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UNP’s leadership battle takes new turn with LG polls

  • Sajith under increasing pressure to take over, but feels the time is not right
  • Opposition accuses Govt. of having polls on staggered basis to misuse state power
By Our Political Editor

The many challenges posed by local polls looming ahead failed to unite feuding factions of the country's main opposition United National Party (UNP), but there is a likelihood that a temporary moratorium may be in place by next week.

This is despite hectic efforts by party seniors including Joseph Michael Perera, John Ameratunga and Jayalath Jayawardena, this week. The three J's, as they were described, shuttled between leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and the aspirant, Sajith Premasada many times. So much so, both sides waited with baited breath for a truce to be declared at a public meeting in Negombo town on Thursday evening. The two were to pledge that they would forget their differences, at least temporarily and stay united to face the local elections.

In other words, there would be a truce on their feuding till the polls end. The excitement among some senior UNPers was underscored by an SMS sent to a local journalist on Thursday by one of them. It said, "Await a ceasefire tonight. The elections are uniting us."

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake enjoy a delicious lunch of manioc with coconut at the Beddagana Weherakanda ruins in Kotte, in the course of the Grama Charika programme yesterday. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam.

Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said nothing about peace or unity within the party. Instead, he berated the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration for the hardships imposed on the people. He said living costs were becoming unbearable and the Government had failed to deliver on its promises. He said the Government wants to probe parliamentarian Jayalath Jayawardena for his purported connections with Tiger guerrillas. However, the Government was not handing over KP (Kumaran Pathmanathan, the one time head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Procurement wing), to India to face charges for the assassination of late Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Sajith Premadasa did touch on the internal issues of the party, but only emphasised "Okkoma Ekathuvela moona denna onai…." (We must unite to face…. He was alluding to problems the party would face). Neither Wickremesinghe nor Premadasa, it became clear, had heeded the messiahs of peace from the Wattala-Ja ela belt. When the speeches were over, the event turned into a musical extravaganza. The expected joint ride on an open jeep by Wickremesinghe and Premadasa did not materialise either and Premadasa was left to travel with Jayalath Jayawardana in the absence of Wickremesinghe.

During the musical show, Premadasa seized a microphone and burst into a song. "Thoran Badinata, Raban Gahanata, Suba Mohatak Ava….(An auspicious moment has arrived to beat drums and build pandals), a number made popular by Sunil Perera of the Gypsies. Musical backing to Premadasa the vocalist came from the group Seeduwa Sikura. Wickremesinghe clapped and nodded his head seemingly in approval of his contender's musical talent. However, Wickremesinghe had left the meeting when Premadasa sang another number. It was Geetha Lowe Menna Janapriyama Sellama -Sinasisi Bella Kepilla (Here is the latest game in the Music field -- cutting the throat with a smile) rendered originally by Nalin Perera of the Marians musical group. Another was Jeevithey Mal Amma Inna kal (Life is nice, until the mother is around) originally sung by the Sun Flower group.

Though the first song Raban Gahanata … had little relevance to the much-awaited truce, it did have some significance. Uniting the rival factions in a musical extravaganza was another event. The festive mood, despite disappointment over a pre-poll truce, was reminiscent of the days when village mudalalis (businessmen) staged grand shows and showered themselves with garlands after they were appointed Justice of the Peace (JP). This time, however, the organiser of the meeting, Dr. Jayawardena was celebrating another event. He had entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the continuance of a medical programme on a Sri Lanka television network non-stop for 17 years.

That no doubt is a record in the TV industry where plunging ratings force broadcasters to call off programmes months after they aired. However, there are exceptions too. In the US, the NBC network has run its Meet the Press Programme since 1947. The medical programme 'Casualty' has run on BBC in the UK since 1963.

The impasse in the UNP, highlighted at the Negombo public rally, means that the two sides, Wickrmesinghe and the Premadasa factions, are still poised to take on each other.

