarchy and machinery were by deliberate design closely interwoven with Government, so that the Government would never be dislodged.

However, the assassination of three of the UNP's chief players, shook that structure to its very foundation. Whether a battered UNP could resist the first winds of change, was the dilemma it was faced with.

We know the aftermath of the decision which was taken then and the UNP's still continuing struggle in the wilderness. One can only speculate on what the course of events would have been, had the decision been otherwise.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga for her part has adopted a policy that seeks to keep the PA in power as long as possible.

To make this a reality, she sought the help of all sections including the disgruntled UNPers who joined the government on two occasions.

Rigging and malpractices, no doubt, contributed in a large measure to the UNPs loss, but the UNP is to be blamed for this too because it failed to adopt proper strategies to counter the government's onslaughts.

High-ranking UNPers are reported to have believed at the 1999 Presidential election that under no circumstances the PA could win even though the government resorted to rigging the election.

Referring to the number of votes the PA would gain through malpractices, a UNP top notch said: 'Could it be one, two, three, four or five lakhs. Still we are going to win.

That was the estimate the UNP had about Ms. Kumaratunga's capabilities to win an election, and now the UNP is very optimistic that the government cannot hold together for a long time and eagerly awaits its fall probably in next April.

In the aftermath of a defeat, what else could a leader do other than to strengthen his position in his party? Mr. Wickremesinghe has done exactly this. It is a wise move that he elevated the party chairman Karu Jayasuriya as deputy leader and party general secretary Gamini Atukorale as assistant leader while further strengthening his position by appointing Charitha Ratwatte as the chairman and the hitherto unknown Senarath Kapukotuwa as general secretary.

Addressing the last group meeting, Mr. Wickremesinghe warned MPs to toe the line or get out. He said people must maintain decorum and work for their turn and wait for their turn. There are no shortcuts. He told the members not to get excited because some were given time to speak while others were not.

'The UNP won when the party was united and fell when it was divided, he said while tracing the party history through the tenures of Dudley Senanayake, John Kotalawela and J. R. Jayewardene.

'Though Mr. Jayewardene and Premadasa were united, Premadasa Lalith and Gamini were at loggerheads and that led to the fall of the party. He vowed he would lead the party, which is united, to victory soon.

Elaborating on his plans, Mr. Wickremesinghe said an army of 100 from each electorate would be set up to carry out party activities, demonstrations and agitation everywhere in the country and they would be mobilised along with the local support groups.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's outburst at the UNP group meeting was consequent to certain developments that were taking place with the removal of certain people from high positions.

Former General Secretary Gamini Atukorale, though elevated as assistant leader, was removed from the coveted general secretary post which is associated with more power. The post of Assistant Leader loses more prestige and it does not carry much weight. Gamini Jayawickrama Perera was also given a post which is less significant to the position he had earlier held as head of the trade union.

Mr. Wickremesinghe appears to be backed by the new MPs. Altogether there were 47 UNPers who have started their parliamentary work with enthusiasm and doing a good job for the party. The most prominent among them are former Attorney-General Tilak Marapana, Milinda Moragoda, Rohitha Bogollagama and a few others.

Mr. Wickremesinghe at the group meeting also raised a point, asking why some parliamentarians have become popular without much publicity. He cited the example of Alick Aluvihare and M.H. Mohamed and said they were able to enter parliament without much publicity because they moved with the people.

In recent times, Mahinda Samarasinghe is emerging as the star performer in the party after his long experience with people like former General Secretary Gamini Wijesekera, former party Chairman A.C.S. Hameed and Ronnie de Mel. With Mr. Samarasinghe's popularity rising, some of the old-timers are said to be upset. 

In another development the emergence of Karu Jayasuriya as the new figure in charge of parliamentary affairs has further reduced the importance of the former general secretary Atukorale. However, Atukorale is being consulted on many matters in relation to the party's future. In fact, it was Mr. Wickremesinghe, Mr. Jayasuriya and Gamini Atukorale who discussed the important amendments to the UNP constitution.

At the Kandy Convention, the UNP unanimously resolved to pave the way for the immediate expulsion of a member under special circumstances. Earlier, a member can only be expelled after a disciplinary inquiry held and a report presented to the executive committee. By the addition of four new chapters to the constitution, these functions were vested with the executive committee.

