UNP: Squabbling won’t help to make it a winning party

By Vipakshikaya

There was a time when the United National Party (UNP) was known as the Uncle Nephew Party or, in more colourful Sinhalese, as the ‘Unge Nedeyange Pakshaya’. That is ironical because it was the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was led by the Bandaranaikes for over 50 years and is now set to be led by the Rajapaksas for the next 50 years. The UNP though now carries the tag of the ‘Unanduwak Nethi Pakshaya’-and who can blame those who coined that label?

While the UNP may not have displayed any ‘unanduwa’ to govern the country, there is certainly a lot of enthusiasm for internal bickering. A cursory look at the media suggests that the party is in the throes of a major convulsion. A cold war is brewing between UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his apparant challenger, young Sajith Premadasa — and the tussle getting uglier by the day.

If anyone had any doubts about that, Premadasa seems to have cleared it this week, when he addressed a meeting at Angunakolapelessa in his electoral base in Hambantota. The leadership of the UNP will be brought to the Hambantota district was his defiant call — and the most direct and public challenge he has thrown at Wickremesinghe yet.

Of course, parties in the opposition coming apart at the seams is nothing new in a democracy and this has been especially so in Sri Lanka. We have seen the SLFP being hounded into near oblivion by J.R. Jayewardene’s clever manipulations in the 1980s only to bounce back into power in the early nineties.
The SLFP in fact, had the good fortune of an unwritten rule: Methini (Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike) was the undisputed leader. It was to break this matriarchal concept that JR deprived the grand old lady of her civic rights, thus forcing a leadership squabble within the party thereby sowing dissension within.
Not blessed with such a ‘family rule’ concept despite its nepotism tag, the UNP had always had its share of problems when choosing its leaders. The first succession battle was waged nearly 50 years ago when in March 1951, the Grand Old Man of the Grand Old Party, D.S. Senanayake suffered a fall while horse riding and passed away suddenly.

Ranil Wickremesinghe Sajith Premadasa

The Father of the Nation obviously wanted his son Dudley to succeed him, and had instructed Governor General Lord Soulbury accordingly — but John Kotelawela was next in line in terms of seniority and staked his claim and was already preparing his address to the nation at Kandawala. For a few days, there was a backroom power struggle fought by proxies operating on instructions from Kandawala and Temple Trees with JR rooting for Dudley and Oliver Goonetilleke supporting Kotelawela.

Dudley was appointed Prime Minister by Lord Soulbury and the UNP won the subsequent 1952 May general elections despite the breakaway (and subsequent formation of the SLFP) by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike a year earlier, but Kotelawela — nearly 15 years senior to the younger Senanayake — was understandably miffed.

He was thought to be widely responsible for the circulation of a document titled the ‘Premier Stakes’ outlining the story of the Senanayake succession, which was serialised by the leftist news sheet, ‘Trine’ in August 1952. As a result of this document, Dudley dismissed Kotelawela from his Cabinet — via a telegram — while the latter was on an official visit to Canada in September 1952.

Kotelawela returned, drove to Temple Trees and told Dudley he was not responsible for the ‘Premier Stakes’. They hugged and made up, the resignation was withdrawn and Kotelawela continued as the Minister of Transport and Works, eventually becoming Prime Minister a year later when Dudley didn’t have the stomach to face the Leftists Hartal issue, and 'retired' from politics. When Kotelawela was defeated in the 1956 landslide by Bandaranaike, and left for his home in Kent, JR took over the mantle of the party organisation and saw it through the electoral victory just four years later.

In the 1970s, it was JR’s turn to clash with Dudley Senanayake. Dudley once again took a back seat in politics after the 1970 electoral thumping the UNP received winning only 15 seats. And it was JR once again who came to fore and became the Leader of the Opposition while Dudley remained the nominal party leader. In the wake of the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency, JR had suggested that the UNP should support Mrs. Bandaranaike’s United Front government. Later he urged the formation of a ‘national government’ with Mrs. B and the UNP’s Working Committee — yes, the same body which is now the cynosure of all eyes — on December 18, 1971 vetoed the proposal on the instructions of party leader Dudley Senanayake.

JR then stormed out of the Working Committee meeting at 'Sirikotha' — then at Kollupitiya — in protest and only A.C.S. Hameed, Shelton Jayasinghe and a handful of his followers dared to stand by him. Unlike now, there were no television cameras to cover him but Dudley’s supporters were there, jeering. Dudley rushed out, silenced them and ensured that his erstwhile friend left safely.

