Seven decades of UNP leadership feuds
Posted on September 23rd, 2019

By Sugeeswara Senadhira Courtesy Ceylon Today

“I do not intend on this occasion to indulge in any recrimination or personal bitterness. Political parties in Ceylon, both in the past and the present, had displayed a tendency not sufficiently to consult party organisations when important issues arose, the UNP was falling into the same tendency and in its best interest this should be remedied”. These were the prophetic words of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in his speech after resigning from United National Party to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party seven decades ago.

Bandaranaike resigned from the UNP when he realised that first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake did not have any intention of making him his successor. That was the first leadership struggle in the UNP, the national party which was just five years old.

Even after seventy years, the UNP has not remedied the wrong tendency Bandaranaike mentioned and the party is faced with a serious leadership feud, not merely between the leader (Ranil Wickremesinghe) and the deputy (Sajith Premadasa), but also with a third leader (Karu Jayasuriya) emerging as an alternative. 

Sinhala Maha Sabha 

With the emergence of UNP, which was formed by uniting D. S. Senanayake’s Ceylon National Congress, Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha and T. B. Jayah’s Muslim League, the new party expected to sweep the first general elections. But the UNP could win only 42 seats in the 95-member Parliament. However, DS could form a Government with the support of independent MPs as the powerful leftist parties could not come to a single platform.

Bandaranaike, thinking that DS was grooming Sir John Kotelawala as his successor, had met him and said, “Lionel (Sir John) my father (Solomon Dias Bandaranaike) is very old and is keen to see me as Prime Minister before he dies. You are a young man and can afford to stand down.” Quick-witted Sir John replied, “My mother too is old and would be very happy if she could see me as Prime Minister before she dies”. Subsequently Bandaranaike left the party to form the SLFP.

However, when DS died in 1951, there was a major leadership struggle between Sir John and Dudley Senanayake and the latter became the Prime Minister because Governor General Lord Soulbury invited Dudley to form the Government fulfilling a promise he had given to DS before he died.

There was a major leadership tussle between Sir John and Dudley and the former went on to publish a book titled ‘Premier Stakes’ giving out the deals behind the scene. However, Sir John finally joined Dudley’s Cabinet as Minister of Transport and Public Works. After Dudley resigned in 1953, John was the automatic choice for Premiership as the other senior leader J. R. Jayewardene, former Finance Minister, decided to wait patiently for his turn.

Mahajana Eksath Peramuna

Sir John, after losing to Bandaranaike’s SLFP-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna in 1956, left for London, leaving the UNP in the hands of JR, who nurtured the party and rejuvenated it to be ready for future battles. Although JR was the man behind the UNP during difficult days, the party members did not want him as the leader of the party. When general elections were announced a few months after the assassination of Bandaranaike in 1959, the party leaders invited the retired Premier Dudley to take over the leadership of UNP once again. In 1960, Dudley became the Prime Minister of a minority UNP Government but after three months another election was held and the SLFP came back to power.

Although there was a cold war between Dudley and JR, the latter worked hard for the party and ensured its victory in 1965. Dudley became the Premier and JR was appointed State Minister (then equivalent to de facto Deputy Prime Minister). Two years later Dudley inducted his trusted junior, Ranasinghe Premadasa to the Cabinet to fortify his strength in the party and the Government. Dudley in his strategy to control JR utilised the capabilities of Premadasa to improve the UNP rural base, while JR was dependent on the urban elite.

However, after the UNP defeat in 1970, there were cracks in the party and this time it was Premadasa who openly revolted against Dudley, his mentor. Premadasa, without leaving the UNP, created a new force under the banner, ‘Purawesi Peramuna’ (Citizen’s Front). Ailing Dudley died in 1973 and JR gave an emotional speech at the funeral, that ended with ‘Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’ and went to Sirikotha, UNP Headquarters, to take full control of the party. Dudley’s nephew, Rukman Senanayake challenged JR for leadership, but JR easily wrested control and sacked Rukman from the party. Rukman formed a new party called, Dudley Peramuna but soon went into the political wilderness.

Lalith Athulathmudali 

Premadasa, a master strategist, joined forces with JR and the duo brought the UNP back to power in 1977. Prior to the general elections, JR held a party Executive Committee vote to elect a deputy leader. Two contestants, Premadasa received 122 votes and Gamini Dissanayake got 118. After becoming the Deputy Leader of UNP, Premadasa marked his time, although JR was obviously promoting Gamini and Lalith Athulathmudali as future leaders. There were in-fights between three of them as Lalith and Gamini considered each other as rivals too.

When JR finally named Premadasa as the Presidential candidate, both Lalith and Gamini put their full strength to get Premadasa elected President hoping to be the Prime Minister. However, Premadasa did not trust them and made D. B. Wijetunga, un-ambitious old UNP loyalist, as Prime Minister, taking everybody by surprise.

Infuriated Lalith and Gamini, throwing away their own differences, brought an impeachment motion against Premadasa after obtaining signatures of a sufficient number of UNP MPs. But Premadasa moved fast, prorogued Parliament and managed to get the UNP dissidents back to his fold and ousted Lalith and Gamini from the party.In this battle of giants, Ranil Wickremesinghe stood behind Premadasa, thus strengthening his place in the party.

After Premadsa’s assassination, Ranil supported Wijetunga to be the President and got himself appointed as Prime Minister. Meanwhile Gamini returned to the UNP, and wanted to be the Presidential Candidate in 1994. Ranil was initially reluctant, but finally gave in after realising that it was not easy to defeat the formidable challenger Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

After Gamini’s death, there was no challenge to Ranil and he managed to keep the UNP leadership despite the party’s losses at several elections. Today, his position is challenged by Premadasa’s son, Sajith. Meanwhile, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has also entered the fray. With only two weeks to go for nominations for the 16 November election, the UNP leadership feud continues unabated, reminding the party loyalists that the advice of Bandaranaike seven decades ago is still valid.

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