This is my Nation  


Ranil playing it close to his chest

Politics in this country has rarely been without its fair share of surprises. Last week saw more surprises, even if the overall political climate was slightly cold, with most parties going into some degree of hibernation, after exhausting themselves at the recent presidential and general elections.

The main focus of attention was the ‘crossover’ of two United National Party (UNP) MPs, P. Digambaram and Prabha Ganesan to government ranks. In so doing, the two parliamentarians expressed their dissatisfaction with the UNP leadership, while at the same time pointing out that they could serve their communities better only by joining the government.
It will be recalled that, it was only a few weeks ago, that President Mahinda Rajapaksa initiated a dialogue with the UNP, in a bid to obtain that party’s support for Constitutional reforms aimed at creating an executive premiership.

During these discussions, it was senior UNPer Jayawickrema Perera who asked the President whether he was sincere in his efforts, as the UNP lost 17 MPs when it last had discussions with the President. The President, with his characteristic charm, answered in the affirmative, and everyone was reassured.
Last week’s developments flew in the face of that promise. Not only was the President pushing the boundaries by recruiting two UNP MPs, he was also jeopardising the entire dialogue with the UNP on enacting Constitutional reforms.

Initially, the UNP displayed a knee-jerk response to the President’s daring gamble. Its various stalwarts said that they saw no purpose in negotiating Constitutional reforms with a leader who was insincere in his commitments. Everyone expected the UNP to summarily withdraw from talks with the President, thereby ending the dialogue on Constitutional reforms.
That was when an even bigger surprise began to take shape. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met the President once again. After that discussion, it was announced that a UNP delegation would meet the President once again.

It must be noted that, during the initial dialogue with the UNP, Wickremesinghe was blamed by a section of his party for entering into talks with the President. Some questioned his authority to do so on behalf of the party, without seeking its views; others said it negated the concept of opposing the Rajapaksa regime at every turn.
There were harsher critics of Wickremesinghe who saw a sinister motive in all this: They believed the Leader of the Opposition was playing a political game of his own. By doing a deal with the President and obtaining an assurance that no crossovers would be entertained, he was effectively preventing potential UNP dissidents from decamping to the government.

This week though, that theory was undone. But what baffled many was why Wickremesinghe continued to talk to Rajapaksa on Constitutional reforms, when Rajapaksa throws caution to the winds and accepts crossovers from the UNP- an exercise which will necessarily draw more flak for Wickremesinghe, from those who are battling him for the party leadership.
Paradoxically though, Wickremesinghe has stalled those who are challenging him from within- at least for the foreseeable future. This became clear as the Working Committee of the UNP endorsed changes to the party constitution, that allowed the election of a leader when there are two contenders, and when no consensus can be reached.

That may appear on paper as a victory for those challenging Wickremesinghe, but it is not. A key proposal to allow ‘grassroots’ party representatives- members of local government bodies and provincial councillors- to vote at an election for party leader was resoundingly rejected.
This is where Wickremesinghe’s most visible challenger, Sajith Premadasa, appears to have his support base. It is through this network that Premadasa believed he could capture the reins of the party, but it was not to be- not in the immediate future anyway.
One aspect that came through in this leadership melee in the UNP was that, Premadasa’s conduct was being frowned upon even by senior UNPers who had readily acknowledged that Ranil Wickremesinghe was not up to par as a party leader in the past one-and-a-half decades.

They felt that some of Premadasa’s tactics were ‘below the belt’. The sight of low level party functionaries appearing on national television- on one channel in particular- and ridiculing the party leader was uncalled for, many opined. As a result, Premadasa’s stock, in the eyes of party seniors, fell considerably through this exercise. Hence, the lukewarm response to his proposals to allow grassroots UNP representatives a vote.

However, this party reform process has thrown up a new formula: Power sharing between Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya. How it would be done exactly is yet to be worked out, where only the titles on offer for the trio are to be finalised. Barring any last minute hiccups, especially from the Premadasa camp, this is the proposal that is most likely to find acceptance within the party now.

These proposals embody two principles. Firstly, it has been acknowledged, even after all this fuss about Wickremesinghe’s leadership capabilities, that he should continue as the Leader of the UNP. Secondly, it also recognises that it would be to Sajith Premadasa that the mantle of leadership would eventually pass.
Of course, placed in the party hierarchy between the two is Karu Jayasuriya. But, being nine years senior to even Ranil Wickremesinghe, and having blotted his copybook by leaving the party once and joining the Rajapaksa Cabinet, there is no realistic chance for Jayasuriya to assume the leadership himself- and he would be the first to recognise this.

If the UNP can settle its internal imbroglio through this formula, it will be a welcome change not only for the party, but for the country as well, because a strong opposition is an essential ingredient in any vibrant democracy. Given that there are no major elections for at least another six years, it would also provide the party with ample opportunities to re-organise and re-invent itself.

The hope among UNPers is that, by that time, the UNP would have formed itself into one cohesive unit, reminiscent of the J.R. Jayewardene-R. Premadasa era of the seventies. Only time will tell whether the party will be able to forget the distractions of the recent past and realise that objective.