But the battle continued and by early 1972, a party disciplinary committee was inquiring into JR’s conduct and laying the groundwork for his expulsion from the party. JR, quite like the UNP MPs of this generation who crossed over and joined the Rajapaksa government, went to Court, which prevented his ouster.

But by late 1972, when Mrs. Bandaranaike had proclaimed a Republican constitution and set up a National State Assembly (NSA), the party ‘elders’ had mooted a settlement between Dudley and JR. Later they launched a series of countrywide rallies to campaign against Mrs. B , slowly but surely re-organising the shattered party.

Indeed, by the time Dudley passed away in April 1973, JR had reconciled with Dudley and made a memorable funeral oration, where, paraphrasing Shakespeare in Hamlet, he said, “Good Night, sweet Prince, may hosts of Devas sing thee to thy sleep,” bringing tears to the eyes of the more than a million people who thronged for the event.

Ironically, by that time another emerging force in the UNP, Ranasinghe Premadasa, had resigned from the party over differences with his one-time political mentor, Dudley Senanayake (his resignation letter was, however, never tabled by then Joint General Secretary of the UNP, Gamani Jayasuriya to whom it was given). Senanayake wanted the UNP Constitution amended, Premadasa opposed the move, and formed a ‘Puravesi Peramuna’ (Citizens’ Front) with the likes of Gamini Fonseka and a few others. When Dudley died and Premadasa returned from India to attend his funeral, he was roundly heckled , but he bravely walked with the cortege along the streets of Colombo.

Later under J.R. Jayewardene, there was a tussle for the party’s deputy leadership.The party was in opposition and the usual rumblings taking place.UNP's stalwart in Kandy, E.L. Senanayake complained at a Working Committee meeting that Premadasa had put up posters calling himself deputy leader. JR solved that issue swiftly asking for a secret vote . Premadasa came out on top; but JR, the shrewd man he was, never gave Premadasa the post of deputy leader. He was made 'deputy to the leader', something almost untranslatable into Sinhala. But there it was. Premadasa quickly asserted himself as the No. 2 of the UNP. That was the basis on which he was appointed to the Premiership when JR assumed office as Executive President in 1978.

While Senanayake era (despite his nephew entering parliament in the Dedigama by-election following Dudley's death in 1973) quietly faded away as a political force thereafter, there was a second tier UNP leadership emerging under JR's nursery : Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali. It was well known that each of the trio hated the guts of the other two and they were all keen to succeed JR. As Jayewardene neared the end of his 11 year reign, he was forced to decide on his successor.

Decide he did, in favour of Premadasa, despite a last minute plea by Gamini Dissanayake who visited JR at his private estate on the night of September 17, 1988, his last birthday as President and his impassioned plea that it was he (Dissanayake) who stood by him (JR) in his darkest days — the Indo-Lanka Pact while Premadasa was trying to pull the rug. JR was seemingly unimpressed. He knew that it would be Premadasa who would be the legitimate successor. Premadasa went on to win the Presidential election and then cut Dissanayake and Athulathmudali to size, ignoring them for the Premeirship and opting for the more mild-mannered and malleable Dingiri Banda Wijetunga instead. And, now, under Premadasa, there was no vote for the deputy leadership either. It was the first step in the break-up of the mighty UNP.

Dissanayake and Athulathmudali, once bitter rivals battling to be the apple of JR’s eye, mended fences and joined forces to take on the might of the Premadasa regime, forming the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) and attempting to impeach Premadasa.

That was — and perhaps still is — arguably the most serious threat faced by the UNP since its inception in 1946. With the powers of the executive presidency behind him, Premadasa survived the impeachment and the one man who stood loyally by him then and steered him to safety was Ranil Wickremesinghe.

But events larger than the UNP were to intervene in deciding the fate of the party: Velupillai Prabhakaran, pursuing his strategy of weakening the Sinhalese political leadership had, in the space of eight days, liquidated Athulathmudali and Premadasa, though there is no conclusion really as to who was responsible for the former's assassination. Wickremesinghe, now literally the boy left standing on a burning deck, became Prime Minister under stand-in President Wijetunga.

But Premadasa’s death meant that the path for Dissanayake to return to the UNP was cleared, especially with Wijetunga at the helm, for he was known to have a soft corner for Dissanayake. In 1994, Wijetunga called for general elections first instead of the due presidential election. Dissanayake contested from the Kandy district and topped the UNP preference vote list with 198,000 votes — it was as if he had never left the UNP.

