By Lankamithra –
“Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.” ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
If the United National Party has to be successful on its own at the next Presidential or General Elections, it has to get ready and get ready fast. In an environment that is changing by the day, Sri Lankan political countryside is taking irregular leaps and bounds. Answerability on behalf of the entire coalition government for the success of its economic policies is a factor that must be playing in the mind of the Prime Minister, de facto leader of the Cabinet of Ministers. At least now they must have realized that in order to be successful at the next elections, both the Presidential and the General, they must convince the voters that their economic policies are far better than those implemented by the previous regime. They can’t afford to simply appear at the Hustings with empty hands. The empty stomachs of the voters will beat them like a drum.
In 1977, 1970 and 1960 July elections showed that, of course when elections were held on the first-past-the-post system was in operation on an electorate level, the prevalent economic situation in the country and the severity of hardships the electorate had to endure would ultimately decide who sat in the prime political post, whether Prime Minister or President, in the country.
With Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in total disarray with an unprecedented challenge to President Sirisena’s leadership by none other than Mahinda Rajapaksa, the previous President and Party leader, the United National Party, on paper at least, looks like the favorite, if not at the Presidential Elections, but at least at the General Elections. And the UNP is one political party that seems to be united on all fronts. All UNP parliamentarians have managed to keep their parliamentary decorum intact and very rarely have talked out of turn (Ranjan Ramanayake may be an exception to this). Ranil Wickremesinghe, with all his turmoil and tribulations he had to confront from within the UNP a couple of years prior to the last Presidential Elections, has unqualified support of his soldiers. The Cabinet members and all other parliamentarians have so far conducted themselves in complete obedience to their leader.
Against such a friendly background, those who are competing to succeed Ranil as the leader of the UNP would not only find an agreeable playing field, the players themselves might be too few to begin with. To begin with, Ranil Wickremesinghe has to cope with the scenario in which Maithripala Sirisena with all his pronouncements that he would be only a one-term President, in view of some statements issued by leading SLFP Cabinet members and parliamentarians, there is a strong possibility, not yet a probability, that Sirisena might stand as a coalition candidate at the next Presidential Elections. In case that occurs, the leadership question in the UNP would get put off for another election cycle.
Nevertheless, irrespective of what’s happening outside the United National Party domain, the succession struggle within the UNP would continue, if not in the open, but certainly within closed doors and among whispering VVIPs of the party. When succession story emerged in the mid-seventies, the United National Party had a very strong and steady head at the helm. J R Jayewardene did not allow any distractions; his focus was solely on the then governing clan, the Bandaranaikes, Sirimavo’s family and Felix Dias in particular. However, succession process for leadership in a political party, especially in South Asia, is not a typical democratic one. Yet the UNP after the death of the Senanayakes has been selecting or electing its leaders in a very democratic non-family-rule manner, unlike in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Those who have shown their aspirations for leadership are:
Sajith Premadasa (1967) (50)
Karu Jayasuriya (1940) (76)
Ravi Karunanayake (1963) (54)
Navin Dissanayake (1969) (48)
Ruwan Wijeywardene (1975) (42)
Apart from the above, those whose names are whispered about in the corridors of power in Colombo are: Akila Viraj Kariyawasam (1973) (44), Sagala Ratnayake (1968) (49) and Sujeewa Senasinghe (1971) (46). (First parenthesis is the year born and the second one is Age).
All these gentlemen are in the correct age group except perhaps Karu Jayasuriya. And on any account, it is understandable that Karu Jayasuriya would hang up his political boots at the end of this current term. To be honest, there are two reasons why the names of both Sagala and Akila Viraj are sorted in this category. The reasons are: 1. Both of them are close loyalists of the current leader Ranil Wickremasinghe and 2. The importance of the Ministries allotted to them by the leader – Sagala, Law & Order and Akila, Education. Sujeewa Senasinghe is a different kettle of fish. His name is being whispered because of the sheer personality of the man. With due respect to all the others, it is only Sujeewa who is alleged to be ‘openly’ spreading his own name as a successor to the current leader. Both in private conversations and other semi-private gatherings, Sujeewa is alleged to have been engaged in this venture of promoting himself without any hesitation or indecision.
In the writer’s view, next to name-recognition, age is the most critical criterion in the selection or election process for the next leader of the United National Party. J R Jayewardene assumed leadership of the party when he was sixty eight years old. If not for the fact his predecessor Dudley Senanayake did not pass away in 1973 at the age of merely sixty two, it would have been possible that J R would never have had the opportunity to lead the party that he built almost from scratch in the wake of the ‘1956 crash’. It is unthinkable that a leader in the caliber of J R would be leading any political party in the future in Sri Lanka. Two of the most crucial factors upon which, among others, history would ultimately judge its leaders are: stamina (staying power) and patience. J R possessed these qualities in abundance and none of today’s leaders have them.
Coming back to the current crop of contenders, Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake, Navin Dissanayake and Ruwan Wijewardene stand out. Out of them, Sajith has the highest name-recognition. It is not debatable. And added to that crucial factor is the natural propensity of the UNP grassroots that Sajith is their next leader coupled with his current position he holds in the party as Deputy Leader. In order of importance of the portfolio each one of these contenders holds, Ravi Karunanayake has the highest-recognized portfolio- Finance. In addition, Ravi Karunanayake, an ardent disciple of the late Lalith Athulathmudali, has one unique trait which is not equaled by any of the others- ambition. Maybe Lalith has bequeathed it upon Ravi, but that is true. Undiluted ambition can work in both ways, either constructive or destructive. If Ravi K could exercise some patience, which he needs in plenty, tact and accommodation towards his Cabinet colleagues, has a fighting chance to be there, at least to be number two to the next leader. Vote-getting ability is one skill Ravi has proven again and again and he must not lose sight of that larger goal when he chooses to pursue his ambitions.
Navin Dissanayake has one major obstacle to overcome, his leaving the party when the party needed him the most. His father, Gamini Dissanayake too left the party but he managed to come back, oust Ranil Wickremasinghe from his position of de jure position of Leader of the Opposition and galvanize the party again. Navin’s context is completely different. However, next to Sajith, Navin enjoys next position in name-recognition. But his Ministry has cornered him into a plantation district from where it is quite hard to launch a national campaign.
Alexander the Great said: “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion”. In an era in which a total new and daring turn is the call, especially in the context of the country’s current corruption-laden culture, decaying social standards and a barren moral plateau, Sri Lanka needs a leader in the mold of Alexander’s definition. Whether we have one among the characters discussed above is very much being debated. But don’t forget about a dark horse. And that dark horse may very well be Ruwan Wijewardene. Although being a first-timer in parliament and as State Minister of Defense, he cannot complain that he didn’t get a good Ministry. His immediate boss is none other than the Executive President. His pedigree is impeccable and as a person he is immensely likeable and one great advantage he has over all others is that one of the leading media outlets could be behind him when he needs it. He could be an ideal number two to Ranil’s successor. In other words, the jury is still out, but the reader should be able to guess which way the pendulum seems to be swaying.
*The writer is available at firstname.lastname@example.org