The Premadasa faction has been somewhat wary of Jayalath Jayawardena's sudden cosyness with their camp. Some have even warned of him being a 'double agent' or 'spy'. Within their camp they related stories of previous instances when he would carry tales from one side to the other. His recent statements that the party must be prepared for a new 'Premadasa yugaya' (era) and his praise for the young MP's father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa "Premadasa yugaya tharan me rata poshanaya karapu yugayk naa" (there's been no era as the Premadasa era that nourished the nation).

Though undoubtedly it was the late President Premadasa who introduced the medical practitioner into politics, Dr. Jayawardena was not an initial recruit to the son's move to wrest the party leadership. He preferred to remain loyal to Wickremesinghe. Either he saw the winds of change blowing after the Party Convention last December, or he is genuinely interested in playing peace maker, the role played decades ago by Paris Perera, the MP of the same constituency Jayawardena now represents, Ja-ela. It was at Paris Perera's house that the warring former Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and former President Junius Jayewardene made peace in 1973 and re-united the UNP.

There was, however, an unusually large crowd for a recent UNP rally and much of it was put to the fact that Wickremesinghe and Premadasa were going to be on stage and the anticipated announcement that the party was re-united once again. Though the two were seated together, there was only small talk between the two; nary a word about the leadership struggle. If the crowd was to be disappointed that there was no official truce announced, the musical back-up was to compensate for the disappointment.

During the week, the Premadasa faction kept up the pressure for the ouster of Wickremesinghe, this time through the party's trade unions. On Monday, the 3rd, Wickremesinghe hosted his annual kiribath (milk-rice) breakfast for the New Year. Comparisons with the kiribath breakfast hosted on behalf of Premadasa by his General Factotum Bodhi Ranasinghe at the latter's political office in Colombo East was inevitable. Ranasinghe had an open house with over 200 people, loud speakers on roof-tops and speaker after speaker extolling the virtues of a new era for the party. Wickremsinghe's breakfast was quieter marked by the presence of more seniors and the absence of the younger, more vociferous party members. Many had kept away from both breakfasts merely hoping that the new year will bring party unity, full stop.

The same day, 35 ex-MPs and nine present MPs met in support of Premadasa. It was the Annual General Meeting of the association of ex-UNP MPs. They elected Mahen Wijeratne as their new president, Mahen Gunasekera as secretary and Anura Bastian as treasurer. Immediately thereafter, around 6.30 pm Sajith Premadasa joined them for a long discussion where he was asked about his policies etc. Bodhi Ranasinghe then hosted the lot to dinner and a decision was taken that they would hand over a letter to Wickremesinghe asking him to appoint Premadasa as the new leader of the party before the dissolution of the local councils. Several ex-MPs, however, did not attend this meeting, significant among them was Dr. Ranjit Atapattu, former MP for Beliatte in the Hambantota District and immediate past President of the association.

The next day (Tuesday), 15 of them sought an appointment with Wickremesinghe to hand over the letter. An appointment was granted for 5 pm the same day, but when the MPs went to Wickremesinghe's Cambridge Terrace office at the given time, they had to make do by handing the letter over to one of Wickremesinghe's secretaries, K.P. Dayaratne, instead. Wickremesinghe was unable to meet them. That day, the association also held a news conference at Ranasinghe's political office.

On Wednesday, the party's Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) branches began making noises. At Bastian Road, Maradana, the railway workers decided to send a letter to Wickremesinghe calling for a change in the party leadership. When the JSS president Joseph Michael Perera turned up he was at the receiving end of a barrage of questions as to why he had told an English daily that the Premadasa faction remained un-decided on what they want. The former Speaker who is solidly backing Wickremesinghe, made a quick exit in the face of the questioning.

Jayalath Jayawardena is seen with Sajith Premadasa: The event was when Mr. Premadasa donated Rs. 50,000 to the Sri Mangalaramaya in Divulapitiya under his sasunata aruna programme. Chief Monk, Ven. Thalapathwewe Samithananda Thera received the donation.

