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Driving for reforms

‘Grama Charika’ campaign reveals cracks in opposition

As the government prepares in earnest for the commencement of the second term of office of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a few weeks, the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) appears to be intent on self-destruction, with its crisis nowhere near resolution despite months of much publicised discussion and debate.
Officially, the party’s disputes do not seem to exist.
The party hierarchy maintains that reforms, aimed at revamping the party, have received the approval of its working committee and that they would now be formally submitted to the annual convention scheduled for December.

It is as if all the party’s woes would vanish into thin air thereafter.
The reality is of course, different.
The ‘reformists’ in the party, led by the likes of Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Thalatha Atukorale, believe that the struggle is far from over and that only a leadership change can realistically boost the fortunes of the UNP in the face of the overwhelming powers now at the disposal of the President and his ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

However, the campaign launched by the ‘reformists’ was considerably weakened when their stalwart Lakshman Seneviratne crossed over to the government in the wake of the controversy arising from the 18th amendment.
That allowed the anti-reformists to claim that the ‘reformists’ were only carrying out a government contract to destabilise the UNP.
It will be recalled that one of the jibes aimed at UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was that the party should get rid of the ‘tie coat’ leadership and instal a ‘cloth and banian’ personality at the helm. It was also suggested that under Wickremesinghe, the UNP had lost its once substantial rural vote base and that its grassroots organisational network was now negligible.

This is a reality which the party leadership has also conceded. In an obvious attempt to rectify this, the UNP announced a campaign, styled Grama Charika - literally, touring the villages.
Its aim was for UNP politicians to visit the rural hinterland of the country, live for a few days in each region and mingle with the masses. It was hoped that this would bring the party closer to the people once again.
This is in light of the fact that, in recent elections, the UNP has conceded many rural electorates to the UPFA.
This maybe mostly because of the success of the war effort but being in opposition for nearly 14 years has also taken its toll: the rural vote, often swayed by issues such as who would build a road, school or hospital rather than national issues, has slowly but steadily accrued to the ruling party.
The Grama Charika campaign to counter this trend was mooted by a high level committee headed by Karu Jayasuriya.

Jayasuriya is taking the leadership of this campaign and announced its objectives to the media this week.
He, however, could do little to hide cracks that were emerging even as the party was embarking on this ambitious programme as Sajith Premadasa had already rubbished the campaign, even before it could begin.
Premadasa may have been irked because his principal allegation against the current leadership - that the UNP is now alienated from the ‘common man’ - had been hijacked by the party hierarchy to its own advantage.
It was now trying to launch a campaign that would negate Premadasa’s primary claim to leadership of the UNP: that of converting the UNP into a party that caters to the interests of the masses.

However, in registering his protest, Premadasa appears to have blundered.
Instead of presenting a united front to the public and participating in the Grama Charika programme, Premadasa denounced it as a stunt aimed at delaying reforms within the party, declared he would not participate in it and left for India.
It was display of petulance that cast Premadasa in a poor light, especially as a leadership aspirant in the party.
It makes him vulnerable to the charge that he has his own personal agenda at heart, even at the expense of the party’s interests.

It also puts his lieutenants in the struggle for party reforms - the likes of Jayasekera and Atukorale - in an extremely difficult position in deciding whether they should participate in the campaign or not.
Another factor is that the public face of the Grama Charika campaign so far has been that of deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya and not UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, possibly because the latter might find himself uncomfortable in such a role.

Therefore Premadasa’s non-participation is more an insult to Jayasuriya rather than being a slur on Wickremesinghe.
Another reason that should cause concern for Premadasa is that since the campaign is a decision officially endorsed by the party, it would be carried out at an electoral level -beginning from Horana in the Kalutara district, the base of former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.
Thus UNP organisers of the selected electorates will be participating and this could be a strategic victory for Wickremesinghe.

In the alternative, if electoral organisers toe the Premadasa line and refrain from participating, that would only add to the factions within the party and would leave it hopelessly divided and that is a situation the UNP should avoid at this critical juncture, what with local government elections looming in a couple of months.
The ultimate yardstick as to whether Premadasa read the situation correctly would of course be the success - or otherwise - of the Grama Charika campaign.

If indeed it is able to attract the masses and restore the flagging morale of the grassroots party organisation, then Premadasa would certainly jeopardise his claims for the party leadership.
In hindsight, it appears that Premadasa’s decision to pull out of this campaign - and go to the extent of publicly denouncing it instead of at least maintaining a dignified silence - can only be a bonus for UNP leader Wickremesinghe.

It affords him an opportunity to sit back and watch while his potential rival, Premadasa, paints himself into a tight corner.
What is certain though is that if the UNP hierarchy hoped that the Grama Charika campaign would offer a welcome respite from the internal divisions of the party, it is not to be. Instead, it has brought these divisions into the public domain even more and the party now runs the risk of being publicly humiliated.
It is a fate that country - let alone its principal opposition party - can ill-afford.