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Will UNP’s leadership crisis re-surface in a different guise?

By Sunil Kusumsiri

The UNP Working Committee meeting held on three days beginning last Monday was historic for the party for it saw the disentangling of the festering issue over the party leadership. What surprised political observers most, however, was an eloquent silence that the members maintained over the party’s defeat at the local government elections held only a few days earlier which saw the UNP taking a measly nine local bodies of the 205 they contested. None of the members surprisingly took the leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to task either over the debacle. Incidentally this was the 20th poll defeat the UNP suffered in a series under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Outcome of mini poll
When the Working Committee met last Monday, party’s General Secretary Tissa Attanayake presenting a report on the outcome of the mini poll, pointed out that the party had increased its overall vote by 35 percent. Wickremesinghe, who thereafter rose to his feet leaving no room for any discussion on the election result, had said that the crisis over the leadership was causing much damage to the party and it should not be allowed to protract any further.” I am prepared to have the issue settled once and for all, be it through a ballot or consensus. I am seeking to be the party leader again and if there is anyone vying for this position, he may come forward now,” Wickremesinghe had said.

Promise held out
The main aspirant for the leadership Sajith Premadasa who had boldly announced that he would be the UNP leader after April 12, had at this stage told the meeting that he was willing to have the leadership issue sorted out through negotiations and he wanted time to take a decision. Former Galle district MP Vajira Abeywardene who took the floor next, had made his strong protest against holding an election to pick the leader. He emphasised the need to strengthen the party rallying round the party leader. Some other members including Dayasiri Jayasekera and Kabir Hashim too had echoed the same view.

On stage and wings
Thereafter, after suspending the proceedings, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, John Amaratunga, Joseph Michael Perera and Sajith Premadasa had retreated to a room for a separate discussion. At this sideline discussion, Kabir Hashim had had proposed that a new co- Deputy Leader post be created to accommodate Sajith Premadasa. However, the meeting had been adjourned for the following day without a decision being taken on this proposal.
Meanwhile, another group of party seniors had held a separate discussion with Ranil and Sajith and at this meeting Ranil had agreed to a creation of a new post of Deputy Leader to accommodate Sajith.
Later Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, Kabir Hashim and Tissa Attanayake at the resumed proceedings, had as members of a special committee moved a resolution calling for the creation of an additional post of Deputy Leader. This resolution had been unanimously adopted. However, Sajith had said that he needed 48 hours to make up his mind. But Ranil had refused to give time to consider the offer. However, at the request of other members Ranil had given Sajith 24 hours to come up with his considered decision. The meeting had been adjourned till 4 pm the following day (23) accordingly.
Meanwhile, the party leaders had told Sajith: “You are still 42. You have the advantage of being young. Therefore, be patient and accept the Deputy leadership.”

Powers and functions
Sajith had responded saying that if he were to accept the Deputy Leadership that his powers and functions should be clearly spelt out.
The UNP Working Committee had met again at 4 pm the following day, but Sajith and his group were conspicuous by their absence. Ranil earlier about 3 pm the same day had sent a fax message to Sajith outlining the powers and functions to go with the post of Deputy Leader to be offered to him. When Tissa Attanayake about 4 pm had asked Sajith whether he was attending the meeting, the latter had replied: “I am at a discussion. We will be back at the meeting in 10 minutes.”

However, Sajith and his group had attended the Working Committee meeting about 5 pm. When the resolution relating to the new Deputy Leadership post was moved, Sajith had asked Ranil to describe the powers and functions devolved on him as the co-Deputy leader. When Ranil had asked Tissa to read out the details, Sajith had insisted that Ranil himself read out the relevant provisions. And Ranil had complied.
According to the details read out by Ranil, Sajith is entrusted with the task of taking necessary measures to revive the party’s youth and women’s leagues, trade unions affiliated to the party, and other party organisations at the grass roots level, and empowered to function as a member of committees tasked with appointing key office-bearers, to associate with the party leadership in appointing members to the Working Committee and to function as the Deputy Leader of opposition in Parliament.

Sajith had asked whether he would be able to exercise the powers vested in him in practice and the assurance given would be placed on official records. Karunasena Kodituwakku at this stage had pointed out that what transpired relating to this matter would go on record in the minutes of the meeting. Accordingly Sajith agreed to accept the post of Deputy Leader.
Later Gamini Jayawickrama Perera was unanimously elected the Chairman of the party, Tissa Attanayake the General Secretary and Tissa Kapukotuwa the Treasurer. The election of the National Organiser was deferred.