The Premadasa faction was expecting the JSS wings in the health, printing and postal sectors to come out soon in their support, but conceded that they are unable to get all branches to back the young MP.
At the UNP parliamentary group meeting last Tuesday, Ranjit Madduma Bandara (MP - Moneragala) urged Wickremesinghe to set an early date for the party's Working Committee to meet. Wickremesinghe said he would await the return of General Secretary Tissa Attanayake from Britain to fix an early date.

Wickremesinghe kept his word. Attanayake returned to Colombo on Friday, and the very next day (yesterday), sent out letters at the request of Wickremesinghe for the Working Committee to meet next Thursday (Jan.13) at 4 pm at Sirikotha, the party headquarters.

Despite the stalemate, both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa, together with their key backers, met each other on two occasions this week. The first was at the awards night of Daya Apparels owned by one of the UNP's key financiers, Daya Gamage. Though he contested the April parliamentary elections and lost, his wife Anoma was named as a UNP National List MP. Gamage, the only private sector entrepreneur to own a Beechcraft aeroplane, has apparel industries located in Ampara. Supporters of the two sides spoke over drinks and dinner about settling internecine issues before the local polls. That is where proposals for a truce were pursued further.

If the Premadasa faction was making public noises in a show of strength, Wickremesinghe was not idling. A relative of Wickremesinghe was one of the prime movers who held talks with several members of the Working Committee during the week. He even met deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya to iron out what were perceived as differences and misgivings between the party's number one and two. One source said Jayasuriya explained the reasons why he met with a group led by Premadasa for talks the previous week and later conveyed their request to the UNP leader for him to quit. As revealed in these columns last week, Jayasuriya told Wickremesinghe that Premadasa and his group sought a leadership change in the UNP. Jayasuriya has told the relative that he was kept in the dark until the last moment when a decision was made to field former Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka, as the common candidate for the presidential elections in January, last year.

Factions backing Wickremesinghe appear to have re-gained greater confidence this week. They re-iterated that their leader would not "wilt under pressure" and forego his leadership. "He is confident he has the numbers - the 78 members of the Electoral College comprising UNP MPs and Working Committee members to get re-elected should there be a contest," said a member of the Working Committee speaking on grounds of anonymity. He claimed that contrary to all assertions, Premadasa did not command the majority in the Electoral College. According to him, Wickremesinghe has been summoning small groups of these College members for private discussions. He was not only asserting his role as leader but also convincing them on the need for him to continue.

There were some apprehensions appearing within some sections of the Premadasa group. At least one prominent parliamentarian, more popular for his non-political activities, has complained that Premadasa is not "acting fast enough" and "prevaricating over important issues."

He has already struck a rapport with deputy leader, Jayasuriya. This week, in Parliament on Thursday, he reached out to his one time archrival Ravi Karunanayake to wish him a happy new year. The one time Kotte and now Colombo North parliamentarian had returned to Colombo only last Tuesday after a holiday in Thailand. It happened when Karunanayake was walking out of Parliament where he was chatting with UPFA's young MPs Namal Rajapaksa and Sri Ranga about the UNP and they were joined by Minister Dilan Perera. The subject turned to attempts by Premadasa to take over the UNP leadership. Just then, Premadasa walked in to be greeted by the foursome. He wished the others too.

Much to the chagrin of some of his own backers, Premadasa has been remarking that he should have on board his team as many as possible including Karunanayake and even Mangala Samaraweera, now head of the UNP media wing. Samaraweera also returned to Colombo on Friday after a private trip to Singapore. However, Samaraweera remains a staunch backer of Wickremesinghe.

Premadasa's new image, one that was enhanced after the UNP's annual convention in December last year, has caused concern for the Government ranks too. Earlier government leaders treated him with kid gloves when they criticised opposition leaders. There was reciprocity from Premadasa who largely avoided commenting on critical issues or criticising UPFA leaders. This changed last Wednesday, when one of UPFA's new parliamentarians, Duminda Silva (a former UNPer) took him to task much to the amusement of his colleague, Namal Rajapaksa who was seated in the House. He could not contain his laughter. Silva said:

"…….Sajith Premadasa is struggling to become the leader of the UNP. He is going around telling a lie that when he becomes the leader all youth will support him. We are not bankrupt to support Sajith Premadasa, who does not have a spine, and who is trying to destroy the UNP leader. We have a leader who has a spine, who is loved by the people and who saved the country that is now developing it. Whatever games Sajith plays we can see what happens at the local government elections. He says he has done this thing and the other thing for Hambantota. However, we can see what happens in Hambantota this time.

