Power struggle within the UNP | Daily News


 

Power struggle within the UNP

The birth of a new political alliance led by Sajith Premadasa, Leader of the Opposition and deputy leader of the United National Party (UNP) is proving a rather difficult task in the face of a series of obstacles, hampering the chances of the opposition at the forthcoming general election while the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) faces relatively minor issues of its own.

Premadasa who aspired to become leader of the UNP was stopped in his tracks because the party’s Working Committee which is tasked with choosing the party leader is stacked with loyalists of party leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Wickremesinghe also acted to remove several Premadasa loyalists from the Working Committee for 2020- Ajith Perera, Sarath Fonseka, Rosy Senanayake and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar. He is reported to have been agreeable to re-instating all of them with the exception of Perera in a demonstration of the stranglehold he wields over the UNP.

Wickremesinghe nevertheless offered Premadasa the opportunity to lead an alliance of political parties led by the UNP at the general election, which will most likely be held in late April, soon after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. However, the Premadasa camp see this as a poisoned chalice because the opposition alliance is likely to lose the election and Premadasa will be left with taking the blame for it.

After it was apparent in the past few weeks that Wickremesinghe wouldn’t yield his position as UNP leader, the Premadasa camp was toying with the idea of forming a new political party. The reason for this is that Premadasa has been handicapped by having to seek the UNP’s -and thereby Wickremesinghe’s- approval for decisions made within the proposed alliance.

This first manifested itself when Premadasa announced Ranjith Madduma Bandara as the general secretary of this alliance. Madduma Bandara, who has held the portfolios of Transport and Law and Order entered Parliament in 1989 when Ranasinghe Premadasa was President. He has been a Premadasa loyalists for many years and a critic of Wickremesinghe’s style of leadership.

Wickremesinghe loyalists

However, there was also speculation that former Minister Navin Dissanayake was being suggested for the post of general secretary of the UNP led alliance. Dissanayake, who is the son of former Mahaweli Minister Gamini Dissanayake, is also the son-in-law of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Although Gamini Dissanayake was a rival of Ranasinghe Premadasa, Navin Dissanayake was supportive of Sajith Premadasa in his bid for nomination from the UNP during the latter’s presidential election campaign a few months ago.

The speculation about moves to foist Dissanayake as the general secretary of the proposed alliance was the first indication that, even though Premadasa had been given the greenlight to lead the alliance, he wouldn’t have sole decision-making authority regarding the new political entity.

Eventually though, Madduma Bandara was confirmed as the general secretary of the proposed alliance by the UNP’s Working Committee. Nevertheless, having to seek approval from a UNP Working Committee packed with Wickremesinghe loyalists has irked the Premadasa and his supporters.

Ironically, the name of the new alliance is yet to be formally announced. There have been reports that it will be called the ‘Apey Jathika Peramuna’ or ‘Our National Front’. The name ‘Jathika Samagi Balavegaya’ or ‘National Peace Force’ is also being speculated upon.

Symbol for new alliance

The next issue arose with regard to the symbol of the proposed new alliance. Premadasa loyalists wished to have their own symbol. The ‘heart’ was being proposed as a potential symbol. The thinking behind this move was that the UNP and its ‘elephant’ symbol was no longer a marketable commodity within the Sri Lankan electorate given the erosion of public confidence in the party.

Those supporting this idea contend that the average Sri Lankan voter is highly literate and intelligent and is able to make choices regarding new election symbols without difficulty. They note that Maithripala Sirisena was able to contest and win under the relatively new symbol of the ‘swan’ in 2015.

The old guard in the UNP have however maintained a rigid stance regarding the issue of a symbol. They pointed out that when the UNP contested as the United National Front (UNF) in 2001 and the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) in 2015 as the major party in those respective alliances, the symbol was still the ‘elephant’.

They argue that the ‘elephant’ is synonymous with the UNP and has been so for generations and the UNP ‘block’ vote would not be guaranteed if the party opts to contest from a different symbol. However, because the UNP is not at the height of its popularity how much this so-called ‘block’ vote amounts to is a moot point.

Critics of the UNP hierarchy’s inflexibility over this issue have pointed out that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which has also had the much recognised and respected ‘hand’ symbol for many decades contested as the People’s Alliance (PA) and the ‘chair’ symbol in 1994 and won, as it did ten years later contesting as the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the ‘betel leaf’ symbol in 2004. In fact, the SLFP has not contested an election under the ‘hand’ symbol for many years now.

Quite apart from the issue of the party symbol itself, the fact that Premadasa hasn’t been given total control of the campaign is a significant obstacle to the proposed new alliance being formally launched. In both issues that have arisen- the appointment of a general secretary and the selection of a party symbol- the UNP leadership is making its preferences known and this is creating difficulties for Premadasa as the ‘leader’ of the alliance.

Premadasa’s supporters believe that, even if an alliance is launched with the endorsement from the UNP, there will be more obstacles in nominating candidates. It has been pointedly made clear that although Premadasa will head the nominations board, all nominations will require Wickremesinghe’s approval as UNP leader.

Premadasa loyalists note that effectively, this will mean that Wickremesinghe will have the final say on nominations. Having already vetoed Ajith P. Perera’s membership of the Working Committee, they question how the former Prime Minister would function in this role with regard to Premadasa’s supporters who have spoken out against Wickremesinghe.

As a result of all these issues, there is a significant number of Premadasa loyalists who are urging him to strike out on his own, with the formation of an entirely new political alliance that is not dependent on the UNP. Current parliamentarians, the majority of whom support Premadasa anyway, would then have the choice of contesting from the UNP or from the new alliance. It has been argued that such an alliance, divorcing itself from an unpopular UNP leadership, would be more attractive to the electorate.

Such an option is not without its challenges. The main difficulty is the lack of time. General elections can- and will- be held soon after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, giving such a party all of eight weeks to be formed, be registered, elect office bearers, select candidates, run a campaign and contest the election. This would be quite an onerous task.

Matters did come to a head this week at yet another meeting of the UNP’s Working Committee. Annoyed by the lack of authority he had over the general election campaign, Premadasa reportedly walked out of the meeting telling UNP leader Wickremesinghe that if he was not given full control over the campaign, the former Prime Minister should take it over and conduct it himself.

Sajith Premadasa’s leadership

The coming few weeks will therefore be critical to the UNP. It can close ranks around Sajith Premadasa’s leadership and contest the election in grand alliance with other opposition parties- or it faces the prospect of a decisive split that will fracture one of the country’s oldest major political parties.

The travails of the ruling SLPP appear to pale in comparison to the UNP’s woes. The issue in the SLPP is over the selection of candidates. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa proposes to give nominations to more professionals and this has run in to some resistance within the party.

Grassroots politicians in the SLPP contend that they toiled hard for the SLPP to become what it is today through their activism when the party was in opposition and that it would not be fair for preference to be given to professionals, ignoring their contributions to the party.

Another issue that has come up is the Memorandum of Understanding between the SLFP and the SLPP, signed prior to the general election. This gives parity of status to SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena in any alliance.

SLPP stalwarts argue that, while this was acceptable when Sirisena was president of the country, it is no longer a tenable political equation, as Sirisena has left office and is only a leader of another political party contesting in alliance with the SLPP. How Sirisena and the SLFP will react to this proposition is left to be seen.

Although the general election has not been announced yet, it is clear that political parties are racing to get their acts together in preparation for the poll. The outcome of this election will also be crucial for the country, especially if it delivers a two-thirds majority to the ruling party which can then go on to enact constitutional amendments.

 


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