By Amrit Muttukumaru –
The goings-on in the UNP as gleaned from the mainstream print media to say the least is disgusting and irresponsible for an alternative governing party. Despite blemishes, the UNP has a rich history of which it can be justly proud. The UNP never really recovered from the beating it has taken since its leadership in 1994 virtually fell into the lap of Ranil Wickremesinghe after the assassination of Gamini Dissanayake. Its troubles have grown exponentially since then barring a few years when it was glossed over when the party was unconvincingly in governance through coalitions which lasted a relatively short while. Even its just concluded stint in coalition governance lasted even this long due to the controversial 19th Amendment which was conceived and passed in a manner that was anything but transparent.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has clung on as UNP leader for the better part of 25 years virtually by force by the brute power given to the leader by the UNP constitution. Under him the UNP has lost a record number of nation-wide elections and also lost thousands of exasperated party faithful. It is widely perceived that Wickremesinghe’s ‘stock’ in the country and among a vast majority of the UNP faithful is at an all time low.
It is widely believed that Wickremesinghe must bear substantial responsibility for the defeat of Sajith Premadasa at the just concluded Presidential election after he very reluctantly was compelled virtually at the last minute to propose Premadasa as presidential candidate.
There is also the perception that Wickremesinghe is more comfortable under a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency rather than one with Sajith Premadasa. This was reinforced a few days ago when neither Wickremesinghe nor UNP General-Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam closely identified with him were present at the Elections Secretariat when the results were being officially announced while he thought it fit to be present in Anuradhapura at the swearing in of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President. While it is conceded that his presence in Anuradhapura was courteous and appropriate, should it not be viewed in the WIDER CONTEXT of his absence at the Elections Secretariat in his capacity as UNP leader? It was indeed sad to see on TV Sajith Premadasa being ignored by his party leader and party General-Secretary.
State of Play in UNP
Ranil Wickremesinghe is still HELL- BENT on remaining as UNP leader and Opposition Leader in Parliament. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has reportedly ‘recognised’ Wickremesinghe as Opposition Leader despite claims that a MAJORITY of UNP parliamentarians have proposed Sajith Premadasa to this position. Be that as it may, should there not be a transparent ‘floor test’ among UNP parliamentarians to put this matter to rest? In the meanwhile it is also reported that Karu Jayasuriya is being ‘proposed’ as “interim leader of the party in the run up to the General Election” and that “Sajith himself was not very keen on taking over the mantle of leadership at this juncture” (‘The Island’ 28 November 2019). Karu Jayasuriya is the father -in – law of Navin Dissanayake a former Cabinet Minister and prominent UNP member.
It is high time Premadasa came out of the shadows and asserted himself if he is keen on making a positive difference to this country by attaining high political office. Attaining the leadership of the UNP with its voter base should be his goal for this endeavour. The country is in dire need of a strong opposition to ensure the check and balance to counter the Rajapaksa juggernaut now enshrined in the presidency of the country. Democratic governance demands this.
Despite his last minute nomination and even the widely perceived ‘in house’ antagonism against him, Sajith Premadasa had a very decent outing at the hustings. He proved to be an effective speaker/communicator. He did obtain over 5.5 million votes of which a substantial number were outside the North and East with a Sinhala – Buddhist presence that by no means can be scoffed at. Of course there was discernible polarization which does not portend well for the country unless appropriately addressed. Is not Premadasa with his Sinhala-Buddhist credentials and strong pro-poor image in an ideal position to resolve these concerns once and for all in a manner acceptable to ALL parties where the ultimate WINNER is the country?
However it needs to be flagged that Premadasa is his own worst enemy mainly due to his unassertive nature. Yet by no means can it be said that he is laid-back going by his tireless work ethic at the ground level not dissimilar to that of his late father. Even in this respect however commendable, he must re-visit the sustainability of the model he is following in his housing program as to whether it is creating a dependency culture which can be counterproductive to nation building. He must also appreciate there is far more to nation building and economic development that an obsession (however praiseworthy) with housing the poor. He did articulate these wider aspects on his campaign trail.
For the sake of the democratic and pluralistic governance of the country, Premadasa must throw down the gauntlet and take the fight to Wickremesinghe and his cohorts and call their bluff. He must no more depend on his core group to ‘carry the can for him’. This dependence sends a negative message to the electorate. It demonstrates the absence of the leadership and guts required to face things head-on in the public and national interest.
The General Elections are just around the corner and he must have the infrastructure in readiness to either ensure a parliamentary majority or at worst to pose a serious challenge as a strong opposition to the Rajapaksa juggernaut enshrined in the presidency. Although ideally he must take control of the UNP and administer it with internal democracy, he and his core group must even be ready to immediately install a new political party. There is no time to waste or procrastinate. Either outcome must be decided right now.
Towards this end Premadasa must forthwith give a timeline to Wickremesinghe (one week) to demand (1) ‘leadership’ of the UNP (2) Post of ‘Opposition Leader’ while stating there will be a new political party constituted if these demands are not immediately acceded to. The chances are that by and large the UNP leadership will fall in line with him as their options are limited.
Is not Sajith Premadasa with his Sinhala-Buddhist credentials, strong pro-poor image and acceptance to the minorities the best bet the country has at present to form the next government after the parliamentary elections or at the worst provide a strong opposition?
Premadasa and his team must have the courage to ‘walk the talk’. This will greatly enhance the level of voter confidence in him.