By Laksiri Fernando –
What is at issue tomorrow or day after for the UNP is the selection of the best candidate for the presidential election. This is on the premise that all agree on policies. That premise is also not correct and there has apparently emerged some policy differences between the two main contenders, Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) and Sajith Premadasa (SP). Therefore, the selection is not only about the person, but also about policies.
The latest news say that the UNP seniors are willing to agree for Premadasa candidacy but on strict conditions. (1) RW should remain the party leader and the PM. (2) Premadasa should commit to the abolition of the executive presidential system. (3) He should also commit to the Constitutional Council’s Steering Committee proposals for the resolution of the national question and for a new system of devolution of power.
This may be the first time in democratic party history such conditions were put forward by a ‘leader’ or by party elite for a presidential candidate. It is still to be seen whether Sajith Premadasa would agree for such conditions or not. The intended selection tomorrow or day after is already late given that the nominations have already been called on 18 September, a week ago, and the other two main parties, the SLPP and the JVP, have already selected their candidates. If the procedure in the UNP is so clear, and it is accepted by all in the party, then there would not have been much delay or controversy.
There are different ways how different political parties or countries select their leaders or important candidates for elections. The methods use can be listed broadly as: (1) Open Primaries (2) Closed Primaries (3) Party Conferences (4) Parliamentary Party (5) Party Elite.
The first two methods have mainly been used in the USA, initially the second (2) and then it evolving into Open Primaries or the first method (1). That is what in operation in America today and in this process even nonpartisan or other party voters also have a say in selecting a candidate of a party if they wish. This may be too much for Sri Lanka to institutionalize, but this is what we openly do in expressing our opinions, whether they affect the selections or not. We also know, that there are parties and groups outside the party concerned that make considerable influence in the selection processes.
In the case of the SLPP, as soon as it was formed, there was a formation named Viyathmaga that sponsored the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the presidency. However, the final decision or the selection came under the fifth (5) method of Party Elite. Party elite in the case of Sri Lanka, whether it is the SLPP, the SLFP or the UNP, mostly means the Leader. That leader most often is linked to a Dynasty or a Closed Family.
In the case of the UNP, the same elite method goes on. The leader has considerable power or say. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the leader now for over 25 years. He has put himself up as the presidential candidate or the PM several times during this period. Although there is no family behind him like the Rajapaksas at present, his past dynasty cannot be forgotten. He is a nephew of JR Jayewardene and the son of Esmond Wickremesinghe. Instead of a family, he is supposed to flanked by a group of school friends it is alleged. This Royal group is said to be loyal to him. Sajith Premadasa also comes from the R. Premadasa family. Since there is the possibility a lager dynasty emerging, if he is the future President.
It could be said that most democratic method of selecting a candidate is through the parliamentary group or the party membership or from a combination of both. The party membership is an important component used in Australia and UK for the selection of a leader, apart from the parliamentary group. This could be difficult at present in Sri Lanka given the uncertainties of party membership. However the party members could be consulted in seeking their opinions through surveys or branch committees.
In the case of Sri Lanka, none of the two methods are used except in the justification of a closed door selection by the elite or family. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy was announced at the rally on 11 August called a ‘party convention.’ The actual selection was by his leader-brother Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was also claimed that all or majority of the members of the Joint Opposition (JO) unanimously endorsed the selection.
UNP is claimed to be the most ‘liberal,’ ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’ party in the country. Even it had launched a system of e-membership in June 2016. However today, the UNP’s official website unp.lk is under construction! No proper information can be obtained on the matter of selection or the constitution.
It has been strongly argued that only after the announcement of the presidential election, that the party can select a candidate according to the UNP constitution. Therefore, it has to be a hurried and a closed decision within a short space of time. The UNP has been all out to change the JRJ constitution for the country, but it has not changed rather the obsolete JRJ constitution for the party.
Accordingly, it is argued that the procedure is in Article 9 (e), which says the Working Committee should meet, appoint a Nominations Board, and the decision of the Board has to be ratified by the Working Committee again. This is not a bad procedure as such, if it is selecting a director for a company. But the UNP is supposed to be a broad based democratic and dynamic political party. The close of nominations is on 7 October, in just ten-days-time, but the party is still procrastinating.
There are obviously several questions about the present UNP Working Committee. 27 positions are supposed to be vacant at present. That is about 1/3 of the total membership. At the last meeting on 1 August, only 42 members have attended the WC. There is an apparent hiatus. The new alliance of the Democratic National Front is not yet finalized. However, there is an exiting alliance of the UNF and it has 107 members, although some have already defected.
These are the members who have a people’s base or a voter base. These are also the people who have to canvass for the selected candidate for the presidency. Even if the party constitution says that the selections cannot be done until the nominations are called, there was no barrier for the Working Committee to decide that the presidential candidate should be selected/elected by the UNP Members of Parliament, or by all MP’s of the UNF alliance. The second would have been the most democratic under the circumstances. However, no decision has yet been made. Although the latest news say that the seniors and the leader have agreed for the candidacy of Sajith Premadasa, but on strict conditions, the problem is not resolved yet, but taken into a different plane and direction. The question is whether Premadasa would agree for the conditions, and that move is according to the party’s majority will. The clock is undoubtedly ticking for the UNP.