UNP war hots up: Contest is likely

The second decade of the 21st century dawned yesterday with many an uncertainty in Sri Lanka’s ever changing political landscape.

It was felt most in the country’s main opposition United National Party (UNP), which is torn by internal feuding and power struggles. On Wednesday night, the UNP’s besieged leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, had just returned to Colombo after another visit to India. Whilst moves were afoot in Colombo to oust him from leadership, he was in New Delhi.

He talked to ruling Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and Home Minister P. Chidambaram on many an issue other than the crisis he was facing in the party.

His mobile phone rang within hours of his return. It was UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya seeking an urgent meeting with him on Thursday (next) morning. At the Opposition Leader’s office at Cambridge Terrace, in Colombo, the two held a 20-minute dialogue from 9.30 am that was to highlight an explosive situation developing within the UNP.

Strategic meetings

Jayasuriya told Wickremesinghe he had given an appointment and met a delegation led by Sajith Premadasa (MP-Hambantota District) the previous night. He had agreed to this since Premadasa had said that he and his backers wanted to see Jayasuriya in his capacity as the party’s deputy leader. They had claimed that he was the first in a string of meetings they proposed to have with those known to be close associates of Wickremesinghe. They had wanted to make some representations to him.

The Premadasa group, Jayasuriya said, had asked him to request Wickremesinghe to honourably relinquish his post as leader. If he did not do so, Premadasa had said that he would contest him at a party election due before April, this year. The party’s new constitution adopted at the annual sessions on December 12 last year calls for the election of a leader by consensus. If that is not possible, the Working Committee is empowered to decide to go for a secret ballot. Jayasuriya said he was faithfully conveying to his leader what transpired during the meeting. This, he said, was to help him (Wickremesinghe) take appropriate action. He said he did not want to see the party split at a time when it faced many challenges. Wickremesinghe said he was well aware of what had been going on. He said he would be consulting party seniors to discuss the matter.

When Premadasa sought an appointment with Jayasuriya,it was fixed for Wednesday evening at the latter’s residence at Amarasekera Mawatha in Colombo 5. Six MPs — Dayasiri Jayasekera (Kurunegala District), Thalatha Athukorale (Ratnapura District), Ranjit Madduma Bandara, (Moneragala District), Sujeeva Senasinghe (Colombo District), Rosie Senanayake (Colombo District) and Ashok Abeysinghe (Kurunegala District) — and a few others, among whom were lawyers Upul Jayasuriya, Ronald Perera, Maithree Gunaratne, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Bodhi Ranasinghe, the un-official Chief of Staff of the Premadasa faction, accompanied the leader-aspirant for the meeting.

Over a dinner of hot hoppers, katta sambol and chicken curry, Premadasa and his backers spoke on the need for a change in the leadership. Since party reforms were now complete and they had to face the upcoming local government elections, a change in the leadership has become necessary, they said. Jayasuriya had noted that there should be good governance and democracy within the party. With that in mind, he said, he would convey the sentiments expressed at the meeting to the leader.

After Jayasuriya had met Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader made it known that he was both displeased and angry that his deputy should have given an appointment to those whom he viewed as a dissident group.

“All I can say is that a group led by Sajith Premadasa came and saw me. I extended them my usual hospitality,” Jayasuriya told the Sunday Times. However, he declined to elaborate. Jayasuriya had told his leader that while Premadasa wanted a change in the party leadership, Wickremesinghe as party leader should be careful in the decision he is going to take. “I don’t want what happened with the DUNF to happen again to the UNP,” he added.

It will be recalled that when Sajith Premadasa’s father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, was faced with an impeachment motion as a result of an internal rebellion in the party led by then powerful Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, a sizeable section of party members were suspended from the UNP resulting in the birth of the DUNF (Democratic United National Front).

