If not Ranil, then who?
  • Ranil stays one step ahead
  • Sajith outmanoeuvred
  • MR keeps Ranil afloat
  • SL needs the UN

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe moved strategically last week to fizzle out what is described by political analysts as an’ internal build up” to oust him from the party leadership.
At the party’s Working Committee meeting held at ‘Sirikotha” on Monday, there was growing apprehension among Wickremesinghe loyalists whether the Working Committee would vote for a major shake up within the party, where elected members of grass-root level local bodies would be called upon to participate in the process to elect the party leader.

The crucial Working Committee meeting was held under the auspices of the party leadership, after a UNP Reforms committee headed by former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera submitted its report to the Working Committee for consideration and formal ratification
The key players who lobbied for a major shake-up rallied round youthful leader Sajith Premadasa, who threw a challenge to the present leadership, following the disastrous electoral defeat of the UNP at the Parliamentary Elections held in April this year.

The usually accepted practice and convention had been to nominate the Leader, following intense discussion amongst the members of the Working Committee and the Parliamentary group. An election could only be possible if these two apex bodies of the party are unable to reach consensus among them, as to who the leader should be. The election so held is only restricted to the members of the two apex bodies of the party.
However, Sajith Premadasa, the protagonist of this drama, and his loyalists thought it otherwise, and carried out a relentless campaign to further democratise the party by broad-basing the vote base. Inclusion of members representing the UNP at local level as eligible voters, when it comes to the election of the Party Leader and other coveted positions of the party, was their goal.

Premadasa’s contention was that, by broad-basing, the party could be transformed into what he called a ‘people’s party’, unlike the present UNP, which has become the abode of a small coterie of influential people who are more concerned of their wellbeing, rather than looking at the needs of the people at the grass-roots.
Premadasa’s campaign gathered momentum over the weeks prior to the crucial Working Committee meeting, which compelled the Wickremesinghe camp to mend their ways in handling party issues. Wickremsinghe, in his own way, put his strategies into practice, and initiated meetings with various individuals to diffuse the so called build-up, while paving the way for the Working Committee to appoint a Reforms Committee, in a bid to save his skin and simultaneously, to show the outside world that he is amenable to change.
When it comes to a crucial issue or a weighted problem, buying time and pondering over the matter for an inordinate time, had been the usual skill displayed by Wickremesinghe, before actually facing it and finding a durable solution for same.

This kind of approach by Wickremesinghe had cost the party dearly, and had even lost elections, and the party membership had to pay for the political blunders over the past 16 years or so. The main problem remains with the UNP even today, without being addressed properly, or taking stock of the prevailing situation. There are many who pose the question, who then, if not Wickremesinghe? The tragicomedy of the UNP is that, Wickremsinghe, after having lost more than 16 elections, still remains party leader, because the UNPers are unable to find a suitable replacement to answer that pertinent question.
In other words, Wickremesinghe is well entrenched within the system, and nobody can shake him, unless the party moves swiftly to amend the present constitution accordingly. By all means, it should not be to vilify the affable leader.

Wickremesinghe is, by all means, a capable leader who has gained international recognition over the years as a statesman, and carries with him a vast reservoir of experience in Statecraft, but the question that goes unanswered is- is this sufficient to be a good political leader or to be a winner at elections? What Wickremesinghe lacks is the common approach, the thinking that titillates the common man to vote for the UNP. So, if Wickremesinghe aspires to lead the party, even after so many successive political defeats, then there needs to be a radical change in his thinking and approach.

The Premadasa-led challenge thrown at Wickremesinghe has now been diffused to a great extent. Premadasa having conceded to Wickremesinghe’s leadership. Then the onus is on Wickremesinghe to work as a team with the dissidents who threw the challenge at him. If Wickremesinghe could mend fences with them and take the party forward, at least, it would be a consolation to the UNPers, whose aspiration is to see the party transforming into a formidable political force.

Monday last week, there was excitement and anxiety at ‘Sirkotha’, as to what would take place within the portals of this institution which has, over the years, seen great politicians blossom and flourish to lead the country, even during difficult political climates.
There was tight security in place and the stage was set to host the crucial meeting. One of the two entry points to the hall where the Working Committee meeting was scheduled to be held, was sealed off, to ensure that nothing untoward would take place. Party Leader Wickremesingh’e chief security officer was in-charge of all arrangements; the idea was to prevent outsiders sneaking into the meeting hall.

