(Excerpts From The “Sunday Times” Political Column of April 29th 2018)
Meanwhile, nowhere has party reform generated so much controversy than in the UNP. Just three weeks after his party backers convincingly defeated a vote of no confidence, Premier Wickremesinghe announced changes. It came at a meeting of the so-called newly picked politburo which met at Temple Trees on Wednesday. Its members are Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Navin Dissanayake, Harin Fernando, Ranjith Maddduma Bandara, Mangala Samaraweera, Ajith P Perera, Eran Wickramaratne, J C Alawathuwela, Ruwan Wijewardene, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Nalin Bandara and Asoka Priyantha.
The UNP, which identifies itself as a secular party, however, has no members of the Tamil or Muslim community in this politburo. Nor has the party, which has often espoused women’s causes including amendments to local government laws to enhance women’s representation, appointed any female member to the politburo. UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake, ex officio members, too were present. Also present in addition were former Chairman Malik Samarawickrema and former General Secretary Kabir Hashim.
In his introductory speech, Wickremesinghe said that the party’s General Secretary Kabir Hashim has resigned. When he was offered the post once again, Hashim had refused to accept it. Hence he was naming Kurunegala District parliamentarian and Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam as the new General Secretary of the UNP. He praised him for the contribution he has made to the party and declared he was most suitable. The Premier said Kabir Hashim would be the Chairman whilst Harsha de Silva was named as Treasurer. Named as National Organiser was Nuwara Eliya District parliamentarian and Minister Navin Dissanayake. The position of National Organiser was created when onetime SLFP Minister S.B. Dissanayake crossed over to the UNP in 2001 with eight other People’s Alliance members. The position was thereafter held by Digamadulla District parliamentarian and Minister Daya Gamage. Both complained during their terms that they were not entrusted with any responsibility in that position. Known for his caustic comments, S.B. Dissanayake then told a party colleague “Mata kisima kehel malakwath thibun nehe” or somewhat sarcastically “I did not have even a banana flower” when he was National Organiser.
The UNP Chairman, General Secretary, Treasurer and National Organiser positions, interesting enough, are all alumni of Royal College. In the not too distant past, appointments by Premier Wickremesinghe of those from his alma mater saw the creation of a sobriquet – FRCS. The letters usually referred to those who qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Britain. However, in this instance they stood for Former Royal College Students. On a more serious note, the UNP, which committed itself to a new constitution and to move towards reconciliation by addressing minority issues has no member of the Tamil community in the leadership. Nor is there a female, contrary to the party’s pledges of gender equality.
The only exception to the Royal College lineage was Ruwan Wijewardene, State Minister of Defence who had his early education at St Thomas Preparatory, Kollupitiya. Nevertheless he politely declined the post of Deputy General Secretary. He recommended that the post be given to Eran Wickremeratne. He said the now State Minister for Finance has made a great contribution to the party. His remarks came when the UNP’s Working Committee met on Thursday morning to endorse Wickremesinghe’s recommendations which have been accepted by the politburo. Wickremesinghe who chaired the meeting pointed out that such an appointment to Wickremeratne would amount to a demotion. A senior UNPer at the meeting noted that Wijewardene’s appointment to be Deputy General Secretary too could be viewed as a demotion of sorts by sections of the party though the UNP leader may have not intended it to be so. This is on the basis that he had served the six member Leadership Council of the UNP in 2014. Chaired by Karu Jayasuriya it also included Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and Talatha Athukorala.
At Wednesday’s politburo meeting, after Wickremesinghe made the surprise announcement, some members criticised the move. One was Navin Dissanayake who was named National Organiser. He said that the UNP General Secretary should have been a full time person and not a Cabinet Minister. He said the system had to be changed and there was no meaning in continuing with the existing set up. His argument was that a full time General Secretary would be able to devote more time at Sri Kotha, the party headquarters in Kotte, and also visit different electorates to build grassroots level party organisations.
Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa noted that Wickremesinghe had made those nominations as the leader of the party. He said he was personally worried about the repercussions it would cause on the leader. He urged that he runs through his nominees with backbenchers since that would only be fair. He also had a word of praise for Kabir Hashim “who took us through some difficult times.” He noted that he may not be too happy to continue in that post. He said he would appeal to Wickremesinghe to re-consider his move. He said he was of the strong view that onetime Media Minister and then Beruwala MP Imtiaz Bakeer Markar should be named the General Secretary of the party. “I will still say that. If the leader has still decided it should not be so, I will fall in line with his thinking,” he added.
Two senior citizens of the party, Ministers John Ameratunga and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, were to admonish Premadasa for making those remarks which they opined amounted to criticising the leader. Ameratunga said when the late J.R. Jayewardene was the UNP leader, no one dared to direct any criticism at him. Perera added that it was not acceptable. Premadasa declared in the recent past he had not even given newspaper comments or interviews due to the fear that they could be misinterpreted. Yet, he argued, he should not be prevented from making his views known at a party meeting. That was why such meetings were held.