Procrastination is the strategy
The issue over the leadership of the UNP which dragged on for about one year was thus settled. Procrastination is the usual strategy that Ranil Wickremesinghe employs in tackling whatever issue that comes up because he knows that he could soft-paddle any problem with those concerned losing interest with the passage of time. In settling the leadership issue too he adopted the same ploy or the strategy, a senior UNP member told this writer.
Sajith had been telling the UNP rallies at the recent local government elections in a strain that he was seeking a party position through a ballot and was not interested in a position to be offered to him on a platter by someone. He promised he would be the new party leader after the Sinhala and Hindu New Year. He also promised the people a `Premadasa era of prosperity.

Separate campaign trails
Sajith went round the country addressing his own election rallies. He neither invited Ranil or Ranil loyalists to his election rallies nor did he attend rallies attended by Ranil.
Why did Sajith made a u-turn in his stand on the leadership issue? It is now understood that the senior members of the UNP Working Committee had been resigned to the fact that just like Ranil, Sajith too is no leader of national stature. However, Sajith being young has time and opportunity to build up his image as a national leader with experience. In their assessment, Ranil has won acceptance among the international community. Sajith has won no such recognition or acceptance.

Main cause
The main cause that led to shattering Sajith’s dream of being UNP leader was UNP’s defeat in Hambantota district. He could not secure a single local body in the district for the UNP. How could such a person lead his party to victory at a national election? This is the question that teased many UNP seniors. Besides, the majority of the 83 members of the UNP’s Working Committee are Ranil loyalists. They are really Ranil’s appointees. Some Working Committee members openly supported Sajith. But the majority maintained an eloquent silence. Although Sajith had discussions with some Working Committee members, he remained clueless as to whom its majority was backing.
However, Ranil was well aware of the power equation reflected in the Working Committee. According to his reckoning, the number of Working Committee members backing Sajith was somewhere between 26 and 30. He boldly declared at the Working Committee meeting that he was ready to face an election for party leader because he was wise to his strength in the Working Committee. Sajith had been taken aback by the challenge thrown by Ranil. At his wits’ end, Sajith asked for time to think over.

Hobson’s choice
Later a group of party seniors had explained to Sajith, that in case he lost at a ballot for party leader, he would not be qualified to contest for Deputy Leader either. Having realised that he had reached the end of the tether, Sajith had agreed to accept the post of co- Deputy Leader. However, those who stood by him in the Leadership stakes like Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Talatha Atukorale, Rosy Senanayake, Sujeewa Senasinghe, Buddhika Pathirana and Upul Jayasuriya strongly opposed Sajith’s decision to meekly give in.
Soon after Ranil Wickremesinghe announcing his candidature for party leader at Wednesday’s meeting of the UNP Working Committee, Ranjith Madduma Bandara proposed the name of Sajith Premadasa for the position citing the latter’s qualifications for the leadership. Rising to his feet immediately, Sajith had withdrawn his name saying that he had agreed to accept the position of Deputy Leader. Later in the night after being elected Deputy Leader, Sajith had visited Ranjith Madduma Bandara at the latter’s Nugegoda residence. In fact, Sajith Premadasa and loyalists used to meet at the residence of Madduma Bandara at Kandewatta, Nugegoda following the death of Bodhi Ranasinghe who earlier hosted their meetings. Sajith’s erstwhile loyalists including Rosy Senanayake, Sujeewa Senasinghe, and Upul Jayasuriya who had been at Madduma Bandera’s residence had left the place in a hurry when Sajith had called over there.
Sajith had left Madduma Bandara’s residence only at predawn the following day after a lengthy discussion with him.

Struggle has not ended
Meanwhile, a young UNP Parliamentarian who had actively backing Sajith in the latter’s bid for party leadership told this writer that offering a co-Deputy leadership to Sajith had in no way ended the leadership crisis in the UNP and his group was determined to pursue the struggle to oust Ranil from the leadership. He also said that Sajith had committed a grave mistake by accepting the Deputy leadership. “Sajith has fallen into the trap laid by Ranil. We will carry on our struggle to bring about a change in the party notwithstanding the recent developments,” he added.
Meanwhile, former Minister Mangala Samaraweera who recently joined the UNP told a media briefing last week that deterrent disciplinary would be taken against the members who openly criticize the party leader.
Given this situation, all indications are that the UNP’s leadership crisis though apparently resolved for good, would re-surface with a different face, say political analysts.