By Dharisha Bastians –
“Politicians are like children; you can’t just give them what they want – it only encourages them” – Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn (Yes Minister)
Standing at the podium of the Business Today Top 25 Awards to recognise the country’s top companies on Tuesday night, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe cut a confident, even charmingly self-deprecating, figure.
None of these are adjectives that are often used to describe the new ‘National Leader’ of the United National Party. In his post-2005 avatar, Wickremesinghe is rarely confident or confidence inspiring. He has not been charming in years. And even his staunchest allies will admit that Wickremesinghe often possesses an off-putting arrogance about his own skill and intellect.
But under the glittering lights of the Hilton Colombo Ballroom on Tuesday, hours after he had abdicated as Party Leader and delegated many of his powers over to a Leadership Council that will run UNP affairs from this point, Wickremesinghe owned the audience of business tycoons in a short speech that was prefaced with witty remarks and ended by laughing at himself.
Addressing his hosts Mathi and Glenda Parthipan, Wickremesinghe said they were to be congratulated for putting on a good show as usual. “If politics consisted of bread and circuses, they would do jolly well at putting on the circuses,” he quipped light-heartedly. He addressed his remarks next to Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva whose speech had immediately preceded his own and consisted of a scathing critique of the abdication of moral responsibility by the business community and a system that favoured the super-rich while squeezing out the small businessmen.
“I thought I am invited here as the only discordant voice. But I must say the Leader of the House also joined me but I don’t think he went as far as I am planning to go,” Wickremesinghe jested. “But, then we are politicians. All of you, the 25, are fighting for different market shares, but both of us are fighting for the same market share and we are getting ready for the next round,” he said, causing ripples of laughter in the audience.
In a well-reasoned speech about Sri Lanka’s dangerous dependence on foreign remittances and treating the people as an export commodity, Wickremesinghe also struck an oddly optimistic note: “We have our location and our human resources and a very resilient nation. I don’t think any other nation would have gone through nearly three decades of war and still have a smile on our faces, still think we can pull through and be big players in the world.”
Concluding his remarks, the Opposition Leader quipped that he would stop talking before getting hooted off the stage, pausing to add: “I must say I have escaped the hoots thus far, despite the many ups and downs of the recent past.”
The better role
Clearly comfortable in his own skin and among people who spoke his language as it were, this was a very different Wickremesinghe from the one more often caught on media footage slouched over desk microphones and struggling to be self-assured and articulate about political matters before a hostile group of journalists or an unenthusiastic crowd. His comfort levels and confident bearing was the greatest indication that his new role, as Head of the UNP’s Parliamentary Affairs, Leader of the Opposition and the forger of alliances inside quiet office rooms may be the one for which he is best suited.
But if the country’s main Opposition had its problems end there, that would have been a pre-Christmas miracle.
The UNP faction led by Hambantota District MP Sajith Premadasa went into this round of negotiations about leadership change convinced that nothing would satisfy their desire for ‘reform’ except having Wickremesinghe thrown out on his ear. Having derailed the concerted effort launched by several Wickremesinghe loyalists to convince the UNP Leader to step down soon after the provincial elections in September, the Premadasa faction led by its powerful backers have been seeking ways to prevent the Leadership Council proposal from gaining ground. The proposal found favour with a majority of the UNP Parliamentary Group. It had the added advantage of being mooted by Buddhist monks affiliated with the UNP and invested in the Party’s future, who were willing to act as arbiters of the quarrel.
Premadasa had disrupted the first attempt at change by staking a claim for the party leadership and the presidential nomination publicly and growing increasingly and vociferously hostile towards senior members of the party loyal to the UNP leadership. The second disruption had to take a subtler course to prevent a fallout with the United Bhikku Front, which would occur if Premadasa openly snubbed the proposals. The monks had after all called specifically for Premadasa to be nominated to sit on the Council to be headed by Karu Jayasuriya.
For three weeks therefore, through gritted teeth, Sajith Premadasa played along.