The UNP lost the poll to Chandrika Kumaratunga’s newly formed Peoples’ Alliance (PA) and that brought about another tussle, now for the post of Leader of the Opposition. Wickremesinghe would have felt he should be rewarded for his loyalty to the UNP but Dissanayake, more senior and in the eyes of some, more dynamic, threw his hat in the ring. He marched into Temple Trees where Wickremesinghe was still residing as the results had just filtered in and asked Wickremesinghe to hand over the mantle. Wijetunga decided to call for a secret vote and Dissanayake won, apparently by one vote. Wijetunga was the returning officer.

It also brought for Dissanayake the UNP nomination for the 1994 presidential election but that was a ticket to death: Dissanayake was blown up at a campaign rally in October. Once again, Ranil Wickremesinghe had to step in to the breach as the Leader of the Opposition and with it, the leadership of the UNP before he had really wanted it, or probably JR has mapped it out for him.

That is where the UNP has been since: in the opposition and with Wickremesinghe at the helm, except for a brief interregnum of 28 months from December 2001 to April 2004 when there was a UNP government albeit under a Kumaratunga presidency. It was the second time he was Prime Minister, but this time wielding real power as the de facto head of government.

In that space, under Wickremesinghe's stewardship, the UNP has lost the 1999 presidential election, the general elections in 2000, the general elections in 2004, the 2005 presidential election, the 2010 presidential election and now, the 2010 general elections.

Its share of the popular vote, which was a respectable 44 percent in 1994 after 17 years of UNP rule has dipped to 29 percent in 2010 after nearly fourteen years in the opposition — and that is what is irking staunch UNPers who fear that the party is heading the way of the Old Left: into oblivion as just another political party making up the numbers and not being thought of as an alternative government.

Now, the focus has shifted to Ranil Wickremesinghe and there appears to be a concerted call for his head to roll. Indeed, Wickremesinghe has endured many a move to oust him practically after almost every electoral defeat but this time the stakes are higher than ever before and the odds are stacked against him — because of the emergence of Sajith Premadasa as a veritable 'common candidate' against the ‘Nayakathuma’ ; a rallying point for an increasing number of those who feel Wickremasinghe has lost his shelf-life and use by date.

Their case against Ranil Shriyan Wickremesinghe is a strong one. It could be argued that Wickremesinghe had the knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and that he — unlike Mahinda Rajapaksa, for instance, who has had everything he touched turn into political gold-is an unlucky man. The ‘kepuvath kola paata’ diehard UNPer would shake his head and say grimly, ‘eyaata lebeemak nehe’.

Indeed, both of Wickremesinghe’s presidential bids were blighted through no fault of his own. In 1999, a bomb blast on the final day of campaigning ensured that Chandrika Kumaratunga won the ‘sympathy’ vote after addressing the nation with her eye swathed in bandages. Wickremesinghe may still have lost that election, polling 42 per cent of the votes, but it really was too close to call.

Then, in 2005, Velupillai Prabhakaran turned an almost certain victory at the presidential poll into a narrow defeat for Wickremesinghe by enforcing a boycott in the North and East. The margin then was 180,000 votes in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa ; and a decision the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader must have come to rue not much long afterwards.

Even thereafter, in the normal order of things, President Rajapaksa was expected to get stuck in a protracted war with the LTTE, mess up the economy and lose the next election. Rajapaksa confounded everyone by winning the war and then the outcome of the elections was a foregone conclusion and with it went any chance of Wickremesinghe redeeming himself.

In the avalanche of public support with each passing military victory, Rajapaksa also wore the UNP down by holding provincial council elections after provincial council elections. It was defeat after defeat for Wickremesinghe's UNP; demoralising their cadres and squeezing every financial resource out of their fast emptying coffers. The party machinery lost motivation and watched in awe as the Rajapaksa cavalcade rode through each province with massive gains. In fact, Wickremesinghe realised this, which is why he endorsed the candidature of General Sarath Fonseka at the presidential poll. As it turned out, Fonseka polled 40 per cent of the vote, eleven per cent higher and a good 1.8 million votes more than what the UNP polled at the subsequent general elections that followed. Even allowing for the JVP votes, it is clear that UNP base vote is fast becoming endangered.

