This is my Nation  


Political inertia

This is the Vesak season and with it, there is a sense of political inertia that has enveloped the government and its leading politicians. The preceding floods also meant that they put politics aside and concentrated on disaster management although the collective opposition was blaming the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance for tampering with the environment, leading to flash floods in many cities and highways.

The only crucial political activity from the government ranks came from External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris who is overseas, trying to persuade United Nations Secretary– General Ban Ki Moon to call off his proposed committee to study alleged human rights violations in the final stages of the Eelam War and also trying to convince the European Union to extend the GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) concession to Sri Lanka.
If Peiris was not successful in the former, there was reason to be optimistic about the latter, although no formal decision or announcement has been made in that regard.

As if to compensate for this political hibernation in the government ranks, there was plenty of activity in the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) which is still in the throes of a leadership struggle.

If the battle for the party leadership was a cold war until now, this week it came into open largely at the behest of Hambantota district parliamentarian Sajith Premadasa who has identified himself as a potential challenger to UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

This week, Premadasa threw down the gauntlet in no uncertain terms. The next leadership of the UNP will emerge from the Hambantota district, Premadasa said and followed it up with a remark that the UNP should have a leader who is able to identify with the aspirations of the ‘small man’; such a person should wear the banian and the cloth instead of the tie and coat, he said.

These remarks, provocative as they are, indicate that now the gloves are off in this contest. It is unlikely though that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe will respond publicly to these jibes directed at him for he seldom descends to the politics of rhetoric.
However, Wickremesinghe is expected to view the threats posed to his leadership more seriously now than ever before, even though he has successfully seen off half a dozen bids to oust him from the party leadership previously.   

But any designs Premadasa has of becoming UNP leader will have to await the deliberations of the Joseph Michael Perera committee, but its progress has been hampered by a variety of reasons–the larger than expected number of persons wanting to make representations before it, the floods and the Vesak holiday season.
These deliberations are likely to continue well into next week because the views of the grassroots level membership–that vital segment of the party which has been severely neglected in the recent past–comprising provincial council members, members of local government bodies and district and electorate level party members–are being sought.

While the committee has already decided that all top party posts including that of the leader should be elected, the modus operandi of how this should be done is yet to be ratified–and that is a crucial factor in the final outcome as to who will eventually lead the UNP.

For instance, if the election is confined to the Working Committee, there is every possibility that Ranil Wickremesinghe will emerge unscathed after all these deliberations. If the vote is extended to include the UNP parliamentary group, it is a tussle that will be too close to call. If the vote is extended to the lower level party organisations, then Sajith Premadasa may have an advantage.
What could happen in the alternative is a compromise of sorts, where Wickremesinghe could still be retained as party leader but with significantly reduced powers and with a Working Committee enlarged to include elected members that represent all shades of opinion within the party.

This goes against the tenet of allowing the party leader a free reign after he is appointed the head of the party and could lead to serious difficulties when he is trying to control the UNP. This could be especially problematic for a party in the opposition, but that is the way the reforms are currently heading.
The other option is to elect the party leader–through whatever means that are devised–but then grant him nearly absolute powers after being elected. Any prospective leader, including Sajith Premadasa, will prefer this option and it will indeed improve the subsequent efficiency of the party but since party reforms are aimed at ‘democratising’ the UNP instead of concentrating too much power in the hands of a single individual, this suggestion may not find favour.

There is also another alternative that is being thought of. Considering the reality that there will be no major elections in the next six years, there is a school of thought that appointing a new party leader now will take the gloss away from the new leader and that the ‘novelty’ factor would have worn off by the time the next elections are due and there is some merit in this argument.

However, if the UNP were to subscribe to this theory, that would allow Ranil Wickremesinghe to continue in office for a few years more and there is a faction which foresees all kinds of permutations and combinations if that were allowed to happen.

A fourth option is to accommodate both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa, if that is at all possible now, re-organise and rejuvenate the party at the grassroots level and focus on regaining its past glory instead of making the party leadership the most vexatious issue since it is irrelevant anyway because of the absence of any major polls in the near future.

All these options are being considered and there is a lot of backroom lobbying as well but we must hope that at the end of this long drawn out drama, the UNP will emerge as a stronger political force for the country needs a vibrant opposition just as much as it needs a robust government.