Next two years crucial; Premier’s presidential hopes hang on radical makeover, reinvigorated fight against corruption and forming a UNP government Wickremesinghe’s biggest obstacle is Sirisena; placating the President even after winning NCM won’t win him hearts and minds of party supporters Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson it was, who said, “a week is a [...]


Ranil has won many a battle but his war is not over


  • Next two years crucial; Premier’s presidential hopes hang on radical makeover, reinvigorated fight against corruption and forming a UNP government
  • Wickremesinghe’s biggest obstacle is Sirisena; placating the President even after winning NCM won’t win him hearts and minds of party supporters

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson it was, who said, “a week is a long time in politics”. Indeed, a week before the motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, there was speculation that the four times Prime Minister and veteran of eight Parliaments over forty years might have to leave the political stage, for all time.

Much happened in that week. The knives were out for Wickremesinghe. The Joint Opposition (JO), the faction of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, smelled blood. Parliamentarians from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ‘loyal’ to President Maithripala Sirisena were supporting them and crowing confidently about victory.

Testing times ahead: Ranil Wickremesinghe: Four times Prime Minister and forty-one year veteran in politics

In Wickremesinghe’s own United National Party (UNP), there was simmering discontent. Some, such as Palitha Range Bandara and Wasantha Senanayake publicly criticised Wickremesinghe. There were reports of hush-hush meetings between UNP backbenchers and those masterminding the motion.

Photographs circulating in social media showed Wickremesinghe’s parliamentary office on the day of the vote: Wickremesinghe is seen arms clasped, leaning over a chair. Parliamentarians are helping themselves to ‘short-eats’ and cake but his plate is empty. The expression on Wickremesinghe’s face tells the story: anxious, pensive and without a hint of a smile.

Wickremesinghe need not have worried. His margin of victory was comfortable: 46 votes. Twenty-six MPs — 25 from the SLFP and the Ven. Athuraliye Rathana thera — absented themselves. Had all of them voted against Wickremesinghe, all things being equal, he would have still won by a majority of 20 votes.
The composition of the current Parliament is such that the motion would never have succeeded without at least a dozen defections from the UNP. The instigators of the motion were unable to convince that many UNPers to switch loyalties. Because of this, SLFPers in government hedged their bets and kept away, not because they wanted Wickremesinghe to keep his job but because they wanted to keep their own jobs even more.

Wickremesinghe can take solace from the fact that in his hour of need, the UNP rallied around him. The only government MP who abstained, the Ven. Rathana Thera, is not a UNPer but is a dissident himself from the Jathika Hela Urumaya. Even Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, who was stripped of his Cabinet portfolio voted in Wickremesinghe’s favour. So what was the fuss all about?

No-faith motion victory not the end game
For Wickremesinghe, though, surviving the vote is not the end game. It is only the beginning of a tumultuous two years at the end of which he has to face presidential and parliamentary polls. This battle was won but the war has only begun — and many are the lessons to be learnt from the weeks that were.
Votes of no-confidence against Prime Ministers are not debated every day: Sri Lanka had seen only two such votes previously, against the two Bandaranaikes — S.W.R.D. and Sirima. The last one was forty-three years ago. Why then did Wickremesinghe attract one?

The JO was intoxicated with its success at the recent local council elections, but the motion wouldn’t have become a reality if UNP backbenchers hadn’t sent smoke signals of their willingness to decamp. Wickremesinghe needs to ask himself why his party is not pleased despite being in power.

The UNP is hamstrung by being in a ‘national government’ with the SLFP. There are clashes of political philosophies, policies and personalities. The UNP does have most of the ‘plum’ portfolios but they have to contend with Sirisena’s executive powers. In the UNP parliamentary group, there is a perception that Wickremesinghe has yielded more than he should to Sirisena.

They are many examples. When Sirisena went ballistic against the UNP while campaigning for the local council elections, UNPers retorted from election platforms. Wickremesinghe intervened, asking his MPs to tone down the invective. They did. Neither Sirisena nor some of his SLFP MPs reciprocated. In fact, they ratcheted the rhetoric a notch higher.

