UNP must first name the Presidential candidate – Imthiaz

Imthiaz Bakeer Markar

Member of the UNP Working Committee, former Minister, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar says delaying the decision on the Presidential candidate, is unfavourable for the UNP.

Excerpts of the interview:

Though you have been fighting for Party reforms in the UNP, for a long time, at present it seems to have failed?

A: Internal democracy is an issue, in any Party in Sri Lanka. There is either family dominance or unidentified remote authority controlling, and the lower ranks have to accept those decisions. Comparatively, even though there are internal issues about Party democracy, I am happy about the UNP. The reason is, I joined the Party as a student activist.

Although, I am a Sri Lankan, according to the traditional view of the polity, I belong to a minority. However, I became the Chairman of the Party student front. I became the General Secretary of the Party’s youth front. I became an electoral organiser in J.R. Jayewardene’s time. We didn’t have personal problems. This is a policy issue.  I think this issue can be settled, compared to other political Parties there is greater democracy within the UNP.

Are you completely, 100 per cent, satisfied with Party democracy within your Party?

A: I admit that I cannot be. It is not 100 per cent and that is the problem. There are differences in terms of policies and opinions within the UNP too, the same as in other Parties.

What is your opinion if I say that in the UNP, although named United National Party, there has been no unity,  in the past two decades?

A: The real story is not the lack of unity. The UNP is a living democracy and that is clear.   Look at the alternative to us, the Rajapaksa force. Who decides the leader there? It is family centric. The other is the JVP, about which I am not going to speak. See how all the other Parties take decisions. Do the members engage in decisions? Is there active democracy? Let us speak frankly. UNP is the only Party that dispelled the view that only the traditional Govigama caste elites can lead the country. The Party brought Mr. R. Premadasa to the leadership, and showed anyone can aspire to be at the helm. This was created by decisions of the UNP. So, in Party democracy the UNP is ahead of the others.

How can we believe what you say about Party democracy when we can openly see power struggles within the UNP?

A: It is not so in the other Party, there the stance is agreeing with any orders by the king. There is a feudal mentality there. Our membership challenges the Party leadership. They pressure the leadership to hurry and agree to the people’s choice. This is very important.

What is the reason for the National Democratic Front alliance to fail at its inception?

A: The reason for the failure is the democracy within the Party.

Usually, the Party’s Working Committee decisions are final.

Internal issues must be resolved before the leadership is criticised.

But now the leadership is being criticised within the Party and also outside, is this acceptable?

A: There may be a couple of such persons. I don’t know about that.  However, there was severe criticism within the Working Committee. This is the first time that a majority of the Party Working Committee went against the stand of the leader with regard to the dialogue on Party democracy.

What is the reason for the majority to oppose the stand of the Party leader?

A: The majority were against a vote, on 5th August, to setup the coalition. The majority were opposed to a split and called for consensus. I challenge any other Party to show a membership that can challenge the leadership in that way.

Your challenging the Opposition is one thing. But this is the first time that the leadership of a Party that heads Government is being challenged. Isn’t this the first time   that the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was made so weak?  

A: UNP leadership has been challenged in the past as well, on many occasions; I remember the conflict between Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene when I was a UNP student activist. When J.R. Jayewardene proposed to join the Government, the Working Committee voted against him and only A.C.S. Hameed supported him. All the others opposed. In the middle of the meeting, Mr. Jayewardene walked out. Later, the moderate elements of the Party settled the conflict. Mr. Dudley Senanayake stepped back and sat as a backbencher in Parliament offering the Opposition Leader position to J.R. Jayewardene.

Isn’t this split ahead of a major national election disadvantageous to the UNP?

A: Dragging this issue ahead of an election is an issue, for me too. It is not good for the Party.

Are you speaking about the delay in forming the alliance?

A: No. Delaying the decision on the presidential candidate is not advantageous to the party. I am sincerely sorry about it. But the dynamic Party democracy in the UNP is evident by the differences in opinion and the conflict with the leadership.

Is the power struggle for the presidential candidate the main reason for this?

A: I don’t agree with the term ‘power struggle’. It is not a power struggle.

If there is no power struggle why are there so many presidential candidates in the UNP?

A: The comparison should be with the dynamic democracy in the UNP and the feudal mentality in other Parties. It is a problem if UNP members are in a tradition of saying ‘yes’ to anything. UNP has no such feudal mentality.

You speak of Party democracy at a time when there are clear divisions within the Party?  

