Rough Road ahead for Premadasa | Daily News


Rough Road ahead for Premadasa

The upcoming general election, arguably the most critical political event in the next few years, is likely to become a major hurdle for the United National Party (UNP) as it struggles to find its feet amidst an array of issues that have arisen following the recent presidential election.

UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa was the candidate of the National Democratic Front (NDF) at the polls but his nomination was secured at the eleventh hour. Although the election results, where President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recorded a convincing victory, suggest that he may have lost the contest anyway, uncertainty over his candidacy certainly undermined his campaign.

In the run-up to the election, it is no secret that UNP leader and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had aspirations to have another tilt at the Presidency in what would have been his third attempt. Wickremesinghe, at 70 years of age, is at the tail end of his political career and though he was appointed Prime Minister five times, he has never been President.

A faction of the UNP which was strongly loyal to Wickremesinghe was intent on persisting with Wickremesinghe as the candidate for the 2019 election although all indications suggested that his popularity- which rose significantly during the 2018 constitutional crisis- was at an all-time low following the Easter attacks and its fallout.

It was only the public assertion by Premadasa that he would contest the election anyway if he was denied nomination by the UNP that prompted the party to close ranks and offer the candidacy to Premadasa to prevent the prospect of an election where both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa were candidates which could have proved rather embarrassing for the former Premier.

Wickremesinghe loyalists

It is also widely acknowledged that Premadasa performed creditably within the short span of time he had to organise his campaign amidst financial constraints and the lack of wholehearted support from some Wickremesinghe loyalists.

Wickremesinghe himself did campaign vigorously but in doing so he may have hurt Premadasa’s prospects by proclaiming that if Premadasa won, he would still be Prime Minister.

With the elections over, the UNP, as the single largest group in the opposition, was faced with choosing a Leader of the Opposition, a position held by Wickremesinghe for most of the time over the past twenty-five years when he was not Prime Minister.

The factionalism in the UNP again came to the fore over this issue when the party’s General Secretary, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, wrote to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya nominating Wickremesinghe for the position. Although this was in keeping with parliamentary tradition where the secretary of the largest party in the opposition writes to the Speaker informing him who the leader of the Opposition is, it was clearly a move to pre-empt Premadasa loyalists.

Undeterred, UNP parliamentarians also wrote to the Speaker nominating Premadasa for the position. This prompted Speaker Jayasuriya to publicly comment that it would be prudent if the UNP resolves this issue within the confines of the party.

Again, just as it was for the presidential election nomination, that is what happened: the post of Leader of the Opposition was bestowed on Premadasa. If that was not done, it could have led to an ugly situation in Parliament had the issue been put to a vote among opposition MPs.

Nevertheless, Ranil Wickremesinghe still retains the plum position, that of the leader of the UNP. In discussions since the presidential election, he has indicated that he wishes to continue in that position and pointed out that, at the UNP convention held prior to the presidential election he secured the position of party leader for the next five years, a price Premadasa paid for getting the nomination.

The crux of the matter is that the Constitution of the UNP favours its leader. The leader is appointed by the party’s highest decision-making body, the Working Committee to which the leader is able to appoint a significant number of members. Such a committee, packed with the leaders’ appointees, is unlikely to remove the leader.

It must be noted that this putsch to oust Wickremesinghe is nothing new. It has been in the making for many years and a previous attempt was made through the Working Committee.

Premadasa camp

That was in December 2011 when those opposed to Wickremesinghe closed ranks and forced a vote in the Working Committee following the party’s defeat at the 2010 presidential and general elections.

In that instance, the faction opposed to Wickremesinghe proposed Karu Jayasuriya as the party leader, Sajith Premadasa as the Deputy Leader and Dayasiri Jayasekara as its National Organiser. Contesting them respectively were Wickremesinghe, Ravi Karunanayake and Daya Gamage.

In the election that was held on December 19, 2011, Wickremesinghe easily defeated Jayasuriya by 72 votes to 24. Premadasa prevailed in a close 52 votes to 44 votes contest with Karunanayake. Daya Gamage was elected in preference to Dayasiri Jayasekara, with the vote being 56 votes to 40. Later, Karunanayake was offered the ‘consolation’ position of Assistant leader.

It is interesting to note that of those then in the Premadasa camp, Jayasuriya, now 79 years of age, has assumed a strictly neutral position, since assuming the office of Speaker. Jayasekara, on the other hand, has had a chequered political career, leaving the UNP to join the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa and supporting him in the 2015 presidential election campaign only to return to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) under Maithripala Sirisena when he was elected President to become its general secretary.

The Working Committee of the UNP, though still consisting of mostly those appointed by Wickremesinghe, is now equivocal in its support for him. That is because some of those appointees have switched allegiance to the Premadasa camp. It is believed that in the UNP parliamentary group, Premadasa’s support is far more stable.

Various discussions are now underway within the higher echelons of the UNP to resolve the leadership issue with parliamentarians quite cognizant that, with probably a little over a hundred days to go for the general election, time is fast running out for the UNP to get its act together.

Many solutions have been proposed. One that Wickremesinghe would readily agree to is for him to remain UNP leader while Premadasa, as Leader of the Opposition, would lead the election campaign and be the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The Premadasa camp sees this as providing Premadasa with an opportunity for political suicide as the UNP is extremely unlikely to win the election and the blame for the defeat could then be debited to Premadasa.

Another formula that is being discussed is for Premadasa to lead an alliance of opposition parties similar to the NDF he contested from at the presidential election. Again, if and when this alliance loses the general election, Wickremesinghe will still be UNP leader and Premadasa will be left with only the stigma of defeat to show for his efforts.

Sinhala Buddhist voter

Yet another proposal that is being floated is for Speaker Jayasuriya to lead this so-called alliance of opposition parties. Those advocating this plan claim that Jayasuriya would be the ideal person to help the UNP regain the confidence of the Sinhala Buddhist voter which it has lost, as results of the recent presidential election clearly indicate.

There is also speculation about a ‘leadership council’ consisting of Wickremesinghe, Jayasuriya and Premadasa but if this eventuates, it will only be a reflection of that fact that the UNP cannot unite around a single leader and is likely to alienate the voters even more.

The Premadasa camp has left the door open for further negotiations in the hope that Wickremesinghe will eventually yield to pressure from within the party and concede the leadership as he did with the presidential election nomination and the Opposition Leader’s position.

However, they are also seriously contemplating forming a party of their own if all the attempts to dislodge Wickremesinghe from the leadership of the UNP fail and he insists on retaining the party leadership to the obvious detriment of the Grand Old Party.

This is no longer a distant prospect and there is no doubt that the Premadasa camp has been emboldened by the spectacular success of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The SLPP was born because Maithripala Sirisena, upon assuming the office of President, took over the SLFP and made many attempts to marginalise Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Defeated at the presidential election, the former President initially remained within the ranks of the party. However, after then-President Sirisena made repeated efforts to drive Rajapaksa into the political wilderness- including addressing the nation to say he would never be appointed Prime Minister- he initially formed the Joint Opposition (JO) in Parliament and later, together with brother Basil created the SLPP. The rest, as they say, is history.

The road ahead for Premadasa would not be that easy. To begin with, the UNP vote base at present is unstable with many UNPers having shifted their loyalties in recent years. He also does not command the confidence or charisma that Mahinda Rajapaksa does- not yet, anyway. That the Premadasa camp is contemplating going their own way indicates how deep the fissures run within the UNP- and how difficult it is to unite what was once the Grand Old Party of Sri Lankan politics.


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