This is my Nation
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
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
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
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
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
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