A: The struggle must be there. If it is not there, dictatorship will win. Only a negligible voice of one Welgama is heard against the candidate named by Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa. That is the feudal mentality of which we must free ourselves.

The cause for many problems in this country is the ancient serf mentality of bending before the modern landlord elite. We must develop mental skills of being able to discuss the policy problems directly and openly as equal citizens. We cannot say we have achieved that status when compared to the advanced democracies in the world.

During a presidential election, we see competition among Parties. But today there is competition within your Party?

A: In our Party, politicians like Eran Wickramaratne, Harsha de Silva, Ajith P. Perera and some others don’t like to engage in henchmen politics. They are ready for an advanced democracy. These learned politicians want to march forward with their experiences.

Has no one come forward to say that internal conflicts are detrimental before a presidential election?

A: I told this at the Working Committee meeting. I urged them not to get divided. There are three names being mentioned: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Preamadasa and Karu Jayasuriya. I told all three of them should get into a room and have a one-on-one discussion and come to a conclusion. I also told them no one will oppose their decision as we all believe that all three love the Party.

What was your leader’s response to that?

A: My suggestion didn’t have the push at that moment. The decision was postponed. I am sorry about the delay.

You are positive about the formation of the alliance. But you are pessimistic about the delay in naming the candidate. Isn’t this contradictory?

A: No the Working Committee is unanimous about the alliance. But the majority is of the view that the presidential candidate must be decided before the alliance, it was only allowing the majority view to prevail.

Has the Party decided about the presidential candidate, internally, although it is not revealed to the Media?

A: No official decision has been taken at Party level. But there is a wave of popularity for Sajith Premadasa among Party members and the ordinary people of the country. The UNP must ride on that wave.

Are you a Sajith loyalist?

A: I have told you right from the beginning, in Party issues I have never been idolising individuals. I stand for policy. This Party has a good history. My grandfather and father were in this Party. The UNP was founded and established ending the racist, caste and religious politics of the country.

I am strictly bound to those principles with my whole heart. UNP has stood for social justice in this country; it is marked in history. The likes of the father of free education, Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara and Mahapola founder Lalith Athulathmudali were in the UNP. Janasaviya was launched by the UNP leaders. Our Party has a legacy of social democracy. I am for safeguarding that legacy and to safeguard the interests of individuals.

If his presidential candidature is not official, how can Minister Sajith Premadasa carry out propaganda work, with public funds for massive banners, cut-outs and so forth?

A: I reject your position that it is public money. However, he has expressed his desire to contest the Presidential Election. It is good. As some were saying he is waiting until he is old, now, he has rejected those and shown he is ready to take on any responsibility. That is his right. I am glad he corrected the misinformation and expressed his stand.

Do you mean that Sajith Premadasa’s propaganda expenses are his own?

A: I don’t believe that he misuses public finances and property. He is an exemplary character. He does not use Government vehicles or fuel. He does not draw a salary from Government. He has no big close circle of loyalists. Therefore, I believe he is ready to bring the change in politics the new generation expects.

By talking about a close circle, are you attacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in an indirect way?

A: No. I am talking about the Rajapaksa gang.

Your leader is also charged with that allegation?

A: You are trying to twist what I am saying, that is unfair. What I was trying to point out was how, when Mahinda Rajapaksa goes on a journey he is accompanied by several MPs loyal to him. He shows whom he will favour when he comes to power. There is no one to be shown as Sajith Premadasa’s pet.

He has studied with farsighted vision and from his own and his father’s experiences the merits and demerits of politicians and he is getting ready for his political journey. That is very important.

When we question about Party decisions, all UNPers say the decision of the Working Committee is final. But there is a serious allegation that is being levelled that the decisions are the leader’s choice?

A: When Ajith P. Perera proposed the name of Sajith Premadasa as Presidential candidate of the Party, at the last Working Committee meeting, the leader said that we couldn’t  discuss it, then, as the MPs who were attending the ceremony to give the graduate appointments couldn’t  be present at the Working Committee meeting. He said the decision has to be made after discussions with all of them and showed his clear stand that he was ready to take a decision together with the Working Committee and the people’s representatives.

Some UNP MPs argue that the candidate must be selected not only by the Working Committee but also by taking into consideration the views of the people’s representatives. Do you agree?

A: The Prime Minister said the decision needed to be taken at a meeting where Working Committee members as well as the people’s representatives were present. I prefer if the Local Government representatives also participate in the decision making. It is a feature of advanced democracies. Parties must let natural leaders to evolve and not parachute leaders.