The local election suggested that one of the reasons for the UNP’s dismal showing was its inefficiency in prosecuting individuals of the previous regime for corruption. The party then requested Sirisena to appoint Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as Minister of Law and Order.

By then, eager to get into the good books of the Rajapaksas, Sirisena refused. Wickremesinghe yielded again, allowing the appointment of Ranjith Madduma Bandara, instead of reading the riot act to Sirisena and insisting on Fonseka’s appointment, in much the same way he insisted that S. B. Dissanayake be appointed as Minister of Samurdhi Affairs in the 2001 United National Front government when Chandrika Kumaratunga was President and initially refused to swear him in. Some argue, though, that Wickremesinghe blew Sirisena’s bluff of accusing him of going slow on the prosecution of the Rajapaksas by this cunning move.

UNPers are concerned that this trend of appeasing Sirisena is continuing even after the no-confidence motion. A group of UNP parliamentarians submitted another motion of no-confidence against the six SLFP cabinet ministers and the Deputy Speaker who voted against Wickremesinghe, calling for their exit from the government. Wickremesinghe is not gung-ho about the move. Placating Sirisena is not winning hearts and minds for Wickremesinghe — at least in his own party.
The local council elections at first and now the motion of no-confidence have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt what Wickremesinghe’s biggest obstacle is: Maithripala Sirisena. Wickremesinghe’s relationship with Sirisena has steadily deteriorated because Sirisena is no longer the D. B. Wijetunga-like humble simpleton who stumbled upon the Executive Presidency by happenstance.

Emboldened by the presidential powers at his disposal, Sirisena was evading inquiries about his promises to scrap the Executive Presidency and his pledge not to run for President again. Later he inquired from the Supreme Court whether his tenure would last six years and was told the term had been reduced to five because of the 19th Amendment.

That was in the lead up to the local council polls. At the elections, Sirisena’s ambitions took a tumble: his SLFP was decimated, polling a measly 13 percent of the vote topping the double digits only thanks to the CWC vote, and being relegated to third place in most councils.

Sirisena now fears for his own political future. As the local council elections demonstrated, if he runs for President again, he would simply be an ‘also ran’. The few dozen parliamentarians who remained loyal to him have now hit the panic button. Their only path to survival is to hitch themselves to the Rajapaksa bandwagon which is now in the form of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or the ‘pohottuwa’ party and does not need the SLFP to grow and bloom.

In the motion of no-confidence, Sirisena saw a political opportunity to make amends with the Rajapaksas and forge a political future for himself. He felt no qualms about sacrificing Wickremesinghe, who was instrumental in hoisting him to the Presidency.

Prior to the no-confidence vote, Sirisena clipped Wickremesinghe’s wings, taking key institutions such as the Central Bank away from Wickremesinghe’s purview. He also presided over an SLFP parliamentary group meeting of MPs loyal to him where they ‘unanimously’ decided to support the motion. If Sirisena was against this, his silence was deafening.

Sirisena’s actions wouldn’t surprise Wickremesinghe, who, after forty years in Parliament, knows that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests. The concern in the UNP camp is that he is not paying enough attention to his own party’s interests, and he can trip on his own gamesmanship. For instance, Wickremesinghe insists on continuing the Government of ‘national unity’ when even SLFP ministers want to opt out of it. Previously the rationale was that such a government was necessary to pass constitutional reforms. That project is now dead because the government cannot muster a two-thirds majority, even if the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) support it.

Wickremesinghe’s energies are better spent in invigorating efforts to punishing the corrupt. This was a key campaign pledge in 2015 but the JO members are now on the offensive claiming they are innocent because they haven’t been found guilty. Ironically, the only politician seemingly found guilty by association (at least by public perception though not in a court of law) is Ravi Karunanayake — a spectacular ‘own goal’ for the UNP.

