Columns - Political Column

Political hurricanes slam UNP

  • Ranil survives another stormy session as others battle for top posts
By Our Political Editor

For a second week in succession, the focus turns to the main opposition United National Party (UNP), which, paradoxical enough is embroiled in its own crisis whilst the nation faces a bigger one of its own.
In these columns last week, I dealt with the September 3 deliberations at a stormy session of the UNP's Political Affairs Committee (PAC). Another session of this Committee scheduled for last Thursday was cancelled. Thus, the next scheduled event of that day was a meeting of the Working Committee. It turned out to be equally stormy, highlighting a grim and disturbing reality - seemingly, problems appear to be resolved but in fact, they still simmer, continuing the rift in the party.

That it follows the exodus of 17 parliamentarians last year, to join the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and weaken the party's influence has not become an example or a deterrent. Neither are the other newly developing national issues that need the responses of the main Opposition to ensure checks and balances, which are a sine qua non in a democracy. More than that, taking sides in a divided party has become the concern of most party members countrywide.

Johnston Fernando

They fear continued inaction, not responding to national issues at least through formal media statements if the leadership cannot voice concerns, may see more reversals than rewards. A corollary of this frightening phenomenon, they worry, would come in the form of more defeats at any upcoming elections. All that, naturally, translates into a political windfall for the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Government.

Last Thursday's sessions began with party secretary Tissa Attanayake tabling the 'Seniors Report', a report by senior party leaders on the need to reform the party, aimed mainly at 'democratising' the party by clipping Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's supreme powers. The six-member Seniors Committee was headed by former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera but it was one-time Minister and North Western Province chief minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera who moved a resolution that the report be accepted by the Working Committee. The two-page-12-point report had called for the pruning down of powers of the leader of the party, the appointment of a Deputy Leader and one Assistant Leader.

It contained recommendations of reviewing the work of the party; the time frames to appoint electoral organisers; to have separate committees to vet the selection of electoral organisers before they are nominated to the Political Affairs Committee or the Working Committee; to appoint a parliamentary spokesman; have a shadow cabinet etc., but it was the appointment of the Deputy Leader and the Assistant Leader posts that was the centre of attraction. In fact, the recommendations had come up for detailed discussion at the previous meeting of the Working Committee. This was hard on the heels of the UNP's defeat at last month's elections to the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provincial councils. A decision on the matter was eventually put off for Thursday's meeting of the Working Committee.

Jayawickrama Perera said the Seniors had earlier thought of recommending three Assistant Leaders, and that his name was also being mooted, but that afterwards when heavy lobbying began for these posts, the Seniors felt it was best that the Assistant Leader be limited to just one without causing further dissension within the party. The first to voice his objection strongly was Lakshman Seneviratne, the MP from Mahiyangana (Badulla district), now in the forefront of the campaign to clip Wickremasinghe's powers. He said they insisted on having three Assistant Leaders. He was followed by his latest comrade-in-arms, Johnston Fernando (Kurunegala MP), the more vociferous of the two in making the demand.
Fernando, a one-time member of the now defunct Democratic United National front (DUNF), which was a breakaway party of the original UNP back in 1992, began by attacking Wickremesinghe's leadership. He began by speaking on behalf of Thalatha Athukorale, MP from Nivitigala (Ratnapura district) and how she had formed 80 branches of the Lak-Vanitha Women's movement of the party, sometimes without the support of local organisers. He said that the party leader had not made her the leader of the Ratnapura district. Then, he started on the Youth wing of the party, and that was when the fireworks started.

He referred to his colleague from Kegalle, Akila Kariyawasam as the man responsible. He said that Kariyawasam was inefficient and asked whether he could bring a crowd for a meeting. He turned to Upali Piyasoma (Kuliyapitiya) and said "look at that man in the corner - he has got so much of votes for the party but has been given no place in the party -- but Kariyawasam is given prominence - why?". It was a bitter almost personal attack on Kariyawasam, who responded by saying that he joined the UNP in 1995 even before Fernando (1996) and that he had been in remand jail for party activities, and asked what Fernando's contribution was to the party.

As Kariyawasam concluded his speech, Upali Samaraweera put his hand up to speak, but Fernando said that he needed to respond to Kariyawasam. The UNP Leader then said that Fernando had exhausted his turn and asked Samaraweera to speak, at which point Fernando let off another salvo of hot words.

"Okai hamadama paradinne - methanath naa prajathantrawaadaya- penne nadde" (This is why we lose everyday, there's no democracy even here - can't you see) etc., the tone nastier than what he said. In a cross-talk with the Leader of the Opposition of the Western Province provincial council Kithsiri Kahatapitiya, Fernando said that all the WP provincial councillors had pledged at a liquor flowing party that the party leadership must change. When Kahatapitiya denied this, Fernando said he would play the tape of the discussion. Kahatapitiya, taken aback, said that whatever they said then, they now disagreed with the stance taken by Fernando and company.

Ranil Wickremesinghe

At which point Wickremesinghe spoke harshly to Fernando saying, "Johnny you wait -- sit down". Samaraweera went on to support the resolution. Then there was some cross-talk with Seneviratne saying that they wanted more positions, and Vajira Abeywardene (MP - Galle district) saying that there should be no new positions.

Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene (MP from Ja-ela - Gampaha district) went on to lament what had happened to him. He said how he had been called a "Kotiya" (Tiger), and that he was unable to help his supporters even when the party was in Government. He was supportive of the "more positions' faction.