I wish to say that the UPFA will emerge victorious in the Colombo district as well. However, some sections in the UNP inflate Sajith Premadasa. He will end up bursting like a balloon."

It is in this backdrop that Local Government Minister A.L.M. Athaullah issued a Gazette notification on January 6 declaring that the terms of 263 local councils would end that day. Consequently the Department of Elections has called for nominations to these councils between January 20 and 27. Elections will not be held for Municipal Councils countrywide. This is reportedly because polls activity would mar the conduct of World Cup cricket matches. However, the UNPers say the move to stagger MC polls is to later focus the entire state machinery to win these elections in areas where their party has held sway. Another factor, opposition sources say, is the fact that the soaring cost of living largely affected those living in urban areas. Examples were Colombo and Kandy where prospects of a UNP victory were thus much higher.

Thirty-four Urban Councils as well as 229 Pradeshiya Sabhas will go to polls. They are Western Province 12 UCs, North Western Province 3 UCs, Central Province 8 UCs, Southern Province 4 UCs, Sabaragamuwa 3 UCs, and Eastern Province 4 UCs. The Pradeshiya Sabhas that will go to polls are Central Province 30, Uva 24, Southern 40, North Central 25, Sabaragamuwa 25, Western Province 27, Eastern 29, North Western 28 and Northern Province 1.

The Government had earlier wanted to introduce a hybrid system instead of using the existing PR system for the local polls. The ongoing disarray in the UNP and the defeat of budgets in some of the UPFA-controlled local councils were among contributory factors for the move to rush the local polls. UNP leader Wickremesinghe reacted angrily to the move. He told the Sunday Times, "Those who wanted a mixed system (first past the post and proportional representation) have suddenly reneged on their position. President Rajapaksa invited us for a dialogue. He delegated Ministers Basil Rajapaksa and Dinesh Gunawardena to talk to us. They brought draft legislation and now they have changed their mind. The public are going to be angry over this.

"Voters have been deprived of a chance to select a person of their own choice from their wards. This makes a mockery of the bi-partisan approach to the issue. Importing prostitutes from Russia, poultry from India and the proletariat from China appear to be the new Mahinda Chinthana."

Ahead of the dissolution of local authorities, UNP deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya told a news conference on Thursday "We were taken by surprise about planned postponement of elections in the Municipal Councils. Only 48 hours earlier the government MPs were saying elections would be held in all areas. We had decided that the PR system should be scrapped as it is a disadvantageous to the persons who do not have money and power. Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was the head of the committee on electoral reforms. We supported the proposed amendments, which had a mix of the Ward system and the PR system.

"The aim of this is to have the people closer. We were told that elections will be held on the same day. We now hear they are going to have an election on a staggered basis. We are calling the government to have elections on the same day. If elections in some areas could be postponed, why can't the elections in other places be postponed and the electoral reforms put in place? All elections held recently have been held against the directives given by the Commissioner of Elections. His instructions have been violated, vehicles, state media misused. Police have been misused…."

On Friday, Wickremesinghe set up a UNP team to deal with the local polls. It is headed by Jayasuriya and includes Tissa Attanayake, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Joseph Michael Perera, Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kirella, Mangala Samaraweera, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Thalatha Athokorale, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar.

At their first meeting on Friday, held without controversy or heated exchanges, the team took a policy decision that the UNP will not tie up with any other group or political party to contest the local polls. All candidates, it was decided, should contest under the Elephant symbol. Preference votes will not be the sole criteria to select the head of a local authority. It was also decided that the applications of those seeking nominations would be dealt with "professionally." A UNP official said yesterday that they had so far received over 4,000 requests for nominations from prospective candidates countrywide. He said it included some serving UPFA local authority members too.