A UNP Government
The bureaucratic bungling in the prosecution of the numerous cases involving politicians of the previous government is emblematic of the chaos in this administration. Now, with SLFP ministers siding with the JO, such investigations will not be expedited in the next eighteen months if the SLFP remains in government. Thus, it is imperative for the UNP to form its own government, perhaps with support from a few selected SLFP MPs and the TNA and the JVP on an issue-by-issue basis.

Wickremesinghe is not the ‘hail fellow well met’ type of politician, the brand of politics that Mahinda Rajapaksa excels in. He comes across as aloof, distant, stubborn and even arrogant. That he has held the reins of the UNP for twenty-four years despite this is because he makes up for what he lacks in personal chemistry with a razor sharp political mind, plotting and planning to always be a step ahead of his rivals, both in and out of the UNP.

Wickremesinghe’s strategy when confronted is to prevaricate and divert attention. Appointing committees is his forte in overcoming obstacles and buying time. For example, when his leadership was challenged in late 2013, Wickremesinghe appointed a ‘Leadership Council’ for the UNP. That took the momentum out of a campaign to oust him.

Similarly, when the Central Bank bond scam first emerged in March 2015, Wickremesinghe appointed a committee headed by Gamini Pitipana to inquire into the issue. Old habits die hard because when the Presidential Commission of Inquiry published its report into the scam implicating Karunanayake, Wickremesinghe appointed another committee headed by Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana to decide what steps need to be taken. The committee recommended that Karunanayake should not function as Assistant Leader of the party. That was not enforced.

Wickremesinghe’s reticence to act against Karunanayake is frustrating party members. Many recall that Wickremesinghe committed himself to the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in 2002 with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). When that collapsed, Wickremesinghe was blamed. For years, he was taunted by his rivals as the leader who tried to betray the country to the Tamil Tigers. Sixteen years later, the Central Bank bond scam has assumed similar proportions in terms of being a political liability for Wickremesinghe.

Wickremesinghe can be credited for splitting the Karuna faction of the LTTE from the Prabhakaran leadership through the CFA. But he doesn’t get the kudos, only the brickbats. In the Central Bank case it is difficult to find a bouquet for him.

If Wickremesinghe recalls the days when his political mentor J. R. Jayewardene was President, he would remember that when E. L. Senanayake, whose then standing in the UNP was somewhat similar to that of Karunanayake’s position now, and was implicated in a tender fraud, he was promptly asked to resign as Agriculture Minister. It is possible that Wickremesinghe harbours a sense of loyalty to Karunanayake who stood by him when he was being challenged by Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa but such loyalty should not come at the price of frittering away the party’s fortunes for the next half a dozen years. And JR brought back EL after the dust had settled as Speaker.

There is now much discussion about reforming the UNP. A ‘Politburo’ with powers superseding the Working Committee has been appointed. Nevertheless, some party veterans are sceptical because this is Wickremesinghe’s familiar modus operandi.

Both Wickremesinghe and the UNP need a reality check. Under Wickremesinghe’s leadership, the UNP has not won a presidential election in its own right although Wickremesinghe could count himself unlucky to lose to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, owing to a boycott of the vote in the North and East enforced by the LTTE.
In five general elections during his term as party leader, the UNP or coalitions led by the UNP have won two elections but never has the party mustered enough seats to form a government on its own. Its best performance was in December 2001 when it won 109 seats and polled 45 per cent of the vote.

In the current Parliament, it has 106 seats together with partner parties forming the UNF, and polled 45 percent of the vote but that was more a protest vote against the authoritarian tendencies of the Rajapaksa regime than a wholehearted endorsement of the UNP. By February this year, that had dipped to 34 percent. It doesn’t take a giant leap of imagination to realise that the UNP has a long way to go, especially in opposing the resurgent Rajapaksas.