Wickremesinghe did have his chances-and blew them. In 2001, while in government, he resisted attempts to entertain an impeachment motion against President Kumaratunga in Parliament to prevent her from dissolving the House. He felt it was not correct to impeach her, just for that purpose, especially after Kumaratunga assured him that she would not dissolve Parliament. Utterly unlike his uncle JR, Wickremesinghe sometimes trusted his opponents.

Kumaratunga—who had earlier reneged on a pledge to abolish the executive presidency in six months—did just that— dissolved Parliament in 2004 and the UNP lost the general elections that followed. Had that UNP dominated Parliament, stayed in power for its full term, the 2005 presidential elections would have been conducted with Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister under a UNP regime. To suggest that the outcome may have been different is an understatement.

Then, Wickremesinghe bungled on the war issue. As the much hailed CFA was being reduced to a farce with ever increasing violations by the LTTE, Wickremesinghe stuck to his theory that only a negotiated settlement with the LTTE would be practical and never once raised the prospect of resuming the war. In hindsight, we now know that his thinking was wrong—but then others who believed him, the likes of G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda — the UNP's chief peace negotiators changed their tune quickly and went on to become leading lights of the Rajapaksa administration.

Pursuing that policy of appeasing the Tigers has irrevocably dented Wickremesinghe’s image vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan public. His every move was pounced upon as being anti-national. Hardline nationalists such as Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka relish in portraying Wickremesinghe as a ‘traitor’ who tried to sell the country on a platter to the LTTE. Often he kept silent in the face of unsubstantiated and unfair allegations. He was unable to say that it was under his leadership, and during the peace talks he held with the LTTE that the LTTE split in two with the defection of Karuna and the entire eastern command, a break-up that crippled the LTTE war machine thereafter.

His reluctance to claim the credit may have been due to a poor media outfit or his unwillingness to lose the minority Tamil vote, or even not to show himself as a 'crafty fellow'; but the consistent hammering he got for some of the 'anti-war' things he said was to cost him dearly with the masses. Not that they considered him a traitor, but the damage has been done-he is less marketable as a leader to the average voter; especially the Sinhalese voter, hence the clamour for his removal as party chief.

Perhaps Wickremesinghe lacks the ruthlessness and Machiavellian instincts of his uncle, J.R. Jayewardene, or for that matter, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in not moving in for the kill when he was in power and place.

Dudley was Prime Minister of Ceylon thrice but then that was an era when he could drive about in his own Truimph Herald with a camera slung over his shoulder. Politics in this country has evolved exponentially since then which is why Wickremesinghe probably finds himself to be an anachronism today.

The suggested, self-proclaimed alternative is Sajith Premadasa. Even Rukman from the Senanayake clan who entered Parliament (in 1973) even before Ranil has thrown whatever weight he has with the Premadasa campaign. Sajith who followed up his remarks on bringing the UNP leadership to Hambantota with the comment that the UNP should revert to a ‘redda baniyama’ leadership instead of those sporting the ‘tie coat’ attire-another dig at Wickremeasinghe - and possibly Ravi Karunanayake who wishes to be in the running. Of course, incumbent deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya qualifies if it is the 'redde baniyama' the UNP wants, but his defection with 16 other MPs and his brief interlude with the Rajapaksa administration has cost him the support of his partymen, dearly. One may recall that in 2001 during the first putcsh against Wickremesinghe's leadership, it was Jayasuriya that the party rebels tried to foist to the leadership.

Certainly, Ranasinghe Premadasa can claim to have graduated from the University of Life and worked his way up what was then a snobbish, elitist UNP. In contrast, young Sajith spent his formative years with his father as Prime Minister and was educated at Royal College, Colombo, Mill Hill College in London and then at the London School of Economics, hardly the credentials the ‘redda baniyama’ sporting hoi-polloi would approve of-and Wickremesinghe himself had a less privileged education, graduating from the University of Colombo. But then, S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike, despite his Oxonian background, also cleverly wooed the proletariat and succeeded as did JR later.

The younger Premadasa however has several handicaps. Now 43, he is a generation younger than Wickremesinghe. He has been a parliamentarian for only ten years and has held no cabinet rank: he was the Deputy Minister of Health in the short-lived Wickremesinghe government of 2001. He has hardly made a worthwhile speech in Parliament in all of the ten years. He is not a national level campaigner even though he does have a following. If the Premadasa camp argues that Chandrika Kumaratunga parachuted to the Premiership without even being an MP before, Wickremesinghe loyalists would gleefully rest their case for she made a mockery of governing the country during her eleven years in power.