The sudden dissolution of these councils and the possibility that elections will be held as early as March have thrown the Premadasa faction into some disarray. Sajith Premadasa himself has made a statement this week to his followers that he would be found fault with if he keeps harping on the party leadership in the midst of an election. Despite the vehement pressures by the group of young MPs backed by external forces, Premadasa said he was mindful of what the majority of the party voters might feel about his quest for the leadership and party positions for his camp followers. What's more, he is a member of the party committee to oversee victory at the local polls.

He asked if it was morally correct to canvass for party posts while an election was on during the same period. "People will say I am selfish", he said and suggested a postponement to the quest saying that they had time till April (120 days since the UNP Convention in early December last year) to throw the hat into the ring. This has, however, thrown some ice water into their campaign to oust Wickremesinghe post-haste. Earlier moves to propose Premadasa's name at the next Working Committee meeting, now scheduled for next Thursday, were probably now on hold and there is every possibility that Premadasa would make a statement next week, either at the Working Committee or before it, that he was, in effect, putting his campaign to oust Wickremesinghe 'on hold' till the elections are over.

The flip side of this, as far as his pro-active backers are concerned is the fact that the local council elections are on a staggered basis. They raise the question whether Premadasa will wait till all the elections are concluded before he makes any move. This argument also weighs heavily on Premadasa's mind.

Despite the seeming unity in diversity over the upcoming local polls, the challenges UNP faces have magnified. An internal election in the midst of an electoral battle with the government would be grist to the mill for the government now fighting rising public resentment over the cost of living. A bitter internal battle to select or elect leaders ahead of the polls date would only distract attention from the campaign, and wound the party. A delay in holding such a meeting would further exacerbate frictions between the two sides. That remains the dilemma for the UNP.

Moving in to seize the opportunity was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The party's Central Committee decided on Wednesday to contest the local polls under its own Bell symbol. The cleverly planned and diplomatic move came as a severe blow to the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) headed by former General Sarath Fonseka. It was JVP's Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Vijitha Herath, who visited Fonseka at his prison cell in Welikade on Thursday to convey their decision. Later, they met Tiran Alles, now a close associate of Fonseka and DNA National List parliamentarian also to convey the Central Committee's decision. The JVP duo made clear that the DNA would remain. The assertion is understandable. The DNA could not be dismantled since the JVP parliamentarians also function as members of the alliance.

However, the catch lay in the fact that none of the other six small constituent parties of the DNA will be able to contest the local polls. That includes Anoma Fonseka, wife of the retired General, who reportedly wanted to contest from Colombo. The reason - the General Secretary of the DNA is Vijitha Herath and he will not sign the nominations of any candidate on behalf of the DNA. There are fears that Fonseka may become the first casualty of this move. It is a case of literally falling between two stools.

There has been bickering in the JVP, the main constituent partner in the DNA, in the recent months. This is particularly in the light of one of their key players and National List parliamentarian, Tiran Alles, continuing a dialogue for Fonseka and others to join the UNP. Embarrassed by the move, the JVP avoided a direct confrontation but a formidable section of its members insisted that the party should go it alone and preserve its own identity.

It became known that a section of the DNA backed by Alles continued a dialogue with Sajith Premadasa. He also donated a part of his five million rupee Decentralised Budget for development projects run by Premadasa in the Hambantota district. The move irked the JVP rank and file who complained that none of their MPs received any contribution. Despite the ongoing dialogue, sources close to Premadasa say, a move to enrol Fonseka to the UNP if he ever assumes leadership may not materialise due to several reasons. This is despite an appeal by Premadasa during the annual convention of the UNP on December 12 that leaders like Fonseka needed to be in the UNP. Main among them is said to be pressure on Premadasa from very powerful quarters over such a move.

