(Excerpts from the “Sunday Times”Political Column of September 8th 2019)
Upon his return from the Maldives, on Friday, Premier Wickremesinghe met senior members of the UNP at Temple Trees. For the first time, he made a declaration. He said he proposed to announce his name as the presidential candidate on behalf of the proposed Democratic National Front (DNF).
He said he would, as party leader, propose at the Working Committee – the main policymaking body – his name as the presidential candidate. He said he would also soon start his election campaign.
Minister Malik Samarawickrema, his closest confidant till recently, and now a Premadasa backer, was to point out that a public rally in Kurunegala for Premadasa drew large crowds and surveys had said he was a candidate who could win.
Wickremesinghe countered the claim and said he also could produce statistics and surveys to prove that he could win the presidential election.
Also making a case for Premadasa was Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara. However, Wickremesinghe remained defiant throughout the meeting prompting Samarawickrema to urge whether he could bring Premadasa for a meeting with him. The UNP leader agreed and the meeting will take place at 9 a.m. today (Sunday). However, a source close to the UNP leader said, “There is no way he will relent and re-consider Premadasa. His decision is final, but he will hear what Premadasa would have to say.”
Others, however, opined that he could work out a compromise with the offer of a Prime Ministerial position to Premadasa. To the deputy leader of the UNP, this will be a come down since he had declared he would be the candidate under any circumstance.
Sources close to Premadasa said he would not attend today’s meeting with Wickremesinghe. “I have other things to do,” he told a confidant.
On the other hand, Premadasa backers are still hopeful. One, who is prominent among them, was at a dinner on Friday at the residence of a former Defence Secretary, Karunasena Hettiaratchchi, who has just ended his diplomatic posting in Germany. He told guests that he was “still hopeful” that Wickremesinghe would decide on Premadasa.
The immediate issue this scenario raises is over what happens to Premadasa and his group of prominent UNPers. The source claimed, “Wickremesinghe will stand tough. He said Premadasa and his supporters will have to take a “political decision”, meaning they will have to either support him or leave the party. He indicated he may even dismiss from the party those who work against its interests by not supporting his candidature. If so, have the UNP dissidents fighting for Premadasa lost their battle? The other issue of whether Wickremesinghe can win the presidential election or see the beginning of the end of the UNP is altogether another matter. It remains to be seen after the presidential election. A party stalwart said that Premadasa may have galvanized sections of the party, but his campaign to announce his candidature before the party formally decided it and go around the country holding meetings in a show of strength was “gahala ganna hadanawa”, or to take it by force.
The reasons for Premadasa’s unexpected remarks at a largely attended rally in Kurunegala that he proposes to be the UNP presidential candidate with the blessings of leader Wickremesinghe and aspirant Speaker Karu Jayasuriya are now clear. It is purely for legal reasons so he could absolve himself of any future accusations that he violated party discipline. Premadasa’s media officials had been urging news outlets to give good play to this aspect when they reported on the meeting. The remarks, though totally incorrect, also fuelled speculation that he had successfully worked out a deal with Wickremesinghe.
Those taking part in Firday’s meeting at Temple Trees chaired by Wickrmesinghe were Kabir Hashim, Malik Samarawickrema, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Daya Gamage, John Ameratunga, Lakshman Kiriella, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Ravi Karunanayake, Ajith Perera, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Fielf Marshal Sarath Fonseka.
When the main issues ended with Wickremesinghe’s announcement that he intends to announce his candidature, the item on the agenda was “any other business.” Minister and House Leader, Lakshman Kiriella heaped a barrage of criticism on UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim on what he called four counts.
One: he had secret dealings with President Sirisena. This was together with Premadasa. The leader of the party was never kept informed of any of these secret discussions or deals, he said. Kiriella also said Hashim did not inform UNP leader Wickremesinghe that he was taking his oaths after he had resigned together with Muslim ministerial colleagues. Though he was Chairman of the party, he has thus surreptitiously by-passed the leader, charged Kiriella.
Two: Being Chairman of the UNP, he has endorsed the conduct of public rallies in favour of Premadasa. No decision over such meetings had been taken by the party or its leader. This, he said, was in open defiance of the UNP leadership.
Three: Hashim has met SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa secretly. Kiriella said that the matter had been made public by Minister Navin Dissanayake at a government parliamentary group meeting. He has had a three-hour long meeting.
Four: He tried to stall the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) from being added to his own portfolio. Kabir saha Sajith Janadipathi Sirisena ekka deal daanawa or Kabir and Sajith are working deals with President Sirisena. “The President told me Kabir ‘magey oluwa kanna hadanawa’ or Kabir is trying to eat my head. He had come with four others to tell me not to give CPC to me,” declared Kiriella. This had been conveyed to him when he visited the Presidential Secretariat. Kiriella said that the CPC was only ‘parked’ in Hashim’s Ministry and the Premier had made it clear to him. Before the Premier was to write to the President, he had in fact telephoned Hashim and told him about it. After the Premier had recommended to the President that he (Kiriella) should be given the CPC, he (Hashim) went to meet Sirisena and scuttled it. In my view, this is treachery, he charged. “What right have you got to defy the party leader,” asked Kiriella from Hashim.
Joining in to back Kiriella were Ministers Daya Gamage and Gaminia Jayawickrema Perera. Gamage said that Kiriella should be given two portfolios and not one. Perera added that Kiriella worked both as Minister and Leader of the House – a position for which Wickremesinghe remarked that Kiriella should be given his rightful place for his hard work. Kiriella was talking of “bella kapena weda” when Hashim rose from his seat and ostensibly walked out of the meeting. Kiriella did not stop his tirade but went on to say that it is hirikithai or disgusting as it came from people who spoke of party unity. He called for Hashim’s resignation. Commenting on crowds that gathered at meetings supporting Premadasa in Badulla, Matara and Kurunegala, Minister Daya Gamage remarked “Apith rasveem thiyala pennan nam” we will also hold meetings to display our crowds.
UNP Chairman Hashim also attended a meeting of local councillors yesterday. The adopted resolution calling for the nomination of Sajith Premadasa as the UNP presidential candidate. It was held at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium.