The UNP and the struggle within
Attorney and political activist Ravi Jayawardena sees the current political situation on the eve of the Presidential Elections in graphic wildlife terms.
“The United National Party is like a pair of stags fighting with their horns locked while the predator waits patiently watching in the bush,” he told RepublicNext.
Jayawardena is not alone in feeling angry and frustrated at the UNP’s inability to rise above extreme navel-gazing and get on with finding a candidate that can lead it to victory in the Presidential Elections for which nominations will be called in 30 days or so.
The UNP’s crisis will have repercussions for the entire country if they cannot sort themselves out sooner than later.
General Elections are intended to be the periodic occasions in a democracy where there is an open national debate about what the people of the country want in their future and what the leadership aspiring to take the reins of power are promising to do to achieve those aspirations.
This time the debate will be whether Sri Lanka should be run as a semi-militaristic authoritarian state that will bring “discipline” to the people promised by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or a more open society.
The 2015 Presidential Elections saw an outpouring of anger and disgust against the dictatorial, repressive Mahinda Rajapaksa regime which dished out the goodies to only members of the President’s extended family and their hangers-on.
The electorate expected the Good Governance government to open up the country for free-speech, make commissions independent and government more accountable. The voters also wanted the Rajapaksas and their oligarchs punished for massive industrial-level corruption and other serious crimes such as the murder, assault and disappearance of dissenters including journalists and a former rugger mate.
While some progress has been made in democratization, the broken, dysfunctional and sometimes shambolic administration of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has spectacularly failed to bring to justice any member of the Rajapaksa family which the UNP-led alliance blamed for multiple crimes.
This enabled Mahinda Rajapaksa to boast at the launch of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna campaign that “Time has exonerated us, and recommended us to the country.”
The internal crisis in the UNP stems from one major factor, that the Party Leader Wickremesinghe has been in situ for 25 years. For the past two Presidential Elections, he also has had to defer to third party “Common” candidates, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and current President Sirisena, because coalition partners believed he could not beat the populist and charismatic Rajapaksa.
“There is extreme incumbency fatigue in the UNP but I hope it will be resolved without breaking up the party,” says a pro-UNP Journalist and Commentator Rasika Jayakody
This time the coalition the UNP is trying to build has officially indicated that the partners would support a candidate chosen by the anchor party. Wickremesinghe believes this is his time.
No, says Minister Ajith P Perera who is brashly leading the charge for the party to nominate Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. “The Leader must not contest and Sajith is our only hope,” he says.
Asked what the Leader of the party would do then, Perera told RepublicNext “he will have to find a place for himself.”
The 52-year old Premadasa is also determined to contest the election, whether he gets the official UNP nod or not and is openly challenging the Prime Minister. At Badulla two weeks ago and most recently at Matara , on Friday 23 Aug, he pledged to his enthusiastic audience that he will contest the presidency and bring forward a people-centric program that would take “the benefits of economic development to the grassroots.”
Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, a former Minister and current member of the UNP Working Committee supports Premadasa’s candidacy “not because of the person but because of what he proposes to do.”
He sees the tussle between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa for the presidential candidacy as the climax of a struggle that has been “waging inside the party for a long time. A struggle between our Social Democratic roots and the Neo-Liberalism practised by a few.”
Bakeer Markar points out that Premadasa will take the UNP back to its Social Democratic roots away from the Neo-Liberalism practised by Wickremesinghe and his chosen few. “We are the party that gave Sri Lanka free education, free health care, free schoolbooks, housing and the Mahapola scholarship scheme,” he points out.
Bakeer Markar also says that many of the problems in the UNP and its inability to respond to the people’s needs is because there is no internal democracy. “In the past organizers for electorates, who eventually hoped to become nominees for Parliamentary seats were chosen democratically by Constituency Committees. That process ensured that a natural leadership, chosen by the party at the grassroots, would emerge.”
He said “that was the difference between us and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its successors. For decades the top leadership of the SLFP was chosen in the Bandaranaike Walauwe (Manor). This has now shifted to the Rajapaksa Walauwe.”
Apart from the struggle within the UNP, its allies, mostly minority parties are increasingly impatient with the anchor party. One member of an allied party commented, “Ranil is trying to get our vote by showing us the bogey of Gotabaya.”
Minister Mano Ganesan who has been a staunch ally of the Yahapalana regime told RepublicNext that his party wants to ally itself with the UNP, “but the opponents are ahead of us as they have begun their campaign. We too may have to look elsewhere if this goes on.”
Last week a group of 57 UNP MPs signed a letter addressed to Wickremesinghe asking him to convene a joint meeting of the Parliamentary Group and the Working Committee to take a vote as to who should be the Presidential and Prime Ministerial candidate. Minister Perera says they are yet to receive an acknowledgement from the Prime Minister and officially Temple Trees has said there is no such letter.
Some MPs have also jokingly said they should erect a platform outside Temple Trees and stage a fast; one, that by Sunday, more and more MPs were taking seriously.
If that happens, the embarrassment and internal conflict of the party which is obvious to all, will either make or break the party, and result in a long recovery process.