The Political Column

21st January 2001

UNP dancing in the dark

By our Political Correspondent

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The government has at last admitted in principle that the country is facing a severe financial problem. The dollar has shot up to Rs. 85 plunging the country's import-dependent economy into a crisis situation with the poor being pushed to the breaking point.

The main reason attributed to the current economic crisis is the war in the North and the East. President Chandrika Kumaratunga last week told SLFP central committee members, most of whom are ministers, that the war had put the country in an awkward position economically. Her message was that the ministers and government MPs should tighten their belts and to think twice before they spend on various projects until April when things were expected to improve. She told the ministers to cut down on expenses on fuel, telephone and vehicles.

She urged the government MPs to go to the people and explain the reasons for the financial crisis at this juncture and why the government had to spend heavily on new weaponry to face the LTTE threat. Her advice came as a response to complaints from members that they were unable to meet their individual constituencies due to the escalating prices.

Some members pointed out that the world oil prices had come down and the UNP was carrying out a campaign that the government was not passing the benefit to the masses. The President acknowledged that the oil prices fell from a peak price of US $ 35 to US $ 22 and it had now stabilised at US $ 25. But she said the local fuel prices could not be brought down because of the war.

At this meeting, SLFP chief ministers complained that the provincial councils had not received the Rs. 500 million allocated for each of them. The President urged them to be patient until the allocations were made in the March budget.

The PA executive committee meeting held over the weekend also saw important matters being discussed. One of the topics on the agenda at this meeting presided over by the President was the local government elections. A decision on how the election should be conducted whether-under the 'first-past-the-post' system or the proportional representation system - was put off for Tuesday. PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne was asked to consult other political parties on the matter.

The President also decided to appoint a parliamentary select committee to go into the country's elections system.

Before this meeting was held the Communist Party and the LSSP, two constituent parties in the ruling PA, met on Monday and decided to oppose any moves by the government to go back to the 'first-past-the-post system' as it would be disadvantageous to them. The two parties thought the best electoral system that suits the country is a mixture of the PR system and the first-past-the-post system. Minister Batty Weerakoon, Minister Indika Gunawardena, Tissa Vitharana, Raja Collure and K.P. Silva were among those present at this meeting

While the PA ponders on the electoral system, the main opposition UNP has begun preparing nomination lists area by area for the upcoming local government elections. But this does not mean that the UNP is free from a few internal problems of its own. Mr. Sudath Chandrasekara, is the newly appointed private secretary to party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Chandrasekara who served as Mr Wickremesinghe's personal security officer previously, was appointed as private secretary after he retired from the Police Department. He now handles certain aspects of the management at Sirikotha and also assists the new General Secretary Senarath Kapukotuwa. Some veterans and sections in the party are disturbed over Mr. Chandrasekara's role at Sirikotha. There appears to be a cold war brewing between Mr. Chandrasekera and UNP Assistant Leader Gamini Atukorale. A possible reason for this development is in the allocation of office space to Mr. Atukorale and Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya after Mr. Chandrasekera moved into Sirikotha.

Mr. Atukorale who was appointed the president of the UNP trade union wing Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya has been asked to move to the union office located adjacent to Sirikotha. But Mr. Atukorale is sticking to his guns and wishes to retain his due place at Sirikotha in his capacity as the assistant leader.

Many party members feel for Mr. Atukorale, as he has served as the party's general secretary during its difficult times.

But now the present situation has created bitterness among party seniors and some even believe that there exists a cold war between Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Atukorale.

Both Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Atukorale took over the party in 1994 after one-time chairman A. C. S. Hameed struck a compromise with the Srima Dissanayake's group in 1994.

According to the Hameed formula, Ms. Dissanayake was allowed to contest the presidential elections in 1994 while Mr. Wickremesinghe was asked to take over the party if the party failed at the elections.

As expected, after the UNP's 1994 Presidential elections defeat, Mr. Wickremesinghe was made the leader of the party while Mr. Atukorale was elevated to the coveted post of general secretary.

However, Mr. Wickremesinghe's strategy was to emerge as the leader of the new look UNP and to woo the youth. His subtle moves to oust some old-timers from the working committee resulted in internal squabbles with people such as Sirisena Cooray and Dr. Wimal Wickremesinghe being sidelined.

The Cooray-Ranil tussle was the worst crisis to hit the party in its recent history. Then there was the case of Wijeyapala Mendis who had to face an inquiry initiated by the party's working committee after the Supreme Court found him guilty of abuse of power involving a land deal.

Hard on the heels of these developments came the crossover of several UNP MPs to the PA. As the party went through crisis after crisis, Mr. Atukorale stood by Mr. Wickremesinghe to face attacks and criticism.

Despite these innovative strategies Mr. Wickremesinghe's new look UNP was defeated in almost every election since 1994. Mr. Atukorale took the rap. He was moved from the party's high position and given a new post. He was made the assistant leader but in this position his wings are clipped. Deputy Leader Jayasuriya, too, has no specific function unless the leader delegates powers to him.

Mr. Kapukotuwa, the new general secretary, has made several changes and got all Sirikotha employees to report for duty on time. He is being well assisted by Mr. Chandrasekera.