The most unexpected event of all was the arrival of Piyasoma Upali to the meeting hall. Upali, once a Member of Parliament, did not have the necessary credentials to sit as a member of the Working Committee. At the entry point, he was refused permission, but the chief security officer at the point, referred the matter to the party leader and the General Secretary, who finally allowed him to sit. Party Leader Wickremesinghe gave a sigh of relief at the arrival of Piyasoma Upali, because it signified a setback within the dissident camp.
Wickremsinghe promptly told General Secretary Tissa Attanayake that the dissident camp does not have the required numbers to steamroll the Working Committee to their desired end. He also told Attanayake to keep a copy of the letter sent to Piyasoma Upali, removing him from the Working Committee, which happened sometime back.

Round 1 to Ranil
At the outset of the meeting, young Sajith Premadasa made a monumental blunder by attacking the Reforms Committee, which was unanimously appointed by the Working Committee.
The Reforms Committee comprised Joseph Michael Perera, Kabir Hashim, John Amaratunge, Lakshman Kiriella, Wijedasa Rajapakse and Ronald Perera..

Premadasa queried as to whether they had gone through their own recommendations, before submitting same to the Working Committee, throwing an innuendo that it would have been prepared elsewhere. However, finally the recommendations made by the Reforms Committee were unanimously adopted in full, and Premadasa apparently lost ground in the battle for the leadership. The young Turks and some of the old hands who spearheaded the attack against the leadership, such as Lakshman Seneviratne and Ranjit Madduma Bandara were dismayed, though they had ample grounds on which they stood for the betterment of the party.
When Piyasoma Upali rose to his feet and attempted to reason out why proper Reforms should be in place, he was curtly stopped and brought into the firing line, where the General Secretary reminded him that he was no more a member of the Working Committee. Party Leader Wickremesinghe threatened to adjourn the Working Committee meeting forthwith, given the present state of affairs of the meeting in progress. Wickremesingh’e stinker compelled Upali to stop his harangue, after the others persuaded him to do so.

There was also a verbal duel between Party Chairman Jayawickrma Perera and Colombo district Leader Ravi Karunanayake. Jayawickrama Perera who was seated at the head table, along with the Leader, was held by both hands by the Leader and the General Secretary seated either side of Perera, when they felt that the matter was getting out of hand. This was followed by another between Rosy Senanayake and Wijedasa Rajapakse, which was resolved amicably, after the latter reminded the former, how he had spent time campaigning for her during the elections.

Kalutara organiser and one time Parliamentarian Lakshman Wijemanne, a new entrant to the Working Committee, took a main player in the Premadasa camp, Lakshman Seneviratne to task, as the meeting dragged for nearly five hours. He came out with a scathing attack on Seneviratne. Initially, he avoided naming the senior MP who allegedly attempted to disrupt the Kalutara meeting of the UNP district organisation held under the patronage of party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The main accusation was that the senior parliamentarian concerned had telephoned several members of the Kalutara organisation and encouraged them to raise issues that would embarrass the Leader. When the house asked Wijemanne to name the MP, he came out with the name, and threw a challenge to Seneviratne. Seneviratne also responded, saying that he would not do things behind anybody’s back. However, Wjemanne prevailed over Seneviratne at the end of the day.

Going it alone
Former Minister K.N. Choksy posed a pointed and relevant question to the Leader as to why he had a one-to-one meeting with the President, and as to who authorised the meeting. Many in the party hierarchy had been disturbed over the one-to-one meeting Wickremesinghe had with President Rajapaksa, as no one was privy to the details of the meeting.

The general perception was that President Rajapaksa had moved in to bail out Wickremesinghe from the crisis situation within the party, by agreeing to consider the Executive Premiership in place of the Executive Presidency, and hence, seeking a third term as Executive President does not arise in that context. The meeting was brokered by Malik Samarawickrema a former chairman of the UNP. However, there still remains this issue for the UNPers to resolve with the party leadership, since they did not approve the one-to-one meeting.

Political analysts however, believe that, the politically savvy President would have received some assurance in return, since he has been described as a master craftsman in the contemporary political arena of Sri Lanka.
Not only eminent lawyer Choksy, but the more gentlemanly like Karu Jayasuriya also has had apprehensions about the meeting Wickremesinghe had with the President. Though not pronounced publicly, he expressed his disapproval to Wickremesingher, saying that he should not have gone alone for a powwow with the highest in the land, given the political nature of the discussion.

Some of the UNPers were perturbed over the Government’s intentions, though the Leader would have participated with good intentions, but yet, others think that Wickremesinghe was trying to fox others to cling onto the leadership with the help of the Government, which would be to the advantage of the ruling party
Besides these, there is a healthy debate in the country on the proposed Constitution.
While some think that it has to be done on a piecemeal basis, others are of the opinion that there should be a holistic approach, if the country is to achieve maximum benefit out of this exercise.
However, as it stands today, it appears that Government is more interested in amending the Constitution from time to time, in keeping with the aspirations of the people.

