The political spectacle “Ekwa Idiriyata”(Forward Together) that unfolded on October 10th at Galle face green has elevated the morale of the green party to ecstatic heights. A mammoth crowd – estimated by some of being in the range of six digits – gathered on the shores of the Indian ocean to see, hear and cheer United National Party (UNP) leaders. A festive mood was much in the air as the UNP led Front’s Presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa launched his election campaign with the inaugural rally at the green.
What seemed to have pleased and energized the crowds most was the sight of UNP Leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appearing alongside party Deputy leader and presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa unitedly on a common platform to espouse the latter’s candidacy. Ranil made a rousing speech in support of Sajith while the candidate outlined the policy measures he hoped to undertake when elected president. The speeches were eagerly lapped up by a buoyant audience.
The presence of lWickremesinghe publicly on the same platform with Premadasa and Ranil’s enthusiastic speech calling upon the people to elect Sajith as president was indeed a welcome sight to behold. The UNP had been down in the doldrums for many weeks in the past because of the internal rivalry between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa over the Presidential candidacy. Both wanted it. There were two rival camps.
The grand old party was unable to get its act together and commence its presidential election campaign due to the prevailing uncertainty. Besides a split in the party too seemed likely. Against this backdrop the Galleface rally effectively demonstrated that Ranil-Sajith rivalry had ceased and that there was rapprochement between both. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa were going “forward together”into the 2019 presidential election.
Ranil – Sajith Rapprochement.
Though the Galle Face rally was the first public meeting where the Ranil-Sajith rapprochement was openly visible, the rivalry had been terminated some time earlier. This became known at the UNP working committee meeting and Parliamentary Group meeting held in the last week of September and the Party Special convention in the first week of October.. Both Ranil and Sajith had also jointly participated in inner – party meetings and discussions with other political parties and groups. However it was the inaugural rally at Galle Face that made it clear to the public at large that all was well in the UNP. How then did this come about?
The bitter feud between United National Party (UNP)leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and the party deputy leader Sajith Premadasa on the question of Presidential election candidacy ended on a satisfactory note due to a compromise. In a magnanimous gesture that is so typical of him, Ranil Wickremesinghe once again bowed to the popular will of the party and withdrew from what appeared to be an ugly tussle threatening to tear the UNP apart. In a widely welcomed move, the UNP leader formally announced the candidacy of the deputy leader at a special party convention. Sajith Premadasa handed over his nomination papers on the due date of October 7th 2019. It became officially known that Sajith Premadasa of the UNP would contest the forthcoming presidential election on Nov 16th as the UNP led Front candidate under the New Democratic Front symbol of swan.
The rivalry between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa over the presidential candidacy stakes had been going on like a “cold war” for a long time. However it clearly came out in the open a few months ago and got exacerbated into a heated battle some weeks ago. The firm resoluteness of Ranil Wickremesinghe in wanting to be the official UNP candidate and the equally strong determination of Sajith Premadasa to contest the presidential poll himself created an unenviable situation for the UNP dubbed by its supporters and well-wishers as the grand old party.
Rivalry Turned Into Conflict
The rivalry turned into an open conflict of an ugly nature. Sajith Premadasa’s supporters began demanding that the cabinet minister of Housing and Construction and Cultural Affairs be designated immediately as the UNP presidential election candidate. Ranil Wickremesinghe made it known that there were other potential contenders including himself and that a final decision could be reached only by the UNP working committee according to the party constitution.
In a bid to politically intimidate and pressurize an unyielding Ranil into relenting, Sajith supporters began holding well – attended meetings in provincial towns advocating the candidacy of their favourite. Yet Ranil would not budge saying – very correctly – that the proper procedure was for the working committee to decide.
This resulted in two rival factions or camps emerging within the party. The situation took turns for the worse with shifting loyalties and shady manoeuvres. People who were perceived as Ranil loyalists and cronies who owed much to the party leader began crossing over to the Sajith camp. So too did leaders of minority community parties in government folds who had been traditionally aligned to Wickremesinghe. Worse still were the intemperate statements made by the foul – mouthed acolytes of both.
A break – up or split in the UNP seemed inevitable and imminent. A fragmented UNP would have resulted in a virtual walkover for the chief opposition candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Adversaries of the UNP in general and Ranil in particular were cock – a- hoop with expectant joy. And then the unexpected happened!
