By Amrit Muttukumaru –
Sajith Premadasa and his team must be congratulated for the impressive performance of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) under challenging circumstances at the recently concluded 2020 General Election. The SJB has become the leading opposition party within 6 months of its founding in February this year and its leader Premadasa is opposition leader.
Premadasa was compelled to form the SJB in a hurry due to the scheming of Ranil Wickremesinghe to continue as UNP leader virtually for life. This was despite the party under him losing a record number of nationwide elections and exasperated members leaving in droves. It is widely perceived that his inability to have nationwide appeal is mainly due to flawed personality traits.
Wickremesinghe has clung on to the UNP leadership by tinkering with the already authoritarian constitution of the UNP. He has virtually single handedly not only almost destroyed the UNP but worse again through scheming has prevented the formation of a strong opposition. These abominable facts are so ingrained in the psyche of most Sri Lankans – particularly UNPers, that they do not need any elaboration.
Wickremesinghe suffered a crushing electoral defeat at the recently concluded 2020 General Election in the normally safe Colombo District particularly for a UNP leader. This was long overdue and will be welcomed by most UNPers. His 500,566 preference votes in the Colombo District in 2015 and the total UNP vote in the entire country in 2020 being a mere 249,435 tells its own story.
The ignominy suffered by the UNP in 2020 does not need any elaboration, except to flag that for the first time in its 74 year history it has failed to obtain even one elected seat in Parliament. On the eve of the general election this writer observed in his CT article Media led by WNL out to salvage UNP from SJB fallout “what is now left of the UNP, does not have a snowball’s chance in hell to even send 8 members to a 225 member parliament.” This view was obviously too optimistic!
In the run-up the 2020 General Election, discerning persons could not have missed the strange phenomenon of leading print media companies and TV channels known to be partial to the SLPP, giving front page/top billing to Ranil Wickremesinghe and treating the UNP which was clearly on its way out as the leading opposition party. They did so while ignoring or downplaying the SJB and its leader Sajith Premadasa. An exception was a popular TV network with its own baggage of controversy supportive of Premadasa.
WNL’s bias against SJB
The most intriguing bias against Premadasa and the SJB, tantamount to supporting the Rajapaksa led SLPP, is from a least expected source – Wijeya Newspapers Limited. WNL is by far the dominant player in the print media scene of this country with its stable of Sinhala and English language newspapers.
Its chairman and virtual owner,Ranjit Wijewardene is from a dyed-in-the-wool UNP heritage. Amongst other connections, he is the first cousin of the country’s first Executive President, J. R. Jayewardene and his wife Ranjani is a granddaughter of the co-founder of the UNP and the country’s first Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake. She is also the niece of another Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. Ranil Wickremesinghe is a nephew on the paternal side.
WNL bias against Premadasa and the SJB is most likely to protect the political future in the UNP of Wijewardene’s laid-back son Ruwan. He was catapulted to national politics virtually from obscurity by first cousin Ranil Wickremesinghe. This is similar to the favour done by J. R. Jayewardene to his nephew Wickremesinghe in 1977. The country has paid dearly for this in the case of Wickremesinghe and is probably well on the way to a similar fate if speculation of Ruwan Wijewardene ultimately succeeding Wickremesinghe as UNP leader are true. Wickremesinghe has already positioned Ruwan as UNP Deputy General Secretary.
Probably not a day went by in the run-up to the recently concluded general election, where prominence was not given to Ruwan often in the front page of the ‘Daily Mirror’ with his picture to boot, even to some of his innocuous utterances. Examples of this are:
Sajith should have waited patiently till 2025: Ruwan (‘Daily Mirror’10 July 2020)
UNP is not centred on families unlike other parties: Ruwan (‘Daily Mirror’ 10 July 2020 – link not available)
’Daily Mirror’ also ran almost full page promotional ads for him. I understand similar items were found in WNL Sinhala publications. All this has not helped him in the Gampaha District.
It is probably due to the dominant position of WNL in the media scene that media outlets ignore Ruwan Wijewardene’s share of responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage when he functioned as State Minister of Defence.
It is in this spirit that the mainstream media particularly WNL in reporting the results of the 2020 general election, have either ignored or downplayed the failure of Ruwan Wijewardene to prevail in the Gampaha District despite the unprecedented media support for him mainly in WNL publications.
For example, the widely read ‘Sunday Times’ editorial page political column of 9 August 2020, while naming a host of persons including “Lakshman Seneviratne and Ravi Samaraweera (Badulla district) and Vijayakala Maheswaran (Jaffna district)” as “major UNP losses” has glaringly kept out the name of UNP Deputy General Secretary Ruwan Wijewardene despite his rich UNP heritage!
Will WNL clarify why the name of UNP Deputy General Secretary, Ruwan Wijewardene is not included among the “major UNP losses” at the recently concluded General Election in its ‘Sunday Times’ editorial page political column of 9 August 2020?