Constitutional Workshop
A workshop held recently, under the auspices of the Bakeer Markar Foundation, dealt on this subject in detail, where the participants were quite forthright in expressing their views on the subject.
Chairman of the Foundation, former Minister Imtiaz Bakeer Markar in his opening remarks, quoted illustrious American President Thomas Jefferson, telling the audience that the Constitution of a country is the basic law that safeguards the rights of its people and bound governments from exceeding their limits in governance.
He said there are two major enemies of the people, the criminals’ and the government in power, and the basic laws of the country is the instrument which keeps them at bay, when they want to exceed their limit. Analysing the ill effects of the fundamental law which governed Sri Lankans since the Independence, he said there were major flaws in all the Constitutions the country had since Independence, be it 1972 or the present Constitution, and emphasised the need to have a Constitution with proper checks and balances, so that, it would not affect the people’s aspirations.

Minister D.E.W. Gunasekara said that they were basically opposing the Executive Presidency, and that, their’s was a minority voice at the time the Executive Presidency was created. However, Gunasekara said that leaders of the calibre of Dr. N.M. Perera, Dr. Colvin. R. De Silva, Pieter Keuneman and Bernard Soysa foresaw the harm that it was going to cause to the country, and had a protest meeting at the same time when Parliament voted to create the Executive Presidency.

He pointed out that they were opposing the Executive Presidency because it carries along with it an enormous power arrogated in one individual, and said that, if one person is vested with such power, then the number of terms he or she is elected should be limited. If those powers have limitations, then the number of terms the person seeking election should not be taken into account. He also pointed out that, if the proposed Executive Premiere is only a change of name to get over the present situation, then it would have the same implications. Gunasekara also extended his support to the devolution of power, and stressed the need to strengthen the Provincial Councils, but without Police powers. He said he was one person who voted for the 13th Amendment, while in opposition, amidst threats.
UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya stressed the need to strengthen the 17th Amendment, in a bid to ensure good governance, while pointing out that there is both good and bad sides to the 1978 Constitution promulgated by the then UNP government.

Jayasuriya blamed the 1972 Constitution for removing the Public Service Commission, which subsequently led to the politicisation of the entire public sector, which has become a bane to the country at large. While JVP’s Vijitha Herath advocated a secular Constitution to redress the grievances of all communities, bearing in mind that Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic, multi religious country.
The main proposal made by SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem was that, their should be a holistic and cohesive approach in Constitution making, without it being done on a piecemeal basis, and said that, the proposed Constitution should encompass Right to Information, Victims Protection and Equal Opportunities to all Communities, if it is to be meaningful. Udaya Gammanpila of the JHU also spoke, while Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku was the moderator.

Following the discussion between the President and the UNP leader on the role of the Executive, and the checks and balances of such a position, the focal point today, is a discussion centred round the Executive Premiere. At times, they tend to cite the Israeli example, to substantiate their argument, but the point is that, the Israelis, after having experimented with the system, are in the process of diluting same, over the problems encountered by them. Given the circumstances, it is of vital importance to explore as to which system is best suited for a small country of 20 million people.

Mending fences foreign
Be that as it may, the prime task today before the Government is to manage the country’s foreign affairs, to project a better image internationally, especially after the melodrama at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, of which the protagonist is none other than maverick Minister Wimal Weerawansa.
Weerawansa’s so called heroics compelled UN Secretary General (SG) Ban Ki Moon to summon resident representative Neil Bhune for consultations to New York. Now Bhune is back with a sort of a goodwill message for the Government of Sri Lanka, and it is time opportune for the Government to move forward diplomatically, to sort out residual problems with the UN, so that Sri Lanka could drift slowly, but firmly, under the guidance of President Rajapaksa, to achieve the much desired economic goals in the post-war scenario. The onus is now on the learned Professor G.L. Pereis to ‘steer the ship’, using his diplomatic skills, which would otherwise cause irreversible damage to the country.

The prime task of the Foreign Ministry should be to prevent the residual problems being blown up to have a snowball effect, and try to mitigate it, since the UN may be waiting for the most opportune moment to come up with yet another stinker on the Sri Lankan situation. It is known that the UNSG moved to expand the advisory committee, while our Permanent Representative was out on a mission to the Middle Eastern countries heading the Israeli Practices Committee, which is more an annual pilgrimage since the days of Shirley Amerasinghe

Given the circumstances, it is vital that Sri Lanka chooses the path of reconciliation, rather than confrontation, since the country, inevitably, could prosper under the able leadership of the present government.
At the same time, Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe, currently on an official visit to India, can now play a supportive role by wooing our neighbour to extend the hand of goodwill, for Sri Lanka to achieve the desired international goals.