This was the beginning of the end of the then powerful UNP that was riding high till that time with the opposition in tatters. The split not only wounded the elephantine UNP almost mortally, but gave a life line to the opposition. When provincial council elections were held as a precursor to general elections, upstart politicians like Chandrika Kumaratunga benefited by the UNP split and became Chief Ministers paving the way to her meteoric rise up the political ladder thereafter. The disintegration of the UNP was complete with the assassinations of President Premadasa and the DUNF leaders Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake who were fighting among themselves.

An aide to Jayasuriya argued that as deputy leader, he had to heed a request for a meeting by anyone in the party, and in this case a sizeable section of it. Other sources said Jayasuriya was also hurt at what he believed were moves to “auction off” his Deputy Leader post during backchannel negotiations to strike a deal between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa. This is without Jayasuriya being told what was going on. These sources were alluding to unsuccessful moves made by one time UNP chairman Malik Samarawickrema, who played the role of broker between the embattled UNP leader and the Premadasa followers.

During discussions with the Premadasa faction, Samarawickrema who offered the post of Deputy Leader to Sajith Premadasa as a compromise to retain Wickremesinghe in his current position reportedly remarked that Jayasuriya could be “phased out” from the number two position and asked Premadasa “not to worry.” These sources said that the reported remarks, coupled together with the fact that Wickremesinghe had not briefed him (Jayasuriya) on the dialogue, had angered Jayasuriya. However, Wickremesinghe has continued to maintain that he had “not authorised” anyone to talk on his behalf. Yet, as reported last week, he admitted to Ravi Karunanayake (Colombo District) that nevertheless Samarawickrema was keeping him informed of the negotiations with the Premadasa camp’s chief negotiator Bodhi Ranasinghe.

One of Samarawickrema’s compromise proposals was to allow Wickremesinghe to continue to function as the UNP leader till the end of this year (2011). This was in exchange for arrangements to be made for Premadasa to take over as the Deputy Leader. Jayasuriya, the incumbent, was to be “moved upstairs” as the Chairman of the party. An alternative proposal from Ranasinghe was to ask Wickremesinghe to become the senior leader of the party as well as continue to function as opposition leader. For the senior leader post, it was suggested that the UNP constitution be amended again. The UNP leader was not in favour of the move.

Malik’s past roles

In the past years, Samarawickrema, no doubt, has played useful roles for the party’s advantage, main among them has been engineering the collapse of the Kumaratunga government of 2001 that saw a UNP administration back in power. However, this time, his role formally denied by Wickremesinghe though, seemed one clearly to ensure Wickremesinghe remained in the saddle and compensated the agitators with a sop or two.

There is hardly any doubt now that his shadowy role angered even some of Wickremesinghe’s staunchest backers. Ravi Karunanayake (MP – Colombo District) was just one of them. He returned from a European tour last week only to rush to Wickremesinghe and lodge his vehement protest at the backstage horse-deals taking place. Samarawickrema’s moves failed after Premadasa rejected the overtures made to him.

Premadasa made clear they were not acceptable to him after some weeks of uncertainty when the young MP was not sure if he should wait or go for the leadership now. It was the mass support for him at the party convention in December and the intense pressure applied on him by his immediate backers that made him decide that he would throw his hat into the ring, now.

On Monday, another intermediary entered the fray. Kabeer Hasheem (MP- Kegalle) had just returned from abroad when he was enlisted to join the Samarawickrema – Ranasinghe negotiations.

Hasheem met both of them that Monday and suggested Premadasa wait till the next convention to take up the leadership in a smooth transition rather then a bloody leadership contest. The Hasheem intervention also proved futile with the Premadasa faction now emboldened to challenge the party leader.

No sooner had Jayasuriya left the Opposition Leader’s office on Thursday morning, the new head of the UNP media unit, Mangala Samaraweera (MP – Matara District) and a UNP convert walked in for a meeting with Wickremesinghe. The UNP Leader briefed them on what Jayasuriya had conveyed to him.

Wickremesinghe did not hide his feelings that he disapproved of what Jayasuriya had done. One of his staunch loyalists, Jayasuriya had chosen to meet and greet a rival faction aspiring for leadership of the party, he felt. He had made this known to Samaraweera.