JR-style strategy
The UNP as a brand has become difficult to sell to the rural voter. Under Wickremesinghe’s stewardship, the party, wittingly or unwittingly, has acquired the image of being pro-Western, ultra-liberal, Colombo-centric, and not caring about the less affluent Sri Lankan, be it peon or peasant. Part of that image is the result of clever propaganda from the Opposition, but it is also partly due to failure of the UNP — and those portraying themselves as the face of the party — to relate to the ‘common man’ or the ‘podu janathaawa’.

Again, Wickremesinghe can learn from JR. JR was seen to have many attributes that Wickremesinghe is accused of today: aloof, politically cunning but not a pat-you-on-the-back politician. At the time, the UNP too was perceived as the party of elitists as opposed to the more grassroots friendly SLFP.

JR’s strategy to counter this was simple as it was ingenious. While he directed policy, he used the likes of Ranasinghe Premadasa — a grassroots politician if ever there was one — to convey his message. By 1977, the UNP was a healthy mix of heterogeneous politicians where Lalith Athulathmudali rubbed shoulders with Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi in the Colombo district; E.L. Senanayake had R. P. Wijesiri for company in Kandy while Dr. Ranjit Atapattu and Jinadasa Weerasinghe were colleagues in Hambantota. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wickremesinghe cannot repeat Jayewardene’s landslide but if he is to get even close, his UNP needs a radical makeover. Making profound pronouncements about party reforms only to have the same people take over different positions in the party will simply not suffice. It should not be like the much-hyped post-local council poll Cabinet reshuffle that turned out to be a damp squib. The UNP needs a change that is palpable — and that is still possible with Wickremesinghe at the helm because, at least for now, its MPs have rallied around him.

JR was not afraid to infuse young blood into his Cabinet. Lalith Athulathmudali was 41 and Gamini Dissanayake 35 when they were entrusted with the portfolios of Trade and Mahaveli respectively. They went on to spearhead the most critical policies of the Jayewardene government, the liberalisation of the economy and the accelerated Mahaveli programme. Wickremesinghe’s UNP has enough young blood, but they are, with few exceptions, only playing second fiddle. Their time to shine is now.

In weeks of frenzied political activity, Sajith Premadasa, who once challenged Wickremesinghe for the party leadership, has maintained a relatively low profile. It maybe because Premadasa believes his time will come given that Wickremesinghe will be 71 in 2020 and Premadasa is almost twenty years his junior.
Premadasa’s rival was Ravi Karunanayake. The latter has only himself to blame for permanently blotting his copybook with the bond scam. Nevertheless, Wickremesinghe must also contemplate grooming a successor. JR paved the way for Ranasinghe Premadasa but the latter, because of his own insecurities, did not do so and the result was an impeachment that boomeranged on him — and the UNP. Wickremesinghe, the assiduous history buff that he is, will do well to learn from it.

Wickremesinghe had the good fortune of ‘having the right connections’ in entering politics. Being JR’s nephew, he was fast tracked from being Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment and then Minister of Education within a few years. However, he also had the misfortune of being in power for seventeen years and even being Prime Minister before ever tasting what it was like to be in the Opposition. That may have hampered him as he tried to find his feet as Leader of the Opposition after the demise of Gamini Dissanayake.

In the last twenty-four years Wickremesinghe has been the leader of the UNP, just over five years have been in government; the rest have been in the opposition. Wickremesinghe has been appointed Prime Minister on four occasions, more than anyone else in this country but he has never been the head of government.
One cannot blame Wickremesinghe if, after forty-one years in Parliament, he wants to leave on a high. If he aspires to become the next Executive President or, in the unlikely event of constitutional reforms seeing the light of day, the next Executive Prime Minister, he has a mountain of political obstacles to surmount. He has to do so without delay because time is running out.

If one were to go by Harold Wilson’s estimate of a week being a long time in politics, Wickremesinghe may not be too late: he has twenty months before the presidential poll which will precede the general elections.

To return to Wilson, his words, to the then Prime Minister of Rhodesia who was planning to declare independence seem eerily appropriate for Ranil Wickremesinghe: “I know I speak for everyone in these islands, all parties, all our people, when I say, Prime Minister, think again”.

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