At the 7 October Working Committee meeting when the eight-point proposal presented by the monks calling for the establishment of the Leadership Council was taken up for discussion, Premadasa made his feelings known, when he pulled a face and refused to meet with Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya the next day for the first round of talks on modalities of the new Council. Citing ‘personal business’ in Hambantota, a fair enough excuse, Premadasa forced the three to meet the following week. The move was seen by many UNP members as the first of many attempts by the young politician to drag his feet. Every meeting between the triumvirate led to negative reports in Premadasa’s preferred media and ended with the MP himself making deliberately cautious and pessimistic comments to the press standing outside the UNP’s Jawatte office complex where the discussions were being held. Reports swirled that Premadasa was desperately seeking an out and senior party members wondered in private when the young MP would decide the time was right to storm out of one of the meetings.
As the all-important Working Committee meeting on Monday (4) neared, the anxiety in the Premadasa camp had peaked, with it now all but certain that Wickremesinghe would allow the adoption of the monks’ eight-point plan. An unexpected windfall occurred when Jayasuriya, Premadasa and representatives of the UNP Leader were invited to Kurunegala for a discussion with the United Bhikku Front and Anunayake of the Ramayana Chapter, Ven. Girambe Ananda Thero. The Senior Monk was to travel from Anuradhapura for the meeting. Wickremesinghe was not represented at the meeting. Jayasuriya had travelled unaccompanied. Premadasa alone took with him Provincial Councillors Maithri Guneratne and Shiral Lakthilake – both no longer UNP members having been expelled from the party a few months ago – and Parliamentarian Sujeewa Senasinghe.
Three further proposals were discussed at the meeting. The proposals were not without merit and were believed to be attempts to further the cement the position of the Leadership Council and its Chairman within the Party structure. The fresh proposals called for Jayasuriya to be appointed Chairman of the Council and the second that Wickremesinghe, Jayasuriya and Premadasa be permitted to nominate three members each to the Council, including themselves. The third proposal called for the Chairman of the Council to be appointed also Chairman of the Working Committee and an amendment to the UNP Constitution that would replace the word “Leader” with the two words “Leadership Council”.
Premadasa decided to sign the “agreement” and members who travelled with him insisted that Jayasuriya also place his signature on the document. In theory, the three proposals were good ones that would give the Council teeth and need to be contemplated going forward. But it was clear that none of the proposals could be adopted without discussion with Wickremesinghe and the rest of the party’s Parliamentary Group. As National Leader, Wickremesinghe continues to hold chairmanship of the party’s Working Committee and it is not a position he will concede until he is certain his successor will not conspire to edge him out. Secondly, the monks never intended that the three proposals be discussed and adopted at the next day’s Working Committee. It was in effect intended to be a roadmap for the next phase of the reforms process.
But for Premadasa and his backers, the Kurunegala proposals turned out to be just what they were looking for. By Monday morning, when Wickremesinghe met with Jayasuriya and Premadasa at Jawatte, the latter insisted on all 11 proposals being put before the Working Committee. If not, Premadasa said, in an astounding about-face, it was better that the present system continued with Wickremesinghe staying on as Leader of the UNP.
Writing on the wall
For the Jayasuriya camp, the writing was finally on the wall following Monday’s meeting.
Premadasa it appeared was adamant that nobody, not even Jayasuriya who he has purported to support for several years, was going to block his path to the UNP leadership. It mattered little that the senior politician had been Wickremesinghe’s only challenger in nearly 20 years, at the urging of the reformist faction. It is irrelevant that the senior Parliamentarian had spent nearly two years in the political wilderness for taking that risk. With his ascent to the Chair of the Council making him the clear alternative to the present leadership, Jayasuriya has robbed Premadasa of his leader-in-waiting title. As far as Premadasa is concerned, Karu Jayasuriya is now the consummate traitor.
By Monday afternoon, news emerged from the Premadasa camp that the young MP’s puppeteers had decreed he would not take a seat at the Leadership Council. All that remained to be seen was what his reasoning would be. UNP members filed into the Party’s Sirikotha Headquarters in Pita Kotte at 3:30 p.m., many of them having been bombarded with phone calls all day after a pro-Premadasa newspaper published the names and mobile numbers of all the UNP Working Committee Members. One member of the Working Committee quipped that he had received over 50 phone calls since morning and if six callers were lambasting Wickremesinghe, the other four were slamming Premadasa. “Nobody was blasting Karu, so I guess we are making the right decision today,” the UNP member said.
