UNP’s Presidential stakes
Posted on August 3rd, 2019

by C. A. Chandraprema Courtesy The Island

August 3, 2019, 8:11 pm 

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The political drama that has now taken centre stage is the tussle in the UNP over the presidential candidate of the party. Arguably, this is the fiercest fight within the UNP over a presidential candidacy after the three-way tussle between R. Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake way back in 1988. What we are seeing once again is a three-way contest of sorts with party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa all in the running for the candidacy. In contrast to the battle royal that we see brewing within the UNP, all is quiet on the Joint Opposition/SLPP front. Any presidential candidate put forward by the Opposition coalition will be uncontested. If it’s Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, he will not be contested. If it’s a candidate other than GR, the greater likelihood is that the alternative candidate will also not be contested.

In that respect the Opposition is in an enviable position. Certainly, this Opposition has been spared the conflicts that took place within the UNP-led Opposition, in 2014, for the leadership of the party and then for the presidential candidacy. In the run-up to the presidential election in 2014, there was a move within the UNP to remove Ranil Wickremesinghe from the party leadership. The march that was organised from Devundara to Colombo demanding the ouster of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader was set upon and broken up by thugs wielding raw cinnamon sticks adding a new term to our political vocabulary ‘kurundu polu hamudawa’.

People of my generation had never seen intra-party conflicts at such a level of intensity. This battle took place in the middle of the Matara town in the vicinity of the sacred Bo tree just three months before the Presidential election of 8 January 2015. As the presidential election drew closer, and it appeared the party leader Wickremesinghe was trying to come forward as the candidate, this was opposed by Mangala Samaraweera, who actually threatened to defect to the side of the Rajapaksas if RW was made the candidate. In fact, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his son Namal even had dinner with Samaraweera at his Bolgoda residence. That was the kind of pressure that was exerted on RW to make way for a common candidate. In contrast to the mighty battles that took place within the opposition in 2014 over the presidential candidacy, the present Opposition’s selection of a candidate has been smooth and uneventful. The only serious opposition to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has come from MP Kumara Welgama.

That, too, was due to a minor and easily resolvable misunderstanding escalating and going out of control. The mere fact that it was possible for such a minor matter to go so far, is a matter that the JO and especially the presidential candidate should take note of. Beware of treading on anybody’s toes even by accident! Plenty of such things can happen even during the election campaign. This is in many ways, one of Gota’s first experiences in politics. You don’t have to kick someone out of his job to antagonize him. There are plenty of ways in which a falling out can happen. Once he is in active politics, there will be many an occasion in which Gota will be wondering, why is so and so not even looking at my face? What did I say or do to antagonize him? How come he is going against me for reasons that I am completely unaware of?

The Gota-Kumara falling out apparently dates from the time an Eliya programme was held in Badulla. At that time, KW was the designated representative of the SLPP/JO in that district in a situation where the two MPs of the UPFA representing the district were both with the SLFP. Thus, the JO/SLPP had no representation and leadership in a district that was traditionally pro-UNP and were the SLFP/UPFA was always weak. It was KW who was sent by the JO hierarchy to hold the fort in Badulla. He was a stalwart of the JO from the very beginning and the fact that he has dropped out at this late stage is a blow to the JO. Other than this major hiccup, conflict over the presidential candidacy is all but absent within the JO/SLPP.

Uncompromising battle for supremacy

In contrast to the total absence of a contest within the Opposition, a battle royal is ensuing within the UNP and this drama has become the daily staple of the TV news bulletins. Sajith Premadasa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya are all in the running with what appears to be an apparent alliance between Ranil and Karu on the understanding that they would share the presidential and prime ministerial candidacies among themselves. The two sides appear to be working together to marginalise the Sajith Premadasa camp, which is undoubtedly the stronger of the three groups as far as the party grassroots is concerned. What may derail the bid being made by the Sajith group may well be the demand that he should get the party leadership along with the presidential candidacy. That may be a case of asking for too much and giving Wickremesinghe no choice but to fight back.

It is highly unlikely that RW will tamely accede to a demand that he simply hand over all his positions and go into retirement. RW is now no longer a young man and his desire to cling onto the party leadership, come what may, is quite fascinating to outsiders though, of course, it may not appear that way to those who are within the UNP and feel that their future prospects are being seriously compromised by Ranil’s continuation as party leader. There is probably no comparison to the Ranil Wickremesinghe phenomenon anywhere in the democratic world.

Leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi led the Congress Party for an extended periods, but Nehru was never defeated and Indira Gandhi was defeated only once in 1977 and she was back in power by 1980. Her grandson Rahul was defeated only once and he had to bow out. What we are seeing in the UNP today is a phenomenon never before seen in a democratic political party anywhere in the world – a leader holding on to his position through multiple defeats and serious setbacks. Such an individual is unlikely to go into retirement simply because someone requests him to leave. Even at this stage RW’s expectation obviously is that if he is not the presidential candidate he should be the prime ministerial candidate. We hear him publicly talking about the need to set the agenda for the next ten years and that seems to be the time he plans on remaining in politics to do a JRJ and retire in his early eighties. Perhaps, if Sajith had seen the reality and offered to be the presidential candidate while RW retained the party leadership and the Prime Ministership, a compromise may have been worked out.

If one examines whether it is strictly necessary to be the party leader in order to contest as a presidential candidate, historical precedents indicate otherwise. Sajith’s father R. Premadasa was not the UNP leader at the time he contested the 1988 presidential election. Neither was Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 nor Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005. What may be motivating the Sajith faction to call for RW to stand down from the party leadership is the fear that Sajith may be turned into a Hector Kobbekaduwa. For readers who may not know what happened to Kobbekaduwa, it is widely believed that the Bandaranaike family actively worked to defeat him at the first presidential election held in 1982, to prevent the leadership of the SLFP from slipping out of its hands.

In more recent times, Chandrika Kumaratunga tried to field Mahinda Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate of the SLFP and then defeat him by not giving him any support. So, in a way, any anxieties that the Sajith faction may have are well founded. However, the less demanding Karu faction may therefore stand a chance of winning over the Ranil Wickremesinghe faction to its side. It is not that Karu Jayasuriya will not be in danger of being turned into a Kobbekaduwa himself. If Karu contests and wins, the final effect as far as Ranil Wickremesinghe is concerned will not be very different to Sajith Premadasa winning. Even if Ranil supports Karu with the expectation that he would be made Prime Minister if he wins the presidency, there is nothing to hold Karu to that promise once he is in the saddle.

The chances are that if anybody from within the UNP other than RW wins the presidency, he will be ejected from the party leadership. Wickremesinghe cannot possibly be unaware of this reality. So finally, the drama within the UNP seems to be a contest where two factions are fighting one another to see who will have the honour of being the Kobbekaduwa of the UNP!

Why Sajith will be better

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From a UNP perspective, Sajith will undoubtedly be the better candidate. He is in politics mainly as the son of a former UNP leader and that confers some advantage. Premadasa senior was in the UNP as Prime Minister and President at a time when the UNP had a much more positive reputation. That was an era when Sri Lanka was a poor country and many of the programmes that Premadasa senior is remembered for had relevance to the people of this country. Among the older generation of UNP voters the Premadasa name carries weight. Furthermore, through all the vicissitudes that the party went through in the past quarter of a century, Sajith has never left the UNP. He started his politics in the UNP and has stayed with the UNP – which cannot be said of Karu Jayasuriya.

Furthermore, Sajith rose through the ranks of the party to be deputy leader without any help at all from his party leader. Even his father was able to rise up in the UNP only due to the patronage he got from leaders like Dudley Senanayake and J. R. Jayewardene. In contrast to that, Sajith made it to the number two slot despite all efforts of Ranil to prevent him from getting there. Sajith also has a reputation for being a hard worker. His biggest drawback when it comes to national level leadership is that he has not made any significant pronouncements on any national issues. In the one recent instance he did, it was a total disaster with him claiming that Sri Lanka had been deprived of the foreign aid that it would have got as a poor country because the Rajapaksas cooked the poverty figures to make it look as if the poverty levels had been reduced.

We all know that thanks to our democracy which was accurately described by Lee Kuan Yew as ‘a periodic auction of non-existent resources’, that there are still plenty of people wanting to live off the state. So, it is possible to make the accusation that because a certain party developed the country, we now no longer have the ability to sponge off the rest of the world. This kind of thing is not unknown in Sri Lankan politics. At the 2000 elections, a distinguished former UNP Minister who had much to do with economics even though he was not a professional economist, joined the CBK bandwagon and said from the political platform that the UNP government gave you only Rs. 50 for the Dollars you earned, but the CBK government gave you Rs.100. He was trying to win the votes of expatriate workers by claiming credit for the depreciation of the currency!