At present, the UNP chief is giving more opportunities for the youth. Sajith Premadasa, Naveen Dissanayake, Sagala Ratnayake, Johnstone Fernando and a few others were given their due places. His main strategy during the past six years was to groom new faces and create a new atmosphere in the party.

He has chosen some talented professionals - Tilak Marapana, Milinda Moragoda and Rohitha Bogollagama - for this task. Another new name that is emerging from around Bingiriya area is Akila Kariyawasam, the latest addition to the Ranil team.

While the UNP is exploring the possibility of enhancing its membership and political activities throughout the country, the party has thought it fit to organise a dinner dance to woo the up-market youth in Colombo. The youth front of the UNP had organised a party to be held on Thursday with tickets being priced at Rs. 1,500 and Saman and the Clan providing the music.

Some senior members were in the dark over the dance. Some were even amused to hear that the UNP had decided to introduce this kind of thing to woo the youth. They said such a thing had not happened in the party even during the playboy Prime Minister John Kotalawela's period though he tried to bolster the women's wing through 'Purple Brigade' of Colombo's elite women.

However a young UNPer dismissing criticisms of the dance said the party should take whatever action necessary to make inroads into the affluent society. "There is nothing wrong in having a dinner dance when there are various segments in the party. The Colombo youth are more inclined towards partying than the rural youth," he said.

Among those UNPers who did not approve of the dance to be held at the Mayor's Centre was Mr. Atukorale. He immediately contacted Mayor Omar Kamil to ask him about the matter after discussing it with Mr. Jayasuriya who too was not aware of the dance.

Mr. Kamil said he had not given permission for any such thing and issued a statement on the instructions of Mr. Atukorale. The Mayor said that no permission had been granted to any individual or organisation to host a dinner dance at the Mayor's Centre the official residence of the Mayor.

In the wake of the statement, the organisers have now shifted the dance to a leading cricket club in Colombo.

Having spoken to the Mayor, Mr. Atukorale contacted Mr. Kapukotuwa who acknowledged that he had attended two meetings of the dance committee. Thereafter, Mr. Atukorale contacted youth front leader Sunil Jayaweera and told him that the UNP could not afford to have dinner dances when the people were crushed under the weight of the rising cost of living.

Mr. Jayaweera passed the buck on to another person, an influential figure in the party and issued a letter disassociating himself with the 'Green Night' dinner dance.

Now, there is uncertainty hanging over the proposed dinner dance.

In the meantime, there is a dissension over the latest entrants to the working committee with questions being asked whether the party was meeting the challenges of 21st Century with film stars and former beauty queens who are playing a major role in promoting the party.

Actress Anoja Weerasinghe and former Mrs. World Rosy Senanayake have been given the task of educating the new UNPers on how to face interviews and to face the TV cameras confidently.

Beulah Munasinghe and Indrani Iriyagolla have also joined the task of building the new image. But their inclusion in the working committee has drawn fire from the party old guard.

Ms. Weerasinghe's workshop, though did not go well with some UNPers, it has made some impact in the opposite camp.

SLFP General Secretary and Minister S. B. Dissanayake contacted and asked her whether she could do a similar workshop for PA MPs. The actress has apparently told the minister that she had no objections to conducting workshops as it was her profession and had nothing to do with party politics. Mr. Dissanayake said he would contact her later on the matter.

The UNP's new look concept is also hitting the dress. More and more UNP MPs, including deputy leader Jayasuriya and Tyronne Fernando, are donning formal suits instead of the national dress and the hacked collarless shirt and trousers. This trend is seen by the party seniors as a reactionary one.

While at party level, the UNP is conceptually refurbishing itself, at national level, it is planning to carry out a vigorous campaign together with the JVP against the government.

In parliament last week, the JVP protested that the government had passed certain regulations despite their call for a division. It pointed out at the party leaders' meeting two weeks ago that the government had acted contrary to the decisions arrived at the parliamentary business committee meeting. The regulations that were passed without a division came under the Customs Ordinance, Railway Ordinance and the Judicature Act.

At the party leaders' meeting, Leader of the House Richard Pathirana defended the government action saying the regulations could have been passed in any case as the UNP lacked the strength.

UNP chief whip Tyronne Fernando disagreed and said that the government had deprived the UNP of a debate by acting contrary to the decisions taken by the Committee on Parliamentary Business. Mr. Wickremesinghe then chipped in to suggest that the regulations be on January 23, 24 and 25, but a re-voting should be avoided as a compromise.

The other matter of serious political concern is the hundred day ultimatum given by SLMC leader and Minister Rauf Hakeem to the government to continue his party's support to the PA. After the general elections which were marred by allegations of rigging and malpractices, Mr. Hakeem said he would withdraw the support if the government failed to introduce independent commissions for police, elections, public service and the judiciary.

Mr. Hakeem made his position known after he alleged that Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte had bulldozed his way to rig the elections in an unprecedented manner in the Kandy district. But now Mr. Hakeem did not want to be reminded about the ultimatum. He, however, told the media recently that there could be surprises.

Mr. Hakeem is cautious these days in what he says and does because he has a prime task ahead. By February 11, he should convince his party members that he is the most capable person to run the party after the death of founder leader M.H.M. Ashraff. His rival would be Ferial Ashraff who is still observing the mandatory mourning period.

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