Premadasa’s remarks also sparked a verbal duel with former minister and Colombo District MP Ravi Karunanayake. He charged that the words ‘back benchers’ were being used by Premadasa to pursue his own ends. He claimed “they are the ones who are provoking headlines” and leaking information to the media. Unmoved by the remarks, Premadasa responded, “I only gave my point of view. I am entitled to it. If the Prime Minister has taken a decision, so be it. I will fall in line. However, I am entitled to express a view.” Wickremesinghe hurriedly intervened to say that the matter was now closed since the decisions had been taken. Participants agreed they would meet at Sri Kotha on Thursday morning (next day) so the party’s Working Committee could formally endorse the politburo decisions. In terms of the UNP constitution, the Working Committee is the policymaking body. The turnout at that meeting, less than half of the 100 membership, did cause some concern among senior members.
The first to raise issue at the Working Committee was onetime Speaker Joseph Michael Perera. He objected strongly to the re-appointment of Ravi Karunanayake as Assistant Leader. He said that since his name had been associated with issues questioning his integrity, he should first clear his name. The objection was overruled by Wickremesinghe. He pointed out that in terms of the UNP constitution, a decision made by the leader could be challenged only by a third of the membership of the Working Committee making a signed request to discuss such a matter. Perera declared that he planned to speak on the issue even in the future and would therefore resign from the Working Committee. He said that would enable him to speak out freely.
Also protesting Karunanayake’s re-appointment was actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake. Looking at Wickremesinghe, he asked “Sir, why don’t you wait till his name (Karunanayake’s) is cleared?” The UNP leader retorted “are you for or against?” At that stage Kalutara District parliamentarian and State Minister Ajith Perera intervened to say “Sir, instead of asking ‘are you for or against’, why don’t you ask whether they like the appointments?” There was silence.
Perera was critical of Wickremesinghe. He surprised those present by insisting that the UNP leader should step down and make way for another. He asked whether these were the reforms the party leader had promised. He also charged that it was not proper only to appoint Wickremesinghe’s schoolmates at Royal College to top positions and ignore the interests of the party. An unidentified voice accused Perera of criticising the party leadership. He denied the accusations.
Sajith Premadasa made a case for the top level leadership of the party being elected. I am happy even if my position is challenged. I would like to be elected.
Echoing Premadasa’s sentiments were Navin Dissanayake. He recalled an instance where his father (late Gamini Dissanayake) “had played a game against” Wickremesinghe and won. He did not elaborate but said on another occasion, however, he had also lost. He proposed that the top level leadership of the party should be elected by secret ballot. “I would like to be elected than being selected,” he said. However, Wickremesinghe reminded him that there was no provision in the party constitution for that purpose.
The call for reforms in the UNP has echoed in the political firmament for years now. Not surprisingly when what is sought and what is carried out are at great variance. It assumed greater significance after a pro-Sirisena SLFP group backed by the ‘Joint Opposition’ moved a vote of no confidence in Parliament against Premier Wickremesinghe on April 4. In the weeks before, Wickremesinghe came under heavy pressure from his party members to re-organise the UNP by making structural changes that would lead to strengthening of their support base countrywide. Three weeks after the motion was defeated, the question is whether the new appointments will achieve this goal. More so, with a 17-moth time frame after which two major elections, presidential and parliamentary, are due. Going by what transpired at the Working Committee, it seems highly unlikely. Opinion in the party is sharply divided. On the one side are Wickremesinghe loyalists whilst on the other are those who do not favour the recent appointment of a General Secretary.
It only portends more problems for the UNP. No new positions have been created at the top level except the inclusion of four names — Kabir Hashim as Chairman, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam as General Secretary, Navin Dissanayake as National Organiser and Harsha de Silva as Treasurer. At the next tier, Ajith Perera has been placed in charge of trade unions whilst Minister Harin Fernando has been tasked to be responsible for communications. In other words, a group of UNP ministers and ministers of state have taken over new positions at their headquarters. There is no other action plan or a programme that extends beyond Colombo. How that change becomes a re-structuring of the party is one issue. Another, which is even more important, is over who benefits most from the exercise, the United National Party (UNP) or its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe?
Ranil consolidates his position
One is not wrong in concluding that it consolidates Wickremesinghe’s position at a newer level with limited benefits for the party, if at all. Firstly, he sailed through the no-confidence vote. If that was a setback for President Sirisena, who was keen to remove him as Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe became unassailable. In a tongue in cheek remark, a senior UNPer says “we should thank Sirisena for this. He has strengthened our leader.” The other is the appointment of Akila Viraj Kariyawasam as the General Secretary – the most powerful position in any recognised political party. It is this office that the National Elections Commission (NEC) recognises on the appointment of elected candidates as Members of Parliament, local authorities and Provincial Councils or their dismissals. It is no secret that Kariyawasam, also a coconut planter now, was introduced to national politics and groomed by Wickremesinghe.
He was one of his closest confidants and is considered to be a member of the inner circle. Indications that he was in for a top slot emerged when he voiced the views of his leader for days, after the defeat of the no-confidence motion. Even if a formidable section of the UNP is opposed to Kariyawasam’s appointment, there is no gainsaying that Wickremesinghe now has one of his most trusted lieutenants in that post. That way, he has strengthened himself further in the party making it difficult for his detractors to oust him easily.