If Sajith had been in the habit of speaking on national issues, we may have thought this was plain demagoguery of that former Minister’s type. However, since he has rarely, if ever, said anything about policy matters, one gets the uneasy feeling that this is what he actually believes. A chilling thought! However, it should be noted that while the type of people who would be reading this column would be rattled by what Sajith said about foreign aid, the ordinary voter would not be swayed by such considerations, and that is why Sajith is still the most popular choice in the UNP.

The biggest mistake Sajith made after January 2015 was cosying up to President Maithripala Sirisena. He did not gain anything from his close relationship with President Sirisena. The only thing that Sajith got was the offer of the Prime Ministership which he declined – so in effect he has got nothing. If he had simply maintained a low profile without cosying up to Sirisena, as things deteriorated, the entire UNP would have been looking at him as an alternative leadership and there would not be groups opposed to him in the party. After 2015, the aura that he had managed to build around himself as the leader in waiting of the party suddenly vanished and he became just another UNP Minister. This deterioration started on the day that he escorted Sirisena into Sirikotha in November 2014.

The party leader was mortgaging the party to outsiders and the deputy leader was wholeheartedly supporting it. When things started going downhill due to Sirisena’s stepmotherly treatment of the UNP, there was no one that the party rank and file could rally around. Sajith has bounced back into the limelight due to the lack of alternatives but as a much diminished figure compared to what he had been before 2014. He has lost a good part of the momentum he once had. And competitors have emerged. Of the two main contenders, there is little doubt that the better option for the UNP would be Sajith despite his shortcomings and drawbacks.

The competition for Sajith comes from Karu Jayasuriya. The latter’s claim to the presidential candidacy comes from the fact that he toed the party line even as the Speaker. From the time he became Speaker, it was obvious that Karu was playing to the gallery and acting with a glaring political bias. For nearly four years he refused to recognize the Joint Opposition as the largest Opposition group in Parliament. This in a situation were the JO voted against the Budget and criticized the government within Parliament. Jayasuriya held to the fiction that because all the JO Parliamentarians had contested on the UPFA ticket and because one faction of the UPFA was with the government, that the JO was also a part of the government! On that basis, the TNA was given the position of Opposition Leader and the JVP the post of Chief Opposition Whip.

Yet, they were all on the same platform at the presidential elections and what we saw under Karu Jayasuriya was a case of the governing coalition of political parties sharing among themselves the Parliamentary positions that should be held by both the government and the opposition. So, what Karu Jayasuriya presided over was a ‘naduth hamuduruwange baduth hamuduruwange’ Parliament. This situation had a serious impact on the functioning of the democratic system. The TNA and the JVP got more time to speak in Parliament than the real Opposition, the JO. The yahapalana hegemony in Parliament also affected the functioning of the Constitutional Council, which was set up to ensure that the government was not allowed to appoint whomever they liked to high state office and to also give the opposition a voice in making such appointments.

Yet, under Karu as Speaker what happened was that all ten members of the Constitutional Council were yahapalanites and they in turn stuffed all the so-called independent commissions and high posts of the state with yahapalanites. This was exactly the opposite of what was supposed to happen. Karu Jayasuriya has been a willing accomplice in every outrage committed by the yahapalana government in Parliament. He went along with the government during the passage of the Bills that amended the local government and provincial councils elections laws by bringing in committee stage amendments to them though they had been presented to Parliament for completely other purposes. Quite apart from upholding parliamentary traditions and the Standing Orders, Karu even kept Parliament going till late for the government to collect enough MPs and to complete the horse trading that went on before the smaller yahapalana political parties agreed to vote for the changes in the provincial councils election law.

Karu’s list of transgressions is long and serious. For nearly four years he presided over a complete mockery of democracy. Just imagine what would happen if such a man were to become the president of this country. In comparison to Karu, Sajith does not have such blemishes to his name. Karu’s antics during the political crisis that occurred in October 2018 was also obviously designed to bolster his presidential ambitions by appearing to the UNP rank and file as the protector of the UNP government, not of Parliament as he was supposed to be.

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