Back From Brink of Self -Destruction
The grand old party pulled itself back from the brink of self – destruction at the last minute. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa patched up their differences in the interests of the party and the country. An understanding was reached by both with the assistance of fellow party stalwarts. Ranil Wickremesinghe consented to Sajith Premadasa being the UNP’s official presidential candidate. Sajith consented to Ranil remaing as UNP leader until the expiry of his current term of office in 2024. It was also agreed that Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe would work together unitedly as President and Prime Minister respectively if and when the UNP won the election.
Ranil and Sajith arriving at a prior understanding before the working committee (WC) meeting was a closely -guarded secret and known only to a few. Hence many expected fireworks of a political nature to explode at the WC meeting. There was however no confrontation or any form of contest With Ranil Wickremesinghe taking a step back and withdrawing gracefully , it was a one – horse race for Sajith Premadasa. He was nominated unconditionally and unanimously as the presidential candidate. The decision was ratified later by the UNP parliamentary group.
A few days later Ranil formally announced the name of Sajith as the UNP presidential candidate at the special party convention. In a gentlemanly gesture that touched the hearts of many, Ranil escorted Sajith’s mother and former first lady Hema Premadasa on to the stage when he made the historic announcement. The UNP election campaign is now underway with both the so called Ranil and Sajith factions pulling together for the shared goal of winning the presidential stakes.The Galle Face “Forward Together” rally is a harbinger of the future.
One does not know how long this spirit of bonhomie would last but everything seems hunky-dory for the present. But politics being politics nothing is certain. For one thing some individuals and groups within both factions are not too happy about the Ranil-Sajith rapprochement. These sections seem motivated by short -term self interest rather than the long term interests of the party.
Powerful Anti-Ranil Cabal
There is also genuine mutual suspicion about being opportunistically utilized and then discarded by the other side. When some of the comments made by prominent Sajith loyalists are read in between the lines, one is likely to get the impression that Ranil would be denied premiership and be eased out of party leadership too , if and when Premadasa wins and consolidates his victory. It cannot be ignored or overlooked that a powerful anti-Ranil cabal has been backing Sajith for long and will simply not abandon this project of long duration so easily.
Whatever these misgivings and doubts there is no denying the fact that the current Ranil – Sajith unity however fragile or ephemeral has made many UNP supporters jubilant. Even non – UNP circles desirous of a vibrant democracy in Sri Lanka are happy that the party leaders have mended fences and are better equipped to face the presidential hustings. The record crowds at Galle Face indicate that supporters want Ranil and Sajith to march forward together.
There is a great deal of positive curiosity about the rapprochement between Ranil and Sajith. At a time when the issue seemed intractable – making many feel dejected – the problem was solved quickly and unexpectedly. How did it happen?
A plot device often resorted to in ancient Greek dramas was the “Deus Ex Machina”(God from the Machine) whereby a seemingly insolvable problem was suddenly solved by an unexpected, unlikely occurrence (usually done by a “God” hoisted on to the stage by a crane “machine”).
In the case of the UNP there was no “deus ex machina” from above bringing forth a solution. The problem was resolved internally within party folds.It was in actuality a home – grown solution for what was essentially a home-grown problem. However the nearest to a deus ex machina in this exercise was the positive role played by the speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Although the speaker did not impose any kind of solution as in the case of Greek dramas, Jayasuriya did muake available his “good offices” to create a conducive environment where the parties concerned could resolve the issue by themselves.
Elder Statesman of UNP Karu
Karunanarathne Jayasuriya popularly known as Karu Jayasuriya is regarded as the elder statesman of the UNP. Karu who celebrated his 79th birthday last September was also a potential contender for the presidency at one time. Although Karu was looking forward to “retirement” at the end of this parliament , several civil society organizations urged him to contest the presidential elections and continue with the abolition of presidency project that was so dear to the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero. An opinion poll undertaken by a civil society organization had even stated that Karu Jayasuriya would provide the strongest challenge to SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Acceding to this request Karu Jayasuriya also prepared himself to enter the fray. He wanted to contest and win the presidency and then quit after having abolished the executive presidency in a year. Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too was amenable to this idea at one point of time. But then the pitch got queered by Sajith Premadasa and supporters who were pugnaciously adamant that the UNP deputy leader should be the candidate. Snide remarks such as “Naaki Seeya”(Old Grandfather) referring indirectly to Karu were made on platforms where Sajith was present. The Ranil – Sajith candidacy battle also began to escalate.
Unwilling to be embroiled in an ugly intra- party squabble, the much respected Jayasuriya issued a statement that he would be prepared to contest and serve as President for a year until the executive presidency was abolished with a big “IF” .The “if” was that the candidacy should be offered to him unanimously by the UNP. Since Sajith was obstinately unrelenting in this regard, Karu Jayasuriya withdrew in a dignified manner from competing in a “race” that he never intended to run in the first place. It is believed that Karu’s daughter and Plantation Industries minister Navin Dissanayake’s spouse, Dr. Nishirani Lanka Jayasuriya Dissanayake also encouraged her father to adopt this stance.