Among the reports that reached Wickremesinghe is one that suggested that the Premadasa faction planned to install Jayasuriya as the interim leader for an agreed period. These reports had said that such a move would serve as a buffer from criticism against Premadasa, particularly by those in the government. “Karu will be Sajith’s political bullet-proof vest” joked one of his supporters. This is only in the event of there being a consensus within the party. If the electoral college is unable to reach such a consensus, it was Premadasa who was going to be named the contender against Wickremesinghe.
Later that day, Wickremesinghe also met parliamentarians John Ameratunga and Joseph Michael Perera to discuss the same issue. This duo have also been having talks with Premadasa and reporting to Wickremesinghe on the outcome in the past week. On Friday, Mangala Samaraweera politely declined a request by a key mover in the Sajith group, Dayasiri Jayasekera, for a meeting. He said he was busy with personal commitments and would not be able to meet him immediately. Ahead of this meeting, Premadasa loyalists had discussed among themselves the need to induct Samaraweera into their own ranks.

A similar approach has also been made to Ravi Karunanayake who is now on holiday in Thailand. During telephone conversations, the Premadasa faction has assured that he would be considered for an important slot in the party. It was said to be Assistant Leader, However, the Sunday Times learnt Karunanayake has said he would only settle for the post of General Secretary of the Party if he is to agree to work with Premadasa as the leader. Karunanayake is expected to arrive in Colombo next week.

Numbers game

As the old year faded and a new one arrived, the battle lines between the two factions in the UNP, one backing leader Wicrkemesinghe and the other Premadasa, has become sharper and clearer. The moot issue now is over who commands the majority support in the 78-member electoral college that will select or elect a new leader, if the situation so arises. It is made up of the Working Committee and the UNP parliamentary group. On Wednesday night, Premadasa loyalists insisted that they commanded the majority. According to their count, there were 38 members supporting their leader with only 32 in favour of Wickremesinghe. This is whilst there were 17 whose loyalties remained unknown.

However, Wickremesinghe backers insist that the numbers game was loaded heavily in his favour. One of them, who did not wish to be identified, claimed, “This is why he will stand up and fight. He is ready to face the consequences”. If those remarks are to be taken seriously, Wickremesinghe will stake his claim whether he wins or loses. A victory, naturally, would place him on a higher pedestal and isolate the Premadasa group. However, a defeat would force Wickremesinghe to forego both his office as Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the UNP. The Premadasa faction says that unless Wickremesinghe agrees to accept the senior leader post his job as leader of the opposition would not be guaranteed in case of a defeat at the leadership contest. What is even more important is that these factors would have to be played out before April this year.

The new constitution, which has already taken effect, stipulates that election of office bearers including the post of leader would have to be held within 120 days. Thus, the UNP goes into 2011 with uncertainty over who will be the next leader and where the party is headed. A date when the electoral college will meet has not yet been firmly decided. Wickremesinghe is awaiting the return of party General Secretary Tissa Attanayake who is away in biting cold Britain as things within the party hot up. Earlier reports spoke of the possibility of the event being held as early as this month. However, in the light of new developments, whether it would be delayed remains a key question. Either way, the two sides will devote more time in the coming weeks canvassing support for their respective candidates.

Yesterday, the Premadasa faction put up another show of strength by inviting media personnel for New Year breakfast kiribath (milk-rice) and to meet the Leader-aspirant at the Polhengoda political office of Bodhi Ranasinghe, the former Chairman of the Hotels Corporation and now the General Factotum of the Premadasa Camp.

Loud-speakers were affixed to the rooftop so that speakers could be heard by the 200-odd present inside and outside the house. Elected MPs Jayalath Jayawardene, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Rosy Senanayake were present. So too were Nominated MPs, Eran Wickramaratne and Harsha De Silva.

Premadasa was cautious in his speech. He spoke of unity within the party, notwithstanding his efforts to challenge the leadership, and the need to challenge the government.