Following the meeting, Wickremesinghe read out a statement to the media, assuring the new Council of his unconditional support. It was the duty of all UNP members to back this Council, he said. In his statement, Wickremesinghe slyly included a reference to the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, expressing his gratitude to all three UNP Presidents that he had the honour to work with and appreciated the faith they had all placed in him. Three hours after it began the historic meeting ended. The results were as expected. Wickremesinghe had been appointed National Leader (as opposed to senior leader), Jayasuriya was to head the Council and Premadasa as directed, would be the spoiler.
Walking out of the meeting, Premadasa played martyr, insisting to reporters that he could not sit on the Leadership Council because that would be a betrayal of his pledges to the Maha Sangha. Premadasa said the Working Committee had reneged on its promises to the United Bhikku Front. “I signed my name to that document,” he said, referring to the Kurunegala proposals, “to sign it before the Sangha was as if to sign it with my own blood.”
Backing his claim was United Bhikku Front National Organiser, Ven. Ulapane Sumangala Thero, who appeared on a Premadasa friendly television channel to denounce Jayasuriya as a traitor, demand his resignation from the Leadership Council and hail Premadasa’s decision to distance himself from an alleged conspiracy hatched by Wickremesinghe. The next day, UNP MP Thalatha Athukorale, a Premadasa supporter who had been included in the Council at the behest of Jayasuriya who demanded female representation on the Council, also refused to accept the nomination. Athukorale’s exit achieved the twin objectives of lending credence to Premadasa’s own reasons for the boycott and ensuring the Leadership Council now looked like one dominated by Wickremesinghe loyalists – with Jayasuriya retaining nominal chairmanship.
Some of Premadasa’s rhetoric about being true to the Sangha however unravelled when six members of the Leadership Council visited the historic Polwatte Dharmakeerthiramaya temple on Tuesday morning, shortly before addressing a press briefing at Sirikotha. Premadasa and Athukorale had been invited to attend but declined. Kabir Hashim, who is tipped to soon be appointed Chairman of the UNP, was reportedly unable to attend because he was travelling overseas.
Breaking down Sajith’s reasoning
Once again Ven. Girambe Ananada Thero who also functions as Advisor to the United Bhikku Front had travelled from Anuradhapura to meet the new members of the Council. Other members of the Bhikku Front were also present at the meeting that was held before the monks invoked blessings on Jayasuriya and the rest of the Council. Once again, UNP Colombo District MP Sujeewa Senasinghe walked into the temple to sit in on the discussion.
The United Bhikku Front National Organiser Ulapane Sumangala Thero was deeply critical of the Council and said it would have no teeth without the necessary constitutional powers. Jayasuriya explained to the monk that according to the UNP Constitution, it was the Working Committee that was vested with power that was then delegated to the Leader. In this case, at Monday’s meeting, the Committee had delegated its powers to the Council, he said. When the monk raised the issue of why the Council had to seek Wickremesinghe’s approval to implement changes and make appointments, Council Member Lakshman Kiriella explained that the phrasing of the powers granted to the Council clearly stipulated that decisions required only ‘consultations’ with the Leader. “We consult with our parents also about the decisions we make, but that doesn’t mean we have to listen to them,” the MP quipped.
Senasinghe interjected during the discussions to tell Jayasuriya that he had become party to Wickremesinghe’s plot to make cosmetic changes that passed off as solutions to the crisis. At one point Jayasuriya himself had criticised tactic, Senasinghe added.
The remarks irked Jayasuriya who has been at the receiving end of several barbs from Senasinghe who has sometimes referred to the senior politician using derogatory language. Jayasuriya told the younger politician to refrain from spinning lies and accept that the Council was formed in the hope of putting things right. The Bhikku Front’s General Secretary Bopitiye Dhammissara Thero informed Senasinghe at this point that the monks had never called for Wickremesinghe’s ouster. “We wanted him to be on the Council. We proposed his name for Senior Leader,” the General Secretary said. He explained that the monks believed that Wickremesinghe still had a contribution to make.
