(Excerpts From the “Sunday Times”Political Column of August 25th 2019)
Assertions made by Ranil Wickremesinghe this week, showed little change in the premier’s strong determination to be UNP’s presidential candidate. However, there were indications this week that that he was taking a deeper look at the recent developments to map out countermeasures. In this regard, two different meetings he held on Monday night at ‘Temple Trees’ have turned out to be both important and significant in the context of current political developments.
One, was a meeting with his close confidants to discuss the current situation in the party. He gave them an overview of what has been going on and the issues that have arisen as a result of a group defiantly extending support to his deputy Sajith Premadasa. He said the group had made a string of blunders. If he is pushed further and further, he cautioned, he did not want to divide the party. In such a case, he would support Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as presidential candidate.
It is, of course, known that party leader Wickremesinghe has asked Jayasuriya to be ready in the event he has to enter the fray. Jayasuriya has been preparing. That included a video documentary highlighting his political career and his ‘wide acceptance’ by the Buddhist clergy. That Wickremesinghe had similarly alerted a leading businessman and at least two other cabinet ministers is also well known. Some felt this was more for ‘nuisance value’ than other reasons.
One source said that Wickremesinghe confidants’ endorsement of a nominee was not conclusive. The remarks on Jayasuriya indicate that Wickremesinghe is not in favour of Premadasa and had his own choice if he does choose, to back out from the presidential race.
An inevitable fallout, nevertheless, would be a breakup of the UNP since Premadasa had re-iterated that he would contest the presidency under whatever circumstances. At a largely attended rally in Matara on Friday, Premadasa re-iterated his position by asserting that his “candidature is confirmed.” The meeting’s convenor, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, went as far as to say Premier Wickremesinghe would propose Premadasa’s name and Speaker Jayasuriya would second it. The claim appears to be a sarcastic one in the light of other developments.
The irony of Samaraweera supporting Premadasa over Wickremesinghe was not lost on some of the Matara rally attendees who were themselves victims of the ‘kurundupolu’ (cinnamon sticks) attacks in Matara town itself purportedly masterminded by Samaraweera himself on a march by Premadasa supporters wanting the ouster of Wickremesinghe not so long ago. The issue is a subject of a pending court case.
What Premadasa has not made clear is his own position should the UNP formally choose its candidate, one other than him. Is he hoping to emerge from a new party? Such ‘name board’ parties are available for sale at five million rupees.
What Premier Wickremesinghe probably did not tell his confidants however is about consulting leading lawyers. He has been doing so. That was to determine legal action against errant members who may have violated the UNP Constitution by their conduct. A case in point is none other than UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim. The UNP leadership feels that he exceeded his brief when he advocated, whilst being Chairman, the nomination of Premadasa, as the UNP presidential candidate. The conduct of Premadasa unilaterally declaring himself the party’s presidential candidate prior to a party decision has also been discussed.
One senior long-standing member cited a previous example when the late President J.R. Jayewardene had toyed with the idea of contesting the presidential elections for a third time. He had argued that his first term as president in 1978 was not “by election”, but by virtue of being the Prime Minister in 1977 and therefore he could contest a second time.
The then UNP Chairman, the late Ranjan Wijeratne, had successfully persuaded him not to do so. “He (Wijeratne) did not publicly promote the name of an alternative candidate and kept to respectable norms the party had followed by remaining silent,” said the senior who did not wish to be identified.
He added that “Kabir Hashim won the Chairmanship from leader Wickremesinghe. However, he did not have the courtesy to tell our leader that he was re-joining the Cabinet. He took his oaths as a minister together with Abdul Haleem again leaving behind his Muslim colleagues who resigned together.” The party senior said that placed Hashim “in very poor light within the party” since the conduct of a Chairman should be more exemplary.
It is now clear why at least three Wickremesinghe loyalists complained publicly this week that the UNP lacked discipline. One was Minister Arjuna Ranatunga. He made the remarks to journalists after ending a news conference at ‘Temple Trees’. The other was former Minister, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. He declared at a news conference that there should be discipline even if the party were to break into different groups. A third remark came from Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka who said that there was no discipline in the UNP and added that his Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) was well disciplined.
Even before the trio made those remarks in the light of the Sajith Premadasa imbroglio, the absence of discipline in the UNP was all too well known. Most of their MPs often made public pronouncements on matters that neither came within their purview nor were they competent to be spokespersons on most issues. Wickremesinghe who has been accused of not allowing proper discussions to take place in the party’s Working Committee is now being accused of allowing party members a free say in public on any issue.
Two glaring examples are the conduct of different rallies, one in Badulla and the other in Matara. Minister Harin Fernando, the organiser of the Badulla rally, had a post in the social media referring to the emaciated, ailing Dalada Maligawa elephant displaying her skeletal skin. He thanked ‘Tikiri’ for the work she has done in the past and declared it was now time to go. It was because, he said, she has to now give that task to a younger pachyderm.