The party which experienced troubles recently by some members joining the government decided to empower the executive committee to immediately expel a person from membership without any disciplinary action or calling for explanation, if that person obtains membership in any other political party, or an organised group or an institution.

Other amendments call for the automatic expulsion of a member if he or she receives nomination to contest through another party or accepts a position in any other political party or acts in any such position. 

In addition, another chapter specifying the functions of the deputy leader and assistant leader with the provision that they should always consult the leader of the party, has also been enacted. Several other far-reaching amendments were also moved to arrogate more powers to the leader and make the UNP Constitution more authoritative though its main objective is to foster democracy in the country.

Elsewhere in the corridors of power Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake addressing the government parliamentary group emphasised the importance of attending parliamentary sessions especially in view of the present debate in parliament on the vote-on-account.

He said that in the future no parliamentarians would be allowed to go abroad without obtaining the permission of the President or the Prime Minister and added that he had taken steps to ask all those PA MPs who had gone abroad to come back soon.

Assuring new MPs who are facing accommodation problems, the prime minister said the government would take legal action against former MPs who had not vacated the houses at the Madiwela complex for MPs.

Meanwhile, the tough-talking Prime Minister appeared to have softened his stand against the LTTE, especially after the LTTE had agreed for unconditional talks.

The reason behind the LTTE's offer for unconditional talks is that the LTTE feels that it would face the wrath of the western governments if it spurns the Norwegian initiative.

The other fear entertained by the LTTE is that the Western governments would follow the American example in classifying the LTTE as a terrorist group.

At the moment the LTTE's main objective is to gain recognition in the Western world which is beginning to view the rebels as terrorists. On the other hand, the government enjoys a great deal of support in the west.

The Sri Lankan government has virtually won the diplomatic battle with the LTTE with the western world appreciating government efforts to explore a just and a fair solution to the ethnic crisis.

In this backdrop, Minister G. L. Peiris addressing western diplomats in Colombo last week said that promulgating a new constitution was not the priority of the government now. He said the new constitution would be promulgated only after obtaining the UNP support as the process required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. 

The Minister also said the commissions proposed by the UNP would be incorporated in the constitution but there was no time frame mentioned for them. 

In the meantime, the battle between Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Minister A.H.M. Fowzie has entered a new phase after Minister Fowzie reportedly allowed the people whose houses had been demolished by the government a week ago to rebuild them and offered them financial help. 

It appears that the problems between the two ministers will lead to a major confrontation soon. Mr. Samaraweera, whose electoral base is Matara, has the support of many ministers and others for his project to make Colombo more beautiful and secure.

He first had a discussion with the Colombo Mayor Omar Kamil who said though the council had obtained court orders to demolish unauthorised structures, it was unable to execute it due to political pressure. The Mayor citing an example said there was a big unauthorized structure next to a casino in Kollupitiya and political pressure was preventing the council to go ahead and demolish it. When Mr. Samaraweera inquired from his officials, they confirmed the story and the Minister reportedly maintained his silence over the Kollupitiya case.

Will Minister Samaraweera go ahead with what is left on his agenda? He has the backing of the UNP held Municipal Council, the UNP and the residents of Colombo. But he will face a huge protest from the slum dwellers and Minister Fowzie who leads the Muslim front of the SLFP.

In a similar incident, we saw on Thursday that the Kotte Mayor on a collision course with UNP's Ravi Karunanayake. Mr. Karunanayake took the challenge of the Kotte Mayor to collect garbage deploying a private firm Abans, through funds he had reportedly raised from concerned citizens. But some thugs attacked the garbage collectors and burnt the garbage-collecting truck worth millions of rupees. The assailants have been identified and legal action will be taken, UNP sources said.

Mr. Senerath Kapokotuwa was reported in this column last week, as having been given six months leave by the Maharaja Organisation to serve as general secretary of the UNP. We are informed now that this is not so and we stand corrected on this matter.

Sources close to Mr. Kapokotuwa and the UNP claim that his suitability for the post was accessed on his administrative and political experience. These sources say that N.G.P. Panditharatne (as mentioned this column last Sunday) and Ranjan Wijeratne were appointed to this post on account of their administrative experience.

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