UPFA strikes

The UPFA Government has in these surrounding circumstances seized the opportunity to spring a surprise on the UNP. All local authorities will be dissolved on January 10. Dates for nominations for the conduct of fresh polls will be announced immediately thereafter. Though the government had earlier initiated a dialogue with the UNP over new laws to precede these elections, internal feuding in the UNP appears to have become a key factor to be exploited. The local polls will be conducted under the existing proportional representation system, and not a mixture of the old ward system and the PR system as previously envisaged.

If Wickremesinghe retains the leadership at nomination time for local polls, which is the likely scenario now that these elections will be called early, it will be his supporters (and not Sajith Premadasa’s) who will surely be the chosen few to contest these elections. With anti-government resentment due to rising living costs slowly but surely mounting, with unprecedented prices of essential food commodities like bread, coconuts, onions etc., and beginning yesterday electricity rates – the result of Government assurances to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the UNP has an opportunity of making a good showing if only the party remains united.

A letter of Intent from the Government to Dominique Strauss Kahn, Managing Director of the IMF dated September 14, last year, noted:

“Improving the performance and efficiency of loss-making state enterprises will help free resources for the government’s concerted infrastructure investment drive. The Ceylon Electricity Board has prepared its short-to-medium term plans aimed at ensuring electricity for all by 2012 while addressing the high cost structure by utilising low cost coal and alternative energy sources. Based on these submissions, our authorities will announce a rationalisation of the electricity tariff regime in 2011 to move the Ceylon Electricity Board towards break even….”

Dr.Sarath Amunugma, Deputy Minister of Finance and Nivard Cabral, Governor of the Central Bank have signed the LOI.

In raising electricity rates to compensate for losses suffered by the CEB, a serious reality is lost. Successive governments have packed the Board with their own supporters making the organisation, like most other bodies, top heavy. In addition, corruption, waste and mismanagement have contributed to huge losses. Government institutions have treated the CEB as a place for a free supply of electricity. Trade unions in the CEB sector have complained that no steps have been taken to address these issues. Instead, every time losses are sustained, the consumer is being called upon to pay. Sri Lanka is thus reported to be among the countries where electricity rates are the highest.

There are also many other concerns and uncertainties for the Government. Last Wednesday night, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, revealed to his Ministers that certain NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) were plotting to destabilise the country’s North and East. Some of them even had a two-year plan to do so. In the light of this, he warned ministers during the weekly cabinet meeting that they should be conscious about NGO conspiracies. Some were trying to use donations as a guise to enter the Northern area. A cabinet paper forwarded by Social Services Minister Felix Perera to accept funding from certain organisations for ‘rehabilitation’ projects in the North was thus put on hold. Rajapaksa said that such funding should come for projects countrywide and not to a particular region alone.

Ban’s panel won’t come

Another issue of some uncertainty for the government is the announcement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that the UN panel probing accountability issues in Sri Lanka would visit Colombo. The government re-iterated this week that such a visit would be allowed only for the panel to meet the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and not for any other purpose. UN spokesperson Farhan Haq told media in New York last week the panel had a wider mandate and suggested that meeting the LLRC was not the only purpose for which the panel wanted to visit Sri Lanka.
In the light of this, the Chief of Staff of the panel, Richard Bennet has called off his planned visit to Sri Lanka. He was to be accompanied by another staffer attached to the panel. According to details now emerging, Bennet was to have arrived in Colombo to prepare the groundwork for a planned visit by the three-member panel. In the light of the government’s insistence that they would only be allowed to testify before the LLRC, the panel’s visit, the Sunday Times learns, has been called off. An official announcement in this regard is expected to be made in the coming week.

The old year that ended yesterday was studded with a number of political highlights. It began with the Presidential election in January followed by the parliamentary elections in April. A historic move came when the government successfully steered through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution conferring wider powers on the Presidency. How these will impact on Sri Lankans, who are tightening their belts even further today for the promise of better tomorrow, will be known over the rest of the New Year.

Courtesy: Sunday Times