Without doubt, the maintenance of discipline was the responsibility of leader Wickremesinghe. However, he ignored the goings on and now it is a free for all with the fallout raining on him.
Crucial meeting for the UNP
The second event came late on Monday night. That in a sense was crucial for the future of the UNP. A three-member team comprising Kabir Hashim, Malik Samarawickrema and Ranjith Madduma Bandara met Wickremesinghe. It was the result of a signed request by more than 50 MPs urging a meeting of the parliamentary group and the Working Committee to decide on the party’s presidential candidate. It began just past 9 p.m. on Monday. Wickremesinghe had said at the last parliamentary group meeting that he would first discuss the matter with the small group.
“Ogollo meka karanney veradi vidiyata. Ay nisa kavuru divvoth oya vada pilivela nisa api paradei,” or You all have done this in a wrong way. Whoever runs, it will be a defeat, exclaimed Premier Wickremesinghe.
UNP Chairman Hashim declared that the purpose of the meeting was to seek Wickremesinghe’s endorsement of Premadasa as the party’s presidential candidate. He had wide grassroots level support, he said. It was their view that he could win and keep the party intact. He noted that even would-be partners of the proposed Democratic National Front (DNF) were in favour of the move. Such partners have already called upon the UNP to first resolve the issue of a presidential candidate before formally agreeing to establish the DNF with a new constitution.
It was Hashim who declared “Sir, we will make you the Prime Ministerial candidate.” That was to infuriate Wickremesinghe who considered it a patronising comment and snubbed him with a sharp retort. “Don’t worry about me. I can look after myself,” he exhorted.
Here again, Hashim who as Chairman proposed Premadasa as the presidential candidate, funny enough, had taken it upon himself to dish out positions even for his leader, Wickremesinghe. The news of that from Wickremesinghe enraged some of his close loyalists as well. One of them asked Wickremesinghe later “who the heck is Kabir to unilaterally decide on positions”?
Premier Wickremesinghe listened to different points made by the three-member delegation. He then replied; “I have no problems if you still insist in making Sajith Premadasa the presidential candidate. However, you must make sure all others agree to this”. He mentioned the names of Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and a few others who were backing him. The trio agreed to speak with them as well as others who were currently in disfavour. It was agreed that they should meet tomorrow (Monday) or the next day (Tuesday).
This is where different viewpoints describing the developments over Monday night deliberations emerged. Premadasa supporters saw it as a thaw in Wickremesinghe’s approach and were hopeful. On the other hand, the UNP leader’s loyalists claimed that was not the case. He has given them an impossible task for those whom they hope to speak to will not agree to Premadasa. Thus, Wickremesinghe still holds the balance and will call the shots.
Though he blames it on the dissident Premadasa group for ‘setting about things the wrong way,’ Wickremesinghe should take a much bigger share of responsibility. It has been caused almost entirely by the good and bad of his weak leadership. Soon after both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, he neglected most priorities pledged.
His successive Ministers of Law and Order soft pedalled, if not even helped, those under probe for bribery, corruption and gross abuse; a coterie of ministers (some of whom have now deserted him and gone into the Premadasa camp) built a ring around him distancing others; MPs complained of difficulties in obtaining appointments due to a Minister in charge for the PM as Chief of Staff (CoS) allegedly ignoring their requests; gross inaction over the Central Bank bond scandal among other complaints of rising bribery and corruption.
Thus, if President Sirisena, unintentionally strengthened the UNP after the ‘constitutional coup’, Premier Wickremesinghe failed to make good of it though a growing unrest in the party was much talked of. Even earlier this year, he survived a Vote of No confidence with the party standing behind him. Now he finds himself in a position where some of his close political allies have deserted him and a handpicked Chairman of the UNP is openly working for his ouster. Did those around him betray his trust and go about their own way? So, it seems.
Ministers Kabir Hashim and Ranjith Madduma Bandara met Speaker Jayasuriya on Friday night to seek his support for Premadasa. “Why do you need my support? He has already declared that he is the candidate,” he pointed out. After a brief conversation, Speaker Jayasuriya had told them he would back the candidate who would be decided by the party.
It is these factors that have embroiled the UNP in its worst crisis with just months before the presidential elections. Whichever way Wickremesinghe chooses to resolve issues, there is one very hard ground reality that has emerged — the UNP is no longer united but divided. Thus, any damage control measures he carries out cannot and will not take the party to where it stood after the presidential election in January 2015.
Wickremesinghe and a coterie of his backers, some of whom facing very serious allegations of bribery and corruption, could still hold sway of the UNP proper. But time is running short for them.
In such a scenario, the rival group could well emerge as a new party if no compromise is made. As Premier Wickremesinghe admitted to the three-member delegation of Premadasa supporters on Monday night, whatever happens, the UNP would lose. It will be a case of them not sinking together, but sinking separately said a political wag.