By Dharisha Bastians –
The ground is shifting slightly beneath the feet of the main opposition party, but it’s too soon to tell if it could mean any real change in the near future
UNP Chief Ranil Wickremesinghe left on a two-day visit to Singapore after a marathon day of discussions that centred on his leadership of Sri Lanka’s main opposition party on Tuesday (15).
Nearly two weeks ago, the United National Party’s internecine war turned bloody on the streets of Matara. Three days ago, as a belated result of that violence, Matara Police sought the arrest of the party’s Communications Chief, a former Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Mangala Samaraweera in connection with organising an illegal protest and more incongruously, the petty theft of two megaphones. Samaraweera’s role in provoking the Matara clashes have been roundly criticised by both UNP members and the general public for bringing back ugly memories of his days as a minister in the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration. Yet as he left the Matara Police Station on Tuesday clutching a plastic bag of his belongings, Samaraweera cut a sympathetic figure.
Video footage of club wielding hooligans from both the pro and anti Ranil factions within the UNP were mostly overshadowed by images of a doddering 70 year old in a green shirt and cap, firing his gun willy-nilly into the crowd. That man was Herman Guneratne, author and confidant of senior members of the ruling administration. He is the father of one of the UNP’s leading rebels who organised the anti-Ranil March from Matara to Colombo, Attorney at Law Maithri Guneratne. Guneratne Junior was recently expelled from the UNP for his role in the violence at Sirikotha, the Party’s Headquarters in December 2011. Remanded almost immediately after he injured at least three people by his indiscriminate firing, Guneratne the elder now resides at the Merchant Ward of the Colombo National Hospital. Ordered to make an appearance at the Matara Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday, Herman Guneratne failed to show up. The fundamental question of why a Provincial Councillor’s father was carrying a loaded firearm into a crowd of would-be peaceful protestors remains unanswered.
In light of what has transpired in the past two weeks, it is safe to say that woes of the country’s oldest political party have begun to resemble a Greek tragedy. Tragic heroes, with their tragic flaws, a would-be heir apparent and absolute dictators are scattered throughout the stage.
The calls for Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down from the leadership of the UNP have far from subsided, but perhaps for the first time since Sajith Premadasa emerged as his chief challenger, the party’s ‘rebels’ are being seen as part of the problem rather than a viable solution. This is has seen Premadasa’s influence and support within the party’s Parliamentary Group in particular greatly diminished. The public calls for the arrest of Samaraweera that emanated from Maithri Guneratne and other sections affiliated with the Premadasa faction seemed to suddenly embolden law enforcement to act. This has disillusioned the party’s organisers and activists on the ground, say UNP stalwarts. The UNP believes that Samaraweera’s arrest is part of a larger Rajapaksa Government plan to cripple the party’s Matara organisation a few months ahead of the Southern Provincial Council election. Under the circumstances, Premadasa’s own repeated attacks against Samaraweera after the Matara clashes on 5 October ties him inextricably to the fate that will befall the SLFP dissident who discarded several ministerial portfolios in the Rajapaksa cabinet when he crossed over to a much weakened opposition party in 2007 and has been a relentless and fearless critic of the ruling administration ever since. In the eyes of hardcore UNP supporters, this is betrayal not to be borne. That the home-and-home clash is being turned into a political advantage for the ruling UPFA regime simply does not sit well with UNP members and further erodes confidence in the alternative leadership faction led by Premadasa.
This crucial understanding of the UNP supporter’s mentality caused even staunch anti-Ranil rebels like Provincial Councillor Shiral Lakthilake to acknowledge that the witch hunt against Mangala Samaraweera and Co. was in poor taste. Lakthilake was to privately acknowledge to Samaraweera’s aides on Monday, when the Parliamentarian’s arrest seemed imminent, that the UNP’s internal battles need not be waged on behalf of either faction by the Government or its law enforcement arm. He told Samaraweera aides that he did not support the arrest and believed the matter needed to be settled between the two factions. Lakthilake’s sentiments contrasted sharply with the position adopted by his compatriot Maithri Guneratne who has consistently advocated for tough action against Samaraweera.
Between Samaraweera’s arrest that had resulted in significant sympathy for the pro-Ranil faction and the self-defeating antics of the pro-Premadasa faction, including reckless statements from the young MP from Hambantota himself since the current leadership battle commenced, Wickremesinghe finally seemed to be standing on much firmer ground. Premadasa’s reluctance to meet for discussions with the UNP Leader and Karu Jayasuriya last week had cast him in a poor light, especially since he is the party’s most vocal proponent of leadership reform. Tuesday’s meetings on the new proposals for a change in the UNP’s leadership structure commenced with a series of separate meetings Wickremesinghe, Jayasuriya and Premadasa would hold with senior monks of the United Bhikku Front, an organisation of Buddhist monks affiliated with the party. Wickremesinghe met with the senior monks at 2:30 p.m. at a temple in Colpetty, where the monks strongly advised him to assume the position of senior leader and delegate all powers of the party leader to the Leadership Council that would function under Jayasuriya’s chairmanship. The monks proposed that Premadasa should also be a member of this Council.
A previous proposal from the Bhikku Front was for Wickremesinghe to give up the position of UNP Leader altogether and sit as a member of the proposed Leadership Council. But with Wickremesinghe willing to share the party leader’s powers with the Council but expressing a strong desire to remain Leader and retain the position of Opposition Leader, the monks have altered their proposals somewhat. The United Bhikku Front has now called on Wickremesinghe to function as ‘senior leader’, Opposition Leader and head of the party’s Parliamentary Affairs. The Leadership Council meanwhile, should be one with complete authority and executive power over the UNP’s political affairs. Wickremesinghe told the monks on Tuesday afternoon that any decision on the senior leader position would need to be approved by the UNP Working Committee, the party’s apex decision making body.
