By Dharisha Bastians –
When rival factions of the United National Party clashed on the main streets of Matara on Saturday afternoon, passions and adrenaline appeared to be running higher than it ever did during party’s campaign rallies that preceded polling day last month.
Simmering frustrations within the country’s main opposition party reached an extraordinary crescendo when pro-Ranil supporters clashed with anti-Ranil marchers in the Southern city, injuring at least seven people. Guns and blunt weapons were used by both sides in the bizarre clashes that resulted in at least one high profile arrest when expelled UNP member and Southern Provincial Councillor Maithri Guneratne’s father and author Herman Guneratne was taken into police custody in connection with a shooting during the street fight. The 75 year old Guneratne was produced before the Matara Additional Magistrate yesterday and remanded until today (7). UNP Provincial Councillor Krishantha Pushpakumara suffered a gunshot injury to his leg during the clash.
Twenty two others were also arrested on Sunday, including UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera who is alleged to have led the pro-Ranil protestors in his electorate. Saramaweera was released after questioning.
The proxy war between UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his challenger Sajith Premadasa was waged in Matara between the pro-Ranil Samaraweera and the pro-Sajith radical provincial councillors Maithri Guneratne and Shiral Lakthilake. Both young lawyers were sacked from the UNP earlier this year for their complicity in an attack on the party headquarters Sirikotha in December 2011 after Wickremesinghe was re-elected Leader in a much anticipated leadership contest.
The Matara clashes were not the first time the internecine battles within the UNP have descended into violence, but it was the first time that the blood of party members has been spilled. In a democratic space that is rapidly shrinking because of the desperate lack of an effective and engaged opposition, it appears in-fighting is the only thing the UNP can muster any real energy for.
UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have visited his Party supporters injured in the clashes, but he remains as defiant and intransigent as ever in the aftermath of the Matara violence.
For the crisis-ridden UNP, sober and defeatist elections campaigns are often followed by dramatic reckonings in the post-polls phase. In the face of certain defeat in the North Western and Central Provinces, neither the incumbent UNP Leadership nor its challengers offered much resistance against the Government’s juggernaut election campaign. Instead, it is in the polls aftermath that the UNP’s real battles begin.
The Sajith faction begins another attempt to oust Wickremesinghe, employing methods and tactics that harden the UNP Leader’s position, making change almost impossible. Reform is promised and rarely delivered. For months the status quo remains the same. An election comes around again; the UNP is trounced. Cue the campaign to oust Wickremesinghe. Rinse and repeat. Every attempt weakens the party at its core. Every failure to change the party leadership splinters the UNP a little bit more.
After the most recent polls battle, party insiders say, something was altered. Murmurs persisted that a dejected UNP Leader had expressed a willingness to step down and make way for real change in the beleaguered opposition party. Consistent representations were made, this time by MPs and party members loyal and affiliated with Wickremesinghe. Backbench Parliamentarians insisted this time was different, that Wickremesinghe was finally listening. UNP moderates were advocating for a stop-gap leader who could pave the way for a future Party Leader to emerge from among the younger membership. Karu Jayasuriya, who could play the role of elder statesman in this transitional phase, was the top choice of moderates. Jayasuriya would not only loosen the hold of the Wickremesinghe cronies within the UNP, but his congenial, non-vindictive political style would ensure Ranil Wickremesinghe would be given his due even if he stepped down from leadership.
Enter Sajith Premadasa. Relatively disengaged from the party’s political processes during the election campaigns, Premadasa is beset with a complex sense of entitlement arising from his father’s presidential legacy. In the Uncle-Nephew party, Sajith Premadasa cannot be entirely faulted for clinging to the notion that he is rightful alternative heir. Yet unlike Ranasinghe Premadasa, who UNP stalwarts remember as an out and out party man, even when he was not liked by the party’s leadership and aristocracy, Premadasa the younger has never shown himself to be a team-player.
Even as Wickremesinghe was reportedly mulling resignation, Premadasa’s powerful advisors are said to have decided for him that the time was opportune to openly stake his claim for the UNP throne. Privately, Premadasa voiced thoughts that were set off alarm bells for the party’s moderate membership. Wickremesinghe’s challenger was promising vengeance against the UNP Leader and his acolytes when he wrested control of the party. Wickremesinghe’s humiliation has become priority for sections of the Premadasa faction.