At a glance, it looks as if several outsiders who joined your Party have become powerful within the UNP?

A: I can answer if you name them.

Minister Rajitha Senaratne and Minister Champika Ranawaka are now on the same footing with your Party leader when making decisions?

Will you publish my answer together with your question without making any change?

A: Yes. I will.

Alright. I can’t say so. When we look back at the decisions of the past Working Committee meeting, we can see the setting up of the alliance was postponed because of pressure from Working Committee members and the MPs.

A majority in the UNP wants the position of General Secretary of the alliance to the UNP. But, is it true that it’s going to be a outsider?

A: Minister Mangala Samaraweera pointed out the importance of an alliance. He pointed out that even Sirimavo Bandaranaike when she formed alliances she gave the General Secretary position of the alliance to someone from the SLFP.  As a Party with strong public support, we must not let the tail wag the other parts.

Do you mean the minor Parties trying to govern the UNP?

A: Even if I have said so, we must unite to work. Minister Mangala Samaraweera said at a meeting that we should not undervalue our strength.

Even the minority voters who are of a special value for your victory are now opposing the UNP leadership, at times, isn’t it a challenge for the leadership?

A: As far as I can see, there is no such conflict.  All leaders like Rauf Hakeem, Mano Ganeshan and Digambaran have asked to select the presidential candidate of the UNP first and then form the alliance.

What is your stance on it?

A: I admit it. It is important that we select the presidential candidate before we form the alliance. That is my personal view too. I think the majority of the MPs are also of that view.

But, according to the general view that majority of the Sinhala Buddhist votes will go to the Rajapaksa camp and the minorities will vote for the UNP, and is the UNP trying to lose these minority votes through these measures, is a question that arises, how do you see this?

A: I think the minority parties emerged in instances where the national Parties didn’t act as national parties. In the 1950s, the language problem occurred. When the Dudley Senanayake Government tried to introduce District Development Councils, protests led to the passing away of Ven. Dambarawe Rathanasara Thera. Eventually it was rejected.

Today, Sinhala and Tamil languages are made national languages. It is not like a question paper set in Tamil being answered in Tamil.  We have achieved such status through sacrifices. The UNP has never gone to extremism. Throughout history, the minorities have stood with the UNP before extremism.  But there are some problems on that journey.

Media reported that UNP Parliamentarians were signing a petition regarding the UNP candidate. Are you aware of it?

A: I am not aware of it. The majority of UNP MPs believe the presidential candidate must be named first.

Why was such a petition started? Was it because the Working Committee is not independent?

A: Can leaders like Mahinda Rajapaksa be challenged by his Party by collecting signatures for such a petition? How is that mindset? Study the difference between the independence of the UNP MPs and the feudal mentality of the MPs of the other Parties. I appreciate it.

If, as you say, the UNP safeguards democracy, why does Minister Navin  Dissanayake blame Ministers Kabir Hashim and Sagala Ratnayaka for visiting Gotabaya Rajapaksa? Is it democracy?

A: We must have human values.  Visiting someone when that person is ill is alright. It is a problem only if the visit is for a political deal.

Will we see Imthiaz Bakeer Markar on Sajith’s stage?

A: I believe the UNP leaders will take the right decision in line with the Sajith Premadasa’s wave of popularity in the Party. I will always stand with the right candidate of the Party.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said forming the alliance will be finalised before the end of August. Is it possible that it will be further postponed until September?

A: I am not a fortune teller.

I am asking about the practicality?  

A: I believe that we must decide the presidential candidate of the Party before forming the alliance.

Were you even remotely aware that Islam extremism was raising its head among certain groups, before the Easter Sunday attacks?

A: The majority in both the Sinhala and Muslim communities have no problem between communities. Most of the problems are created by politicians and Media. Such things are done to sell the papers and for political gains. Don’t get angry.

This is very unfortunate. Rousing extremist mentality is good for gaining applause. But they are bad for unity and for a united journey.

Even though you point a finger at Media, we lost over 260 lives. Over 500 were injured. This is a national disaster. As a Muslim leader, don’t you have responsibility in preventing the development of such extremism among your community?

A: Definitely, I have. The best interpretation about that incident was provided by the  Cardinal. There are over 50 Muslim nations in the world.

In Sri Lanka, there are ambassadors of 15 such countries. All those 15 ambassadors visited the Cardinal to express their sympathy. I too went with them. The Cardinal gave the best reply.

His exemplary speech prevented an emotional response from the people.

(Source: Ceylon Today – By Anuradha Herath)