Threats from Sujeewa
An angry Senasinghe retorted that the Western Provincial Council elections were just months away. “We are also from the Western Province. Let’s see what happens if the UNP’s vote percentage doesn’t increase at the Western Provincial Council polls,” he threatened.
Dhammissara Thero admonished the young MP saying that it was time for UNP members to stop sabotaging the party’s success. “It’s time to identify the real enemy,” the monk told Senasinghe. The final word on the subject however was from the Anunayake Thero. The senior monk confronted Premadasa’s defence head-on when he said the Leadership Council was an acceptable change. The additional three proposals put forward in Kurunegala, Girambe Ananda Thero said, were meant to be for discussion and consultation. “There is no betrayal here. These things cannot be rushed,” he explained to the group, before the day’s religious ceremonies took place.
But as far as the Premadasa faction is concerned, the die is cast. The Bhikku Front will attempt and fail at rapprochement talks. Premadasa will remain in the UNP and pursue his own agendas, as he did during his one year as Deputy Leader of the Party. As the Council begins its work, he will readjust the narrative once more with the blessings of his backers, to play himself off again as the ultimate victim of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s devious machinations. By alienating himself from the Council, Premadasa will successfully showcase it as a sham exercise, with Wickremesinghe still holding all the trumps.
With the Premadasa faction aligning against him, Jayasuriya will have a political minefield to navigate. How much the Council can achieve will now depend entirely on Jayasuriya’s ability to reach out to disgruntled members of the UNP and convince them the changes are real, if the entire membership pulls together. Had Premadasa sat on the Council, the prospect for change would have been greater. As a decision maker, the young MP would for the first time have got an opportunity to steer the UNP’s destiny. Jayasuriya, an inherent nurturer of young talent, would have afforded him every opportunity.
But Premadasa, predictably, has chosen the alternate course.
On successive occasions, Sajith Premadasa has pitted himself against the Wickremesinghe camp and always only managed to remain, complainingly, on the sidelines. So many years after Premadasa began attempting to oust the UNP Leader, a man so diminished and unpopular his own party longs to see the back of him, the balance has never really tilted in the younger politician’s favour. That has little to do with Wickremesinghe’s intractability and everything to do with the kind of politician Premadasa is shaping up to be. With his every move, he alienates the moderates, factionalises the party and weakens the UNP’s chances. His desire to destroy Wickremesinghe politically, a desire that is now increasingly transparent, is winning him no friends in a party that reveres its leaders.
One day, fed up with the bickering, the party might throw Wickremesinghe out and Premadasa might finally become its de facto leader. In what tattered state the UNP will be when that day comes, remains to be seen.
There is a Government building that belongs to the Treasury on D.R. Wijewardane Mawatha. A series of framed photographs line the walls of the building, each bearing an image of successive Cabinets of Ministers. Ranil Wickremesinghe features in a majority of them ever since he entered Parliament in 1977. Over the years, Wickremesinghe has watched some of this country’s greatest politicians at work.
As his speech this week at a glitzy award ceremony in Colombo proved, his recent fall from grace notwithstanding, Ranil Wickremesinghe remains an important cog in the political wheel, a thinking, reading politician in an age when both attributes are proving hard to come by. He may be unmarketable and lack common man appeal. But for the Premadasa faction to denounce Wickremesinghe as having nothing to contribute to the UNP going forward, when they have contributed so little themselves, is supreme arrogance.
Sajith Premadasa’s peculiar brand of peevish politics is helping no one’s cause, least of all his own. Each time Premadasa derails attempts at reform with his all-or-nothing attitude to change, he damages his own cause and entrenches Wickremesinghe’s position within the UNP. And in doing so, he manages to keep the Opposition polarised and divided, with no hope of presenting itself as an alternative to the Rajapaksa juggernaut.
Courtesy Daily FT