By Vishwamithra –
The power struggle in the United National Party (UNP) is now in the open. Candidature for the forthcoming Presidential Elections is at stake. In fact, this time those stakes are quite high. Sajith Premadasa is making a bid through his surrogates. Unfortunately for him, those surrogates are from the UNP itself. No outsider has voiced his or her consent for Premadasa’s tender. And that in itself is stifling. He is very popular with the UNP-grassroots and it is beyond question. Why so is another question.
Sajith’s father, R Premadasa, Prime Minister from 1977 to 1988 and President from 1988 to 1993, enjoyed enormous popularity, especially amongst the poor class in the country. President Premadasa’s, albeit his tenure at Presidency lasted only 3 plus years, was considered as a man who got the job done, at whatever the cost. His work ethic was exemplary; his determination to finish the job in hand was contagious and the fear he injected into his subordinates was utterly dreadful. His behavior in the Cabinet meetings was detested by some of the more discriminating Ministers and ultimately that behavior alone was sufficient to drive home the fact that his entry into the upper echelons of power was a huge mistake, a dreadful miscarriage of parliamentary majority power.
Yet R Premadasa is history now. JR Jayewardene is history too. Yet both have gone down in history as two leaders who took the country on two wildly different paths. Many a writer has written extensively on both leaders. JR was an epitome of class, creed and decorum; Premadasa’s place in society was much more complicated and dubious to say the least. His anger with the upper middleclass in Ceylon manifested itself in so many ways and his conduct, both as Prime Minister and later as President, came in for severe criticism, especially in the sphere of his spending on personal comforts and distorting his personal history to portray himself as a man born into a different class of village-elite as opposed to his real beginnings as a child born into a very poor class of parents employed in the meanest of mean livelihoods known at the time.
Ranasinghe Premadasa, instead of using his small beginnings as a plus point in his career, apparently was obsessed with it and took a very unwise decision to place himself as a person of superior societal assigning in order to erase his misty, obscure beginnings. The people in Sri Lanka have come a long way; their preoccupation with the unhealthy signatures of a class-conversation has evaporated; poor beginnings are being considered as positives in the realm of politics. Yet R Premadasa could not overcome his humble beginnings and he hated those he considered as his class enemies. Opening of the economy in 1977 paved the way for unthinkable advance of poorer classes and the open-market economy provided unprecedented leverage to those who did not have the old-class wealth. The class that Premadasa hated so much had already become an anachronism by the time he assumed office as President of Sri Lanka.
In addition to this class-hatred, Premadasa’s engagement with those who were more akin to criminals and uneducated men and women, paved the way for some disreputable and suspicious characters being injected into the upper strata of decision-making bodies in the United National Party. Eventually this conduct exploded in a very harmful way; the explosion came in the way of two of the most promising leaders of the UNP, namely Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali, being sacked from the party. The birth of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) was more attributable to the irrational behavior of R Premadasa than to the dissatisfaction on the part of Gamini and Lalith. Ultimately this break in the UNP has had its lasting effects.
Historians of tomorrow would write that the prime reason for the UNP’s status be a non-winning political entity by itself is solely owing to this fissure that was caused by R Premadasa in the early nineties. Sajith Premadasa’s call for another Premadasa-era would not hold any water for many reasons. Firstly those who will vote in 2020 simply cannot relate to that era, for they were either born after 1994 or those who were born were still in their young age so as not to remember the country’s socio-econo-political situation. Ever since 1994, the UNP’s lot has suffered some irreparable damage, both to its brand and its leadership. The last time a UNPer was elected as President was in 1988 and the last time the UNP was elected to Parliament to form a government on its own strength was 1989. That’s 31 years ago.
The child who was born in 1989 is now 30 plus years old. For him or her a UNP victory is not a reality. In other words, securing a majority amongst the UNP-voters is no big deal at all. Sajith Premadasa might, if he’s the UNP candidate in 2020, secure 85% of the UNP base which has spiraled down to a mere 30% of the Sinhalese Buddhist vote. That’s not enough to win the Presidential Elections. Can Sajith secure the minority vote? For that matter, 90% of it. Sajith is not seen as a trustworthy candidate, especially by the Tamils in the North. In such a context, who is the candidate who would come close or even overshadow Sajith in a run for nomination for President?
There is one candidate who can match Sajith, speech for speech, vote for UNP vote and in addition, win the trustworthy contest. That is Karu Jayasuriya, the current Speaker of Parliament. The UNP’s maligned image has been cleverly exploited by its opponents. Ranil Wickremesinghe, his flawed leadership and the special treatment of his close friends when it comes to selection of high-powered Cabinet positions are all part and parcel of the current internal crisis the UNP is facing today. Ranil being oblivious to this crisis is not the way to confront that crisis and resolve the issue.
Sajith coming out, through his proxy surrogates and claiming a stake for Presidential nomination is only a symptom of the acute disease the UNP is inflicted with. On the other hand, Karu Jayasuriya, palpably backed by the Maha Sanga who are supportive of the UNP, too has made a claim and openly declared that he would be ready to accept the challenge provided that is the wish and will of the UNP leadership and its grassroots. Backing of the civil societies which were behind Maithripala Sirisena in the last elections will back Karu Jayasuriya but whether that is true in the case of Sajth is questionable.
The era of Ranil Wickremesinghe is gone; it’s fast approaching death. If Karu is the candidate and he loses, then the UNP would certainly face its most decisive and crucial leadership battle of its history. Ranil will be ousted and who will become its leader is up to the Working Committee and Parliamentarians at the time. It’s doubtful that Karu would stand for leadership at that time. Sajith Premadasa might stand a chance, but his chances would be badly injured if he decides to stay away from the ‘Karu Jayasuriya-Presidential Election campaign.
On the other hand, if Sajith Premadasa is the candidate and loses, his position in the party will be affected to the extent that he might be thrown into the dustbin of UNP-history as Ranil Wickremesinghe would still be the leader of the party.
If either of the candidates, Karu or Sajith, wins, then the whole equation will change and that will be to definitive benefit of the UNP. Sajith must play his cards cleverly. He must not rush nor should he behave as a politician pursuing his ambition with blind determination and carry his party to sure demise.
Karu Jayasuriya, on the other hand, would be a one-term President, if he is elected. He is a person who could be trusted to honor his election-pledges.
Now the fight is open. Both Karu and Sajith don’t belong in the winner category as far as the last few elections held after 1994 are concerned. There is only one such UNPer who could be crowned with the winner badge. I suggest that the reader should analyze the elections held since the year 1994 to find out who he is.
*The write can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org