This is my Nation  


Is upcoming poll final nail in UNP coffin?

For the umpteenth week running, it is the turmoil in the opposition United National Party (UNP) that continues to make news - and last week was no different with new twists and turns emerging in this on-going saga.
It will be recalled that the present impasse in the UNP is because the so-called ‘reformist’ group of the UNP led by Sajith Premadasa is challenging party and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s credentials to lead the party, especially in the context of several heavy election defeats.
Last week saw the first formal challenge to the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. This came in the form of a proposal by the Premadasa faction at the UNP parliamentary group meeting suggesting that the leadership be handed over to Karu Jayasuriya.
The meeting was not conducted in the most cordial of atmospheres. The air was fraught with tension and the comments that were thrown at Wickremesinghe were quite derogatory but he took it in his stride, being unruffled by the invective.
At the end of the day, the meeting ended inconclusively. If anything, all it demonstrated was that Wickremasinghe may have lost some of the support he earlier enjoyed in the UNP parliamentary group.
This has transpired not because some UNP parliamentarians have suddenly developed an affinity for Premadasa but because they feel that a change of ‘label’ is a must and that the UNP must be marketed to the electorate with a new face, if they are to have any impact as a major opposition force.
In Karu Jayasuriya, they believe they have the ‘perfect’ candidate to do this. Jayasuriya is more dignified and soft spoken than the brash and loud Premadasa and more importantly and he could be marketed to the electorate that tends to favour those with the ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ image around them.
There is another reason why Jayasuriya fits the bill. If he were to assume the leadership, Wickremesinghe’s future in the party would be more secure and dignified whereas if Premadasa becomes the boss, there would be a purge of Wickremesinghe and all his loyalists.
Even if all this indicated a perceptible swing of opinion against Wickremesinghe within the UNP parliamentary group, the opposition leader still has many aces up his sleeve. And he did play the first of them at the meeting.
As speaker after speaker was suggesting that he step down in favour of Jayasuriya who was willing but coy at challenging his leader openly, Wickremesinghe pointed to one glaring fact: Leadership was an issue for the party’s decision making body, the Working Committee.
Under the UNP constitution, ratified only last December after much wrangling, it is indeed the Working Committee that has to decide on the leadership. Thus, Wickremesinghe’s response was simple: the parliamentary group was not the forum for a decision on the issue.
This of course raises the issue whether the ‘reformist’ faction does command sufficient numbers within the Working Committee to push their plan through. At present, that is a moot point because the Working Committee is packed with Wickremasinghe appointees.
In fact, after the introduction of the new UNP Constitution, Wickremesinghe took care to get rid of several individuals whom he had appointed to the Working Committee but had now turned out to be Premadasa loyalists.
These individuals, feeling that they were targets of a witch hunt by Wickremesinghe felt that they would not have any future in the UNP if this was allowed to continue - and hence their agitation to remove Wickremasinghe from the leadership continued.
That has led to the current crisis in the party but the opposition leader does have yet another ace to play if he finds that the going has got tough for him even within the Working Committee. This is likely to unravel in the weeks to come.
That is the fact that under the new UNP Constitution, the leadership is bestowed on a person for a year - and it is only a few months since Wickremesinghe was “re-appointed” to the leadership. This is another stumbling block that the ‘reformist’ faction would have to contend with.
If Wickremesinghe decides to invoke this clause, the challenge to his leadership which has reached a peak now is likely to flounder. On the other hand, if the ‘reformists’ decide to push through anyway, the opposition leader could move towards legal action.
That is not a remote possibility because desperate times calls for desperate measures and the first stone has already been cast: the ‘reformist’ faction challenged the appointment of Ravi Karunanayake as the party’s national organiser in courts and the matter is still pending.
That may be exactly the type of situation that Wickremesinghe, a master at prevarication, would wish for. If the matter goes to court, trials, interim injunctions and appeals could all be resorted to and the dispute could drag on and on with no time frame for resolution in sight.
This type of scenario would of course be extremely damaging to the UNP but then, the positions of the two factions are hardening by the day and there is very little love lost between them, so such an outcome remains a real possibility.
For the ‘reformists’, there remains another option: to function in Parliament as an ‘independent’ group. This too is an extreme measure but would also send a clear signal to the electorate that Wickremesinghe has lost command of his troops.
Of course, this is all in the context of yet another upcoming election: the remaining local bodies, mostly municipal councils, will go to the polls in October because the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance is always keen to win elections while the UNP is squabbling with itself.
Municipal councils being urban areas have traditionally voted with a bent towards the UNP. Now however even that is in doubt as the infighting will undoubtedly cause some voter apathy among UNP supporters.
If this leads to a rout of the UNP yet again, that could well be the final nail in the party coffin. That is certainly not a fate we should wish for because a country without a strong opposition is a nation that would be destined for disaster, in the long run.