Columns - From the Sidelines

The multiple ironies of UNP leadership and the IDU
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The commotion in Parliament when UNP MPs brought placards and shouted slogans during the presentation of the 2012 Budget offered yet another example of the shameful depths to which government MPs could descend in their conduct. It also came off as yet another fiasco in the UNP's pathetic scorecard as the country's main opposition party. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's 'tactics' just backfired.

There is some irony in the fact that that Wickremesinghe had just returned from the Party Leaders Conference of the International Democrat Union (IDU) held in London, where he was instrumental in having a statement issued on Sri Lanka on a controversial law, while having been absent during the debate on that very Bill on account of his travels. It is not the first time he has been absent from the House at a time when he should have been leading a fight on behalf of his party as well as the opposition in parliament. When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (which did away with term limits on the executive presidency, among other things) was passed, he and his party members were protesting in the street instead.

The IDU at its Party Leaders Conference, held once in three years, issued statements this year expressing 'concerns' about North Korea, Belarus, Russia and Sri Lanka. On Sri Lanka it said:
"The IDU expresses its deep concern at the recent proposals by the Sri Lanka government for nationalizing a number of companies, chosen on an arbitrary and politically biased basis. The IDU supports the campaign of the United National Party against these proposals." The concerns expressed here related to the recently passed "Revitalisation of Underperforming and Underutilised Assets Bill," the substance of which has been questioned as much as its ethics.

Wickremesinghe was re-appointed Chairman of the Asia Pacific Democrat Union (APDU), a regional branch of the IDU. The APDU membership includes parties from Australia, Canada, Chile, El Salvador, Fiji, Korea, the Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Taiwan and the USA. The IDU is a club of right wing political parties around the world, with representatives drawn from party leaders of its member parties. The political parties that form its membership are of a conservative orientation, with some being ruling parties in their respective countries and others being in the opposition (as in the case of the UNP). The fact that Wickremesinghe's status as leader of his party is currently under siege adds further irony to the circumstances of his affiliation. It would be interesting to know if his status in the IDU itself would be at stake if he lost his post as party leader here at home.

Wickremesinghe returned to the country on the 17th to be presented with a 'charge sheet' of 20 allegations brought against him by party members in revolt against his leadership. The 'charges' explained to the media by Southern Provincial Councillor and lawyer Maithree Guneratne included some allegations of decidedly undemocratic conduct. They related to matters such as victimization of his opponents when compiling nomination lists for local government elections, and overlooking certain party MPs when filling party positions. The MPs concerned were those who were critical of his leadership and who had spoken out on the lack of internal democracy within the party. It was alleged these actions were attempts at smothering freedom of expression within the party and were in violation of the party constitution. Another of the 'charges' was that the UNP leader had failed to provide the party's annual accounts. Guneratne was to send a copy of the document to the IDU reportedly "since Wickremesinghe as Chairman of the Asia Pacific Democrat Union was duty bound to protect democracy within his own party."

There was further controversy within the UNP on account of Wickremesinghe having appointed Chief Opposition Whip John Amaratunge to deputise for him in his absence, while he attended the IDU conference. In making this unexpected appointment he bypassed the party's Co-Deputy Leaders Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa. The move betrayed how badly the party is riven with mistrust. It also seemed to render the 'Deputy Leader' appointments meaningless.

Wickremesinghe is typically reticent about his association with the IDU and conveys little even to party members about his related travels, their purpose and relevance, if any, to the fortunes of the foundering UNP. The party website conspicuously omits any IDU related news. Is this not strange, seeing that Wickremesinghe considers his party's membership in the IDU important enough to assign much valuable time out of the country on IDU-related travel? The lack of information becomes noticeable when he goes missing at a time when his party needs leadership closer home. Another question that remains unanswered is how the IDU association would affect the UNP's foreign policy priorities.

It appears to be on the strength of his designation as party leader that Wickremesinghe holds office in the IDU. But the question for disgruntled party elements is whether the UNP leader in fact privileges his international alliances over his domestic commitments. Ironically the seething revolt within the party would seem to jeopardise the very basis on which he lays claim to his status within the IDU.

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