But Kabeer Hasheem (MP - Kegalle district) said that posts were of no use, and that the people were looking at the party's policies. He said the need of the hour was grassroots politics, going house-to-house etc., He was on the "no posts" camp. Srilal de Mel, a veteran trade unionist, was of the same opinion. He said there was a need to strategise a victory plan. Ravi Samaraweera said two posts are more than enough. He was therefore for the resolution.

Wickremesinghe himself spoke, defiant and daring. He said the party could have only one leader, one deputy and one assistant leader. As the two-hour talkathon proceeded, Wickremesinghe said that the resolution had to be put to vote. He must have noticed that some of those present were silent. There was party Chairman Rukman Senanayake, Sajith Premadasa (MP - Hambantotoa district) - and one of the leading supporters of the Seneviratne-Jayalath Jayawardene-Johnston Fernando group - Talatha Athukorale, who just ten days ago went with Seneviratne asking Wickremesinghe to resign - remained absolutely silent. Party members close to Wickremesinghe had managed to convince not to "join any campaign" that would destabilise the party.

Ravi Karunanayake (MP for Kotte, Colombo district) moved that negotiations continue. Then, Jayawickrama Perera said something that got the ire of Karunanayake. "Ravi, oya madden indan-ne meka keruwe" (You are the one who was in the middle of this negotiations anyway), which remark Karunanayake met with a "Mokadda kivve? (What did you say?).

A lot of lobbying had taken place for these posts. Several Buddhist monks had spoken on behalf of the absent National Organiser of the party, S.B. Dissanayake proposing his name as one of the Assistant Leaders. The previous day, Ven. Keeniyawe Palitha Thera, a Buddhist monk close to the UNP had spoken to Seneviratne and asked that Karunanayake be nominated as one of the Assistant Leaders. Wickremesinghe said there was no need for further negotiations as the party had a cut-off date of September 15 to take decisions on the Seniors' Report. He was by now confident enough to say that it could even be a secret vote, when Seneviratne said there was no need for a vote on the resolution.
Sensing his little group did not command the support of the Working Committee, Seneviratne said that a vote would only divide the party. Then, Wickremesinghe proposed a voice vote - and the overwhelming vote was a Yes vote. The four dissenters were Lakshman Seneviratne, Jayalath Jayawardene, Indika Bandaranayake and Vajira Abeywardene. Three of them wanting more new posts, and the latter wanting no new posts.

At least officially, Wickremesinghe prevailed. In addition, officially again, the reforms of the party leadership would now go through its usual channels. It will come up later for ratification before a national convention, possibly in December, this year.

The question now is who will be the Deputy Leader and the Assistant Leader of the UNP. This, no doubt, is going to open another can of worms. While party Chairman Rukman Senanayake seems to be the front-runner for the Deputy Leadership, there is bound to be a mad scramble for the remaining post. Abdul Cader (Kandy district) had written asking that the three Assistant Leaders be one from the Tamil community in the plantations, John Amaratunge - and himself. It only showed how everyone felt that he was eminently qualified for the job.

Some of the aspirants have established "good political credentials otherwise", according to party insiders. "They have a line of communication with some Government leaders." One of them was an "established politician" powerful enough even now to help his businessman friends through his strong connections with the Government. Instead of joining ranks, he wants the help of the high and the mighty to ensconce himself in the UNP hierarchy.

The other, the source said, was a young and ambitious politico. To many influential diplomatic missions in Colombo, he had projected himself as the next in line for succession to Wickremesinghe. So much so, at least one country that was keen to cultivate his friendship invited him as a state guest. Another has assured him full support.

With the meeting over, all dispersed to go home, except the Group of 3 - Seneviratne, Fernando and Jayalath Jayawardene. They went to the balcony, for some fresh air - and a smoke. Seneviratne borrowed a Benson cigarette from Eastern Province provincial councillor Arasaratnam Sasitharan, who had remained outside for much of the meeting because most of it was conducted in Sinhala. As he lit his cigarette and took his first puff, lo and behold, Seneviratne saw Wickremesinghe approaching.
He quickly dabbed his cigarette and told Sasitharan, "I never smoke in front of him" - and old school respect. Fernando was the first to confront Wickremesinghe, who surprised the lot by shaking their hands and engaging in some light hearted banter. Despite the bon-homie , Seneviratne drove home the point that they were against the resolution to reduce the number of Assistant Leaders. Now, the Working Committee will need to come up with the names for the two top posts next to the party Leader, the criteria for appointment and define his role. Wickremesinghe has asked that he not be burdened with the task of finding the two who will fill these vacancies, and that he was willing to work with whomsoever are appointed.

It was also a wise move to make. Now, the party will start in-fighting as to who should be the Deputy Leader and the Assistant Leader, and leave the party Leader alone. But the unfortunate aspect of it all is that this is the main Opposition party in the country - known in the democratic world as the Alternative Government.

There are burning problems in the country, The Seniors Report listed out 12 points for party reforms, so that it could be a formidable and effective Opposition to the Government, and convince the people that they are a viable Alternative Government. The Grand Old Party needs to revisit the electorate with which it has lost connectivity, and reinvent itself into the Grand New Party. And what did they discuss for two hours? Probably the least important point of the 12-point programme of action for the UNP to return to the seats of elected office.

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