By taking up this position Karu had effectively removed himself from the presidential race but the withdrawal elevated his political stature. More importantly Karu was regarded as being genuinely non -partisan in a scenario where most senior members of the UNP and UNF were perceived as being aligned either to the Ranil bloc or the Sajith faction.
Presidential Candidacy Struggle
The intensification of the presidential candidacy struggle within the UNP was a cause of worry to many. Several requests were made by senior party members, civil society activists and religious dignitaries to Karu Jayasuriya that he should do something to end the dispute within the party. Since Karu was no longer a contender and had also displayed his non -aligned credentials, many felt Karu was the ideal person to intervene benignly in this matter.
Karu Jayasuriya therefore decided to take the initiative. He communicated with the parties concerned and explained clearly that he had no intention of contesting the presidency or supporting one side or the other. Karu emphasized that both sides must sit together, discuss and arrive at a compromise.
Meanwhile a stalemate of sorts had set in while Ranil and Sajith kept on refusing to budge from their positions. The Sajith faction found their “shock and awe” tactics had failed so far to pressurize Ranil. The intimidatory strategy of staging of mass rallies as done in Badulla, Matara and Kurunegala was suspended. Instead Sajith Premadasa wrote to Ranil Wickremesinghe asking him to hold the working committee and parliamentary group meetings to decide upon the candidacy.
It was obvious that there would be a political showdown at the working committee and parliamentary group meetings. Speculation was rife in the media about the actual strength of Ranil and Sajith among working committee members and UNP parliamentarians. It was estimated that Ranil had more support in the Working committee whereas Sajith had greater support among party MP’s. Whatever the final outcome the race was going to be a close neck and neck affair. Whatever the result, an open split in the UNP seemed unavoidable.
Ranil’s Regard for Ranasinghe Premadasa
The silver lining was that both sides seemed unwilling to proceed further and risk breaking up the party. Whatever his differences with Sajith, Ranil Wickremesinghe was unwilling to take stern action against Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son. When a few confidantes urged Ranil to suspend or expel Sajith from the party, Ranil reportedly dismissed it saying “How can we throw out Premadasa’s son from the UNP?”The regard and respect Ranil Wickremesinghe has for Ranasinghe Premadasa was patently visible at the Galle Face rally where he extolled the virtues of Sajith’s father and came down very hard on the SLPP for criticizing his former president.
Likewise Sajith too was reluctant to cross the rubicon with a combative revolt against Ranil. Even though a few advisers were trying to make Sajith break away from UNP like SWRD Bandaranaike did in 1951, saner counsel prevailed and the younger Premadasa took little heed of such ill-advised suggestions. Sajith was fully aware of how Ranil Wickremesinghe had loyally stood by and supported his father when Ranasinghe Premadasa faced political troubles. He knew fully well of how Ranil Wickremesinghe was quick-witted enough to call for a sudden vote of confidence in the cabinet when Lalith Athulathumadali, Gamini Dissanayake and GM Premachandra were spearheading the impeachment conspiracy against president Premadasa. He was reluctant therefore to revolt openly against Ranil and break up the party
Moreover it is learnt that Sajith’s mother Hema Premadasa was of the firm opinion that no one should accuse Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son of stabbing Ranil Wickremesinghe in the back. She was also determined that Sajith Premadasa should not be held responsible for breaking up his father’s party. Sajith too realized that his future was within the UNP and not outside it. Furthermore in spite of the intra-party conflict there was much reluctance on the part of most UNP seniors to fragment the party. While some of the comparatively younger MP’s were seemingly prepared to risk a split, the old guard on either side was not ready to do so. They knew a split at this juncture would only cause irredeemable harm to the UNP. Hence the prevailing stalemate!
Meetings for Three Successive Days
So when Karu Jayasuriya took the initiative in trying to make peace between the UNP leader and deputy leader both Ranil and Sajith grasped the opportunity eagerly. Karu Jayasuriya’s residence was treated as “neutral territory” by both sides. A series of meetings were held there for three successive days. At times the talks would drag on till midnight. Meetings were held at various levels. There were discussions among Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake and Malik Samarawickrama. Whenever necessary Sajith Premadasa’s trusted advisers and key aides also participated. There were at times where one – on – one discussions between Ranil and Sajith and Ravi and Sajith took place.