As the young MP from Hambantota made his intentions clear, the UNP’s polarisation widened. Premadasa called UNP members ‘napunsakayas’ or political eunuchs. He accused SLFP dissident Mangala Samaraweera of conspiring to destroy his father’s party. He publicly condemned Party General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, calling him a loser who entered Parliament on the national list. In rejecting a call from the Party’s Matara District Coordinating Committee that he becomes the face of the UNP’s Southern Provincial polls campaign, Premadasa came off as arrogant, self-serving and distressingly lacking in political acumen. It was the resounding feeling among the party’s moderates that Premadasa had not achieved enough in the UNP or for the UNP to stake such a claim. With Premadasa openly demanding not only the party leadership but also its presidential nomination, the Ranil faction is now begging the UNP leader not to go.
Three weeks after the poll, Wickremesinghe is dismissing the latest leadership struggle as the usual form post-election. At his behest, UNP office bearers are resigning en masse. Reappointing these office bearers is likely to be Wickremesinghe’s major concession to reform in this round of post-election mayhem. The Party’s National Organiser Daya Gamage spoke for his Leader when he said Wickremesinghe was more than willing to step down if a suitable candidate was available to replace him. Premadasa, in the eyes of the UNP’s Ranil faction, is certainly not that candidate. When senior monks affiliated to the party who met with the UNP Leader at the historic Rajakeeyaramaya temple last Friday, mooted the Leadership Council that would constitutionally replace the position of Party Leader, Wickremesinghe rejected the proposal, claiming he did not want to sit on the Council but must retain the position of party leader. Under the UNP constitution, the Party Leader is all powerful, which would reduce any Leadership Council that is established to nothing more than an advisory body that Wickremesinghe could simply ignore. But the monks’ council wants a Leadership Council with teeth to function under the chairmanship of the non-divisive Jayasuriya, that will include members from both the Ranil and Sajith factions. The position is being reinforced by a majority of the UNP moderates at present.
The factional wars within the country’s main opposition party are threatening Sri Lanka’s already fragile democracy which will not survive the onslaught from an increasingly powerful oligarchy without effective opposition. And the Grand Old Party is dying because of its leaders’ tragic flaws. The failure to build an effective second tier leadership within the UNP belongs to Wickremesinghe. The inability to fill that vacuum convincingly despite the odds being stacked in his favour is Premadasa’s own folly.
Superficially, the Erskin-May touting Wickremesinghe and earthy Premadasa appear poles apart. But in many ways, Wickremesinghe and Premadasa are not dissimilar. Both are arrogant and intractable.
Both cannot place party interests before personal agenda. UNP bases are disillusioned with Wickremesinghe’s leadership, but Premadasa fails to capture the imaginations of his party men sufficiently enough to win comprehensive support within the Party structure. Both are devastatingly polarising individuals, intent on factionalising the party rather than uniting it, incapable of transcending vengeance and vindictiveness that could give the UNP a truly new lease of life. Premadasa has significant grassroots support. Yet he fails to understand that the battle for the UNP leadership will not be waged or won on the ground, but among the party’s moderate senior membership. As the Ranil and Sajith factions battle it out on the streets and shadow-box in their preferred media, the calls grow louder within the party for a unifier to resolve the current deadlock.
Sajith Premadasa is seen as a UNP candidate with the same common-man appeal President Mahinda Rajapaksa commands. Lately Premadasa has struck a worryingly nationalistic tone in his political rhetoric, slamming the TNA’s election manifesto and accusing the UNP Leader of betraying the motherland, words that will surely cost the UNP its only certain support base among the minority communities. And the trouble is that if nationalism and Sinhala-centric politics is going to be Sajith Premadasa’s preferred poison, then it is well he remembers that nobody will best the President at that game.
So while the UNP under Sajith Premadasa may get an early boost by energising the party’s base, true reinvention will only follow if a new UNP leader emerges who can inspire the imagination of disillusioned moderates and marginalised minorities in the country who are desperately seeking an alternative to the present status quo.
Under the circumstances, in the seemingly endless struggle for the UNP Leadership, neither incumbent nor challenger, inspire much hope for the future.