Now that the dust has settled on the results of the general election, WNL is back to propping up its favourite son Ruwan Wijewardene mostly in its front pages with his picture. Examples include:
(1) I am willing to lead UNP if party members want me to- Ruwan (‘Daily Mirror’ of 11 August 2020)
(2) Broad restructuring process needed under new leader (‘Daily Mirror’ 14 Aug 2020)
(3) UNP calls for unanimous decision on leadership (‘Daily FT’ 14 August 2020)
Nothing exemplifies better the sickening bias of WNL against the SJB than the cartoon given below in Sri Lanka’s only stand alone business journal ‘Daily FT’ 6 July 2020
‘The Island’ not to be outdone (made a mountain out of a molehill) in its front page lead story on 19 June 2020 captioned:
Will Ranil ever quit?
We are now regaled with the news of Wickremesinghe’s expression of “intention to quit” as UNP leader. We have heard of this ‘intention’ many times over the years as a ‘time buying’ exercise. By the looks of it, from the names bandied around, it would appear that Wickremesinghe will be around ‘calling the shots’ for sometime more! Although Ruwan Wijewardene does not figure in the list of possible successors, this must not fool anyone. Ruwan’s I am willing to lead UNP if party members want me to- Ruwan (‘Daily Mirror’ of 11 August 2020) should put this matter to rest.
The latest in this saga is the Wickremesinghe packed UNP working committee keen on party being led by a younger member (‘Daily Mirror’ 15 August 2020). This is obviously another time buying exercise for Wickremesinghe to continue as UNP leader and presumably pass the baton to his laid back and ineffective first cousin Ruwan Wijewardene. This will admirably suit the ruling dispensation and the influential media backing them. WNL is marching to the beat of the same drum in the mistaken notion there is a viable national political future for its owner’s son. In whichever way the cookie crumbles, it will serve the Wijewardene commercial interest very well. From among the names bandied around, Ruwan at 45 years is the youngest!
UNP Brand Value
In the political world of this country, the name UNP and its ‘Elephant’ symbol still have huge brand recognition and value. Admittedly emotional attachment and respect has taken a beating under Wickremesinghe’s disastrous leadership and management. These aspects are still not dead and could be retrieved and nurtured to blossom under an appropriate leadership. It is not certain whether Sajith Premadasa is the messiah for the UNP. Nevertheless, the reality is that at present he is the best bet for this purpose and is miles ahead of the electorally toxic Wickremesinghe.
The fact of the matter is that it was under the aegis of the UNP that the country obtained independence in 1948. Although not without glaring blemish, it has a rich history of service to the country. In as much as Wickremesinghe has virtually singlehandedly almost destroyed the UNP, a good leader could retrieve the position for the benefit of the democratic governance of this country.
Premadasa must takeover UNP
The ignominy suffered by the UNP in 2020 does not need any elaboration, except to flag that for the first time in its 74 year history it has failed to obtain even one elected seat in Parliament.
It was a bold move by Premadasa and his breakaway team of UNPers to leave the UNP and form the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). It was necessitated by the intransigence of the electorally toxic Wickremesinghe to cling onto the leadership of the UNP virtually by force. An already authoritarian UNP constitution was made worse by his packing further nominees to the powerful working committee.
Given the fact that the SJB was constituted just 6 months ago, it has fared very well at the just concluded General Election. Obtaining 47 elected seats and 7 national list seats and being the leading opposition party with SJB leader Premadasa being opposition leader is no mean achievement.
The UNP is today less than a shadow of its former self and those left behind after the electoral heavyweights joined SJB are electorally insignificant. The UNP is now virtually on its knees and ripe for the picking by Premadasa and his SJB. Wickremesinghe is hanging on by virtue of (i) the working committee consisting of persons politically irrelevant with nowhere to go (ii) media help from WNL through Ruwan’s influential father (iii) some help from the ruling dispensation.
It is crucial for the democratic governance of this country for the UNP to be saved from the clutches of Wickremesinghe and his cohorts. Even the emotional connections some people have to the UNP is translated into votes. Although the SJB and its ‘Telephone’ symbol had a good first outing at the general election, it cannot be compared with the brand value and emotional connection many people have with the UNP and its ‘Elephant’ symbol.
If Sajith Premadasa and his SJB cannot stand up to a virtual political cipher such as Ranil Wickremesinghe and his hangers-on and motivate the majority of the UNP working committee to get away from his electorally toxic influence, how can one expect Premadasa and his SJB to stand up to the Rajapaksa juggernaut?
If WNL wants to maintain any credibility, it must clarify why the name of UNP Deputy General Secretary, Ruwan Wijewardene was not included among the “major UNP losses” in its ‘Sunday Times’ editorial page political column of 9 August 2020? Is it not duplicitous for WNL which did not consider Ruwan’s Electoral defeat in the Gampaha District a “major UNP loss”, to now project him as UNP spokesman?
“Mr. Wijewardene’s statement comes nearly 24 hours before the UNP working committee meets to decide on its future. “
Broad restructuring process needed under new leader (‘Daily Mirror’ 14 Aug 2020 Front Page)