Karu aided to a certain extent by Malik functioned as a facilitator. He made the necessary arrangements for scheduling and conducting the several rounds of discussions. Karu Jayasuriya was present for much of the talks except for the one – on – one discussions. Generally Karu took a backseat intervening only to break a deadlock or to take the talks forward in a different direction. Finally an amicable. mutually acceptable settlememt was arrived at by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa at the residence of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya after three consecutive days (and nights) of discussions. Sajith was to be the presidential candidate while Ranil was to retain party leadership and the PM position. This accord led to the positive outcomes at the working committee, parliamentary group and party convention. The UNP and its allies are firmly united in getting Sajith Premadasa elected as the seventh president of Sri Lanka.
While Karu Jaysuriya and Malik Samarawickrama were largely responsible for bringing about rapprochement, there were others who played a part in doing what could be termed as spadework to promote the Ranil – Sajith dialogue. Their role was primarily that of encouraging both parties to end the “stand-off” and strive towards a compromise. Among those who played a positive role in this exercise are parliamentarians Ravi Karunanayake, Kabir Hashim, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Dr.Harsha de Silva and non -parliamentarians Dinesh Weerakkody and Charitha Ratwatte and of course Hema Premadasa.
Phenomenon of Opinion Polls
An important factor to be noted in respect of the UNP candidate crisis is the phenomenon of opinion polls in politics. In today’s world, opinion polls are shaping, distorting, guiding and misleading politics in many different ways. Politicians and political parties are re-inventing themselves according to opinion polls and surveys. Political analyses and assessments are heavily influenced by opinion polls. The way in which opinion polls dominate politics makes one query in lighter vein “Why do we need elections at all if opinion polls are treated as gospel truths?”
Though much can be written about the pros and cons of opinion polls, the matter is being referred to here only in relation to recent happenings in the UNP. Ranil Wickremesinghe as Party leader and Prime Minister wanted to contest the presidency this time. He had stepped back twice in 2010 and 2015 to let Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena contest. The disastrous experience with Sirisena impelled Ranil to contest himself this time. Besides he wanted to prove a point to his detractors who accuse him of being a coward too afraid to contest himself.
But what happened was that there was strong opposition within the UNP to Ranil’s candidacy. It was said that Ranil had no chance of winning whereas Sajith had greater support. Surveys and opinion polls done by different agencies had found that Sajith Premadasa had greater support than Ranil Wickremesinghe and had a better chance at the presidential poll. This trend increased further after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. Thus support for a Sajith candidacy began to increase within the party. Many UNP parliamentarians were worried about their future and latched on to Sajith as a political life-saver. These included many of Ranil’s confidantes and erstwhile “catchers”.
Ranil Felt Strongly Betrayed
Ranil felt strongly betrayed and struck to his guns stubbornly. Instead of tactfully persuading Ranil to withdraw, an immature Sajith and his henchmen resorted to intimidatory tactics. Sajith announced unilaterally that he was going to contest. Powerful media organizations hostile to Ranil conducted a venomous anti -Ranil campaign. All these developments made Ranil defensive and unyielding.
A private firm in Sri Lanka had done many opinion polls and surveys for the UNP in the past. A besieged Ranil refused to enlist it and conduct his own assessment as requested by some party members. Thereafter Dr.Harsha de Silva MP took the initiative of conducting an opinion poll. This again showed there was greater support for Sajith among the UNP rank and file as well as on a nation wide basis. This was made known to Ranil.
Finally Ranil commissioned an opinion poll and survey on his own. Very few know what the results were. But it is felt that Ranil revised his stance and opted to support Sajith sfter perusing the results and pondering over them. Ultimately Ranil did the right thing. In the final analysis Ranil Wickremesinghe came through with flying colours as a true democrat who places the needs of the country and party above himself.
The manner in which the UNP closed ranks and resolved the issues threatening party unity deserves much praise. Karu and Malik are to be commended for helping Ranil and Sajith to make peace. In retrospect one can even brush off the entire crisis saying it was a mere storm in a tea-cup. At the same time it also raises some pertinent questions. How did Ranil and Sajith get into such a conflict in the first place? Why did they let matters drag on to such levels without resolving it?
Democratic, Non -Fascist Sri Lanka
The causes and consequences of what may be termed as the “Ranil -Sajith conflict” would be delved into in depth in a future article if necessary. As for now, this column expresses great satisfaction over the UNP inner -party crisis being resolved amicably. It is very necessary that the UNP should remain a strong and vibrant party to help preserve a democratic, non -fascist Sri Lanka in the future.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of October 12, 2019. It can be accessed here-