Interesting enough, another faction of the DNA has been continuing a dialogue with UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. This faction is led by DNA (Kalutara District) MP Arjuna Ranatunga and includes former Sri Lankan cricketer, Hashan Tillekeratne. The latter is a close relative of Fonseka's son-in-law Danuna Tillekeratne. During initial stages of discussions, Wickremesinghe is learnt to have made clear that Fonseka would be welcome to join the UNP. However, he has said, that there will be no official positions offered to him. Nevertheless, he has added that the UNP would continue its campaign to seek Fonseka's release from jail.

JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva, told a news conference at their party headquarters in Battaramulla on Thursday "Our Sandanaya (Alliance) will remain, We will not stop the campaign to get Sarath Fonseka released . We will be contesting as the JVP." One need hardly point out that the alliance was formed ahead of the parliamentary elections in April last year to forge ahead jointly as a political entity.
The major partner has chosen to go its way at the local polls, there is little or no relevance to the DNA except that the JVP MPs are in Parliament on their ticket. Despite Silva's declaration to continue their efforts to "get Fonseka released," a leaflet campaign launched on Friday focuses entirely on the rising cost of living and the hardships caused to the people.

Thus, the head, body and legs of the DNA, perhaps sans the tail, has taken a different political direction by choosing to contest separately. At the same time, they have disabled other DNA constituents from contesting the local polls other than on the JVP ticket.

Though hypothetical, this poses an interesting question. At all future elections, it is unlikely the JVP would change its mind and go back to the DNA to contest. That would naturally mean that the DNA is dead except for its representation in Parliament and the faithful assertions by JVP leaders that the "Sandanaya (the alliance) would remain." It sure would, but as a memorial to the JVP's joint political sojourn last year with an Army General and a set of "three-wheeler" political parties.

For the UPFA Government that is preparing for the local polls there was a mild diversion last week. It came at Wednesday night's cabinet meeting and revived memories a quarter century ago of Dr. Hastings Banda, the head of Malawi, a landlocked country south of Africa. During his era, women were forbidden to wear trousers or shorts. That included foreign visitors, tourists and rock stars. They were not allowed to bare their thighs or to wear trousers.

All movies shown in theatres were first viewed by the Malawi Censorship Board and edited for content. Videotapes had to be sent to the Censorship Board to be viewed by censors. Items to be sold in bookstores were also edited. Pages, or parts of pages, were cut out of magazines like Newsweek and Time. The press and radio were tightly controlled, and mainly served as outlets for government propaganda. Television was banned.

An alert President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered a halt to a move by his Cultural Affairs Minister T.B. Ekanayake, to bring in proposals that would have brought a situation that prevailed 25 years ago in Malawi. The Tae Kwando loving Minister sought Cabinet approval for what he called to alter matters for "present day national requirements more suitably for all."

Ekanayake recommended in a cabinet memorandum that the Public Performance Ordnance No 7 of 1912, No 7 of 1990 and changed by amendment in 1951 and 1961 "are amended" to meet the present day national requirements has emerged. He said, "The drafting of a new Bill repealing the existing one is more suitable for incorporation of all programmes telecast in Sri Lanka and articles published in print media."

Sri Lanka's new Minister of Culture was in fact seeking new laws to impose rigid censorship on television and print media in Sri Lanka. This, in his view, was to safeguard the morals of Sri Lankans. He had earlier wanted to ban women wearing mini skirts. Several ministers raised objections to the move. President Rajapaksa not only ordered that the cabinet paper be withheld but also asked Ekanayake, somewhat sarcastically, whether he had also decided on the length of skirts to be worn by women.
A saucier crack came from one of Ekanayake's cabinet colleagues. "Let's pray he does not bring in a cabinet paper to recommend we spray paint and obliterate the breasts of damsels on our Sigiriya frescoes. The ancient kings may have prided in the artistic beauty. However, he (Ekanayake) is now our Cultural Minister," he said.

  From : Lakshan Wickrema
BTW TB Ekanayake should have more important things to do than worrying about morals of the common people of this country .


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