Wickremesinghe then proceeded for his meeting with Jayasuriya and Premadasa at the party’s Thimbirigasyaya office. The UNP Leader’s consistent refusal to give up the reins of the Grand Old Party and backtracking on reform has resulted in a lack of faith in his pledge to devolve power in this round of the crisis surrounding his leadership. Premadasa himself has been a strong skeptic of Wickremesinghe’s bona fides, telling a preferred television channel after the UNP Leader agreed to share power that he was not willing to buy into the handout of goodies in place of a real leadership change. In fact, Premadasa went into the meeting insisting on the proposals suggested by the Buddhist monks, reading out their proposal to both Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya. Premadasa went into Tuesday’s meeting hoping to conclude matters there, UNP sources said, even though it was clear several more rounds of discussions would be required before a solution that could satisfy all factions could be found.
Given Wickremesinghe’s track record with reform, his detractors insisted he would ensure the new Leadership Council would be relegated to the role of a mere advisory body, with no teeth to be able to really restructure the party. But consistent calls from Party seniors including Wickremesinghe’s own confidants and Jayasuriya who would assume chairmanship of the new Council, appeared to have forced the UNP Leader’s hand. The document he handed over to Jayasuriya and Premadasa at Tuesday’s meeting laid out 19 powers and functions to be delegated from the Leader to the Leadership Council, including the ability to appoint electoral organisers in consultation with the Party Leader, the right to issue directives that would apply to the entire party membership and the right to summon the Party’s office bearers and demand independent assessment reports of performance and initiate disciplinary action. While the extension of the Council’s powers and functions will be a matter for discussion at future meetings between the trio and at the Party’s working committee meets, it was key that Wickremesinghe show himself to be genuine in this effort to restructure the leadership by delegating the Council executive power that would ensure the Jayasuriya led body could actually implement changes. The UNP Leader is also likely to allow the passage of the Senior Leader proposal at the Working Committee meeting, but will remain Chairman of the Working Committee that gives him significant clout within the party.
Wickremesinghe’s willingness to compromise, even if it should prove temporary, is crucial to finally putting the party’s line of succession in place. It is a moment to be seized and the onus is on Premadasa to seize it, accept the challenges his membership in the Council will bring and find the necessary space to prove his mettle. Premadasa has constantly maintained that it is this very space Wickremesinghe has failed to provide. If he should accept the Leadership Council as a way forward and embrace the new challenges as a true stakeholder in the UNP’s future, Premadasa will have to learn to work with Jayasuriya and the rest of the Council – some of whom may be his strongest critics. He will have to refrain from pulling the rug from beneath the Council’s feet the way he has repeatedly done as Wickremesinghe’s deputy and trust that under Jayasuriya’s guidance, young emergent leaders will have the potential to shine. While Premadasa cannot be faulted for being cynical about Wickremesinghe’s overtures, too much skepticism will further erode his own support base within the Party and allow him to fall prey all too quickly to the powerful machinations of those who will try sooner rather than later to carve out Premadasa’s path to the top of the UNP, even if it means cutting the neck of Party Seniors like Jayasuriya along the way.
The rise to the top of one of Sri Lanka’s largest political parties is not one that comes easy. For virtually every leader of both major political parties in the country, the road has been a long one, fraught with pitfalls, failures and successes along the way. It took J.R. Jayewardene 30 years after he entered Parliament to assume the UNP leadership and President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself had a long wait of 35 years. For Sajith Premadasa’s own father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, it took upwards of 30 years to finally assume the role. Sajith Premadasa has a mere 13 years in Parliament and a long way to go before he can make the grade. And despite his best efforts, it is clear, there are too many factors – quite correctly – standing in the way of the leadership falling into Premadasa’s lap.
As for Wickremesinghe, the dignified exit he has always wanted is finally within his grasp. Under the conditions of this party restructure, he can remain the UNP’s chief theoretician, its elder statesman and parliamentary expert, all roles that better suit his personality than the leadership he clings to so desperately. This may also prove his last chance to step aside without being forced to do so.
Ranil Wickremesinghe badly needs to channel his 2005 avatar and try to be the man who sought to step into the shadows at a time when there was an almost universal call for him to remain at the helm of the UNP. At the time, he was perceived as a statesman politician who had been badly cheated out of presidential office by an election boycott enforced by the LTTE. Wickremesinghe had negotiated with the separatist group, but the LTTE leadership persisted in seeing him as a dangerous threat to its survival, believing that hawkish political leadership in the South would better further its cause. The Ranil Wickremesinghe attempt at ceasefire and peace talks legacy is tragic for many reasons, but most of all because of its protagonist’s own inability to communicate and market its worth to the Sri Lankan public. Today, Wickremesinghe is pronounced traitor and misguided peacenik. Yet the fact that so few are aware that the deal he refused to make with Vellupillai Prabhakaran on the dreaded ISGA cost him the 2005 presidential election is Wickremesinghe’s own communication failure. It is this failing that makes him an unwinnable candidate against the might of the Rajapaksa messaging.
Had Ranil Wickremesinghe exited in November 2005, this year or the next may have heralded calls for his return to take over the Party. Even the most unpopular leaders in their time seem like paragons once years have softened public memory. Sajith Premadasa’s grassroots appeal arises from the desire of his countrymen to see the reincarnation of his visionary father. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s 11 years in presidential office won her few friends, yet eight years after her departure, calls are mounting for her return and she is seen, even by the Government as a crucial rallying point for the opposition.
But to make a comeback possible, first, you have to go.
Courtesy Daily FT