Also, Premadasa has never, until now, been at the forefront of the many UNP sponsored activities against the Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa regimes, rarely venturing out of his electoral base at Hambantota. As one Wickremesinghe loyalist tartly put it, “(UNP Puttalam district MP) Palitha Range Bandara has done more for the UNP”.

There is of course the counter argument that the UNP needs re-branding and it is impossible to sell a Wickremesinghe-led UNP to the masses and that Premadasa represents the best bet as the new face of the UNP. Proponents of this theory point to a new face-Blair and Cameron in Britain, Obama in the United States and our own Chandrika Kumaratunga-winning elections for parties who had been in the opposition for long periods.

But that is a dangerous assumption. Blair, Cameron, Obama and Kumaratunga won against generally unpopular governments. The Rajapaksa regime-whatever its demerits-is still basking in the afterglow of victory over the LTTE. That sheen may not last another six years, but that is the same mistake the UNP made in 2005-they assumed the people would revert to them after six years of SLFP-led rule.

This week, President Rajapaksa confidently told the television network Al Jazeera that he will win the next election (“I don’t mind if it’s the Presidential system, or the Prime Ministerial system. I have no problem, because I’m going to win again” were his words).

And that remains a possibility because of many factors: a divided opposition, the tangible benefits of peace which will automatically accrue with or without state intervention, and the seemingly limitless opportunities for infrastructure development in a now free -again country that has been ravaged by war for three decades which will open up employment and other benefits to the people.

The Rajapaksa regime doesn’t have to do much to ensure that the dividends of all this trickle down to the masses. And, in Basil Rajapaksa, they also have someone in the calibre of Ranasinghe Premadasa: a workaholic and a go-getter who gets things done. He has now been entrusted the all-encompassing Ministry of Economic Development and if he gets his act together over the next six years, the UNP’s last electoral trump card-that of being better managers of the economy-might go by the board.

That then is the challenge that awaits the UNP. There are no major elections until 2016 and in that six years the UNP has to re-invent itself, not by the simple act of replacing Wickremasinghe with Premadasa but by transforming itself into a people-friendly party with mass appeal. And then again, whoever is to replace Wickremeasinghe should be given ample time to re-build the broken party.

It can take heart from the many instances where its leaders have buried their differences, worked together and won the subsequent elections-the last such instance being when J.R. Jayewardene, Wickremesinghe’s uncle and Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sajith’s father took on Sirima Bandaranaike in the seventies. They can take heart from the fact that of all the governments that had two-thirds majorities - the UNP in 1952; the MEP/SLFP in 1956; the SLFP again in 1970; and the UNP in 1977, only the last got re-elected to power.

It is worthwhile noting that JR had some of the handicaps that Wickremesinghe is discredited with: he was not a great platform orator (and the way he pronounced ‘koranawa’ was frequently mocked) and he did not have the pat-you-on-the back type of public relations skills, once being described by Newsweek magazine as being ‘dour and ascetic’. Yet, he combined with Premadasa (Snr.) to form a formidable team that eventually won a historic majority in 1977.

The UNP must also, at least now, acknowledge that it read the war wrongly. It can, for instance, support the government when the latter is faced with human rights issues from the international community , instead of be seen as cutting the grass under its feet. Not to do so leaves room for the Weerawansa types in the government to label the UNP over and over again as traitors-and the damage done, especially in the deep south of the country is by no means negligible.

Sajith Premadasa did say that he never called Thoppigala a jungle, nor did he refer to Kilinochchi as Medawachchiya. That unfortunately comes across more as a jibe aimed at Wickremasinghe and Ravi Karunanayake rather than a display of Premadasa’s patriotism. Indeed, Premadasa didn’t say so but he also said nothing when the UNP was ridiculing the war effort and in that sense, his silence was deafening so he shouldn’t try to score brownie points on that issue now.

What the UNP can least afford now is a bitter, fractious leadership battle. Intra-party democracy must certainly prevail and electing party officials-including the leader- is a good idea for the leader should command the respect and confidence of his colleagues.

But thereafter, when this leadership battle is done with, the UNP must be in a position to live up to its name- a truly united and national entity.

History tells us that no government should be allowed too much power for too long. That would be the end result if the UNP belittles itself because of an intensely personal leadership struggle-and that would not be in the best interests of the nation. That is why, the UNP must really address the most important question before it today-what should be done to make the party attractive to the masses once more-instead of squabbling over who should do it.

Or else, it will only leave Mahinda Rajapaksa laughing all the way until the next election.

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