Formally declaring his presidential ambitions to his leader, United National Party (UNP) deputy leader Sajith Premadasa last night wrote to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe requesting a “consensus-building” meeting of the party’s Working Committee and Parliamentary Group. Members of the two groups are expected to reach agreement on the contentious issue of its presidential nomination at the proposed meeting, failing which a secret ballot may be held to decide the party’s candidate.
In a hurriedly put-together press conference held at the Stanmore Crescent residence of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera early this morning, Premadasa expressed his desire to see a democratic resolution to the ongoing deadlock in the UNP over its nomination for the upcoming presidential election.
“The UNP is a united party that represents all communities – a party in which decisions are made democratically. We don’t select our candidates huddled up in a room, at the whims of a single family. It’s the difference between democracy and autocracy. Our objective is to give prominence to the people’s representatives when arriving at these decisions,” said Premadasa.
“My view is that we must immediately convene both the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group for discussions and arrive at a decision very soon,” he added.
Asked to clarify the exact purpose of the meeting being sought, Premadasa said the goal was to arrive at a consensus on the candidacy.
“If we arrive at a consensus, there is no necessity to resort to any other procedure. Let there be a frank and transparent discussion within the two groups and then all of us will be able to ascertain the plethora of opinions among the groups’ members.
“If there is consensus, so be it. If there is a diversity of opinions, you can adopt the greatest democratic principle and go for a democratic vote” he said, at which point Minister Samaraweera, seated to his right, interjected and said “secret ballot”, which Premadasa promptly echoed.
Also in attendance at the media briefing were MPs Malik Samarawickrama, Kabir Hashim, Chandrani Bandara and Ranjith Madduma Bandara.
Though he repeatedly insisted that there would be no question that he will be named the UNP’s candidate, the Housing Minister said he will respect the decision made by the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group.
“This is not a political monopoly or oligarchy. There is no autocracy or dictatorship within our party. Just because I want to be the candidate, I cannot have my own way. If there are others keen on putting forth their name, so be it. We shall go for a secret ballot; a democratic vote will be taken and we shall abide by the results,” he said.
The Prime Minister has yet to respond to the letter, and Premadasa is keen on having the matter resolved as early as possible.
Samaraweera, meanwhile, told journalists covering the press conference held on his lawn not to refer to the UNP’s nomination issue as a conflict.
“This isn’t a conflict. As a democratic party, there is room in the UNP for anyone to come forward,” he said, likening it to the presidential primaries in the United States – a sentiment echoed by Jathika Hela Uruyama (JHU) leader Champika Ranawaka yesterday.
“This is the strength of a democratic party. It’s not a party where one family selects its candidate in their bedroom,” Samaraweera added.
Fielding questions from journalists, Premadasa brushed aside concerns of disciplinary action against UNP Ministers and MPs who have publicly thrown in their lot with him.
“Disciplinary action is normal in politics; it’s not something one should take seriously,” he said.
On a significantly more serious matter, however, Premadasa was decidedly more vocal. Asked about his position on abolishing the executive presidency – an election promise made by successive governments since 1994 – the presidential hopeful appeared to articulate a stance markedly different from his own United National Front (UNF) government.
“I don’t think there’s been a scientific survey carried out as to what to do with the executive presidency — whether it should be kept and maintained or abolished. But at the end of the day, I’m willing to listen to the people of the country,” he said.
When pressed, Premadasa said the social, economic and political context has changed since 2015, the year in which the UNP-backed “common candidate” Maithripala Sirisena and the subsequent Yahapalana coalition that came into power both won a clear mandate for abolishing the executive presidency.
“We made a pledge in 2015 and certain drastic steps have been taken to reduce the power of the presidency. We’re now in the process of having consultations and initial discussions on where the presidency should be placed, whether it should be maintained or whether it should be abolished. There has been no scientific survey on this,” he reiterated.
“Everyone is coming up with their personal ideas and trying to place them in the highest position in the national agenda. Some of the surveys I have seen are prioritising the cost of living as the most important subject in the national political agenda,” he added.
As journalists continued to press Premadasa on the matter, Samaraweera stepped in to say “can we move on”, ostensibly to steer the conversation in a different direction, but not before his ministerial colleague got in the last word.
“My personal views are of no value. My views are based on people’s views and opinions. I have no monopoly on articulating and formulating policy. That itself is a democratic process,” said Premadasa.
“I’m willing to give democratic leadership; not autocratic leadership. I don’t want to become an elected dictatorship,” he added, quoting former Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom Lord Hailsham.
More questions followed on his stance on the 2015 mandate.
“Mandates get outdated. We have to live with the times and look at the present context. To best way to formulate policy is by consulting the widest possible spectrum of opinions. I think that’s very democratic and open. We will not take decisions in a closet,” he said.
Stressing, once again, that the sociopolitical situation has seen “far-reaching changes” since 2015, Premadasa said the democratic polity has been democratised and good governance institutions have been established, with the rule of prevailing over the rules of one patriarch and his family.
Contradicting his apparently controversial position on abolishing the death penalty, Premadasa acknowledged that since the Yahapalana coalition assumed power, powers of the executive presidency have been greatly reduced along with the length of a presidential term, which he said were pathbreaking decisions.
“We as a party and a front promote modernisation. We do not base our policies and proposals on archaic context. We will look at the present situation, learn from the lessons of the past and ensure we have a progressive administration that upholds and promotes basic human rights and needs and promote economic prosperity,” he said.
Asked why at the politically young age of 52 he would seek election to such a detoothed office, Premadasa said saving the country from a dictatorship is his primary motivation.
“This is the first democratic litmus test that we have to face as a country. It’s a question about the future of this democracy. We cannot let this country move once again into a situation of political monopoly political oligarchy and dictatorship. That is a prime motivation for my candidacy, to ensure that we have a peaceful, prosperous, united Sri Lanka where all citizens live in friendship and brotherhood,” he said.
Asked about his position on the death penalty at the sidelines of the press briefing, Premadasa simply said: “my views are very well known.” On the question of LGBQT+ rights, he said a detailed document of his policy proposals will soon be made public, without elaborating.
“There is a gamut of issues which we will address. We will come up with much more precise policy proposals and we will elaborate on the facts and details,” he said.
Premadasa, however, did not clarify whether this would before or after his nomination has been confirmed, which may or may not happen in the coming days. The UNP deputy leader and the rest of the democratised polity await with bated breath.