It is clear that the division within the Party is deep-seated with the pro-Sajith ranks
presenting formidable opposition to Ranil – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Each time Ranil Wickremesinghe is faced with a threat to his leadership, he comes up with a band aid solution which either postpones his day of reckoning, and/or worsens the situation for the Party, creating internal chaos and bringing it down in the eyes of the people.
The latest attempt to solve the power struggle within the UNP is to divide the leadership into two compartments: 1 the Leader of the Opposition whose role is confined to the limited area of the Parliament and 2. the Leader of the Party with overriding powers to control the affairs of the Party.
This has only postponed the date of the impeding removal of him from the leadership. It has not solved the internal power struggle. In fact, it has forced Sajith’s camp to come out fighting more fiercely than before. Perpetuating the chaos within the Party – a common tactic of Ranil – is not what the Party needs at a time when it is facing another defeat in the coming Parliamentary elections.
Clearly, splitting the leadership at the top has neither appeased the second tier rebelling against him. Nor has it inspired the electorate to follow Ranil as the alternative leader of the nation. It is a useless exercise that will neither solve the problem for him nor the Party to rise from the pit into which it has fallen.
Leader of the Party vs. Leader of the Opposition
Of the two divisions it is obvious that the Leader of the Party has a greater clout than the Leader of the Opposition. As Leader of the Party Ranil Wickremesinghe will have the full control of the Party organisation throughout the island on all issues at all times.
Whereas, as the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa can only walk in the corridors of Parliament (which is not sitting now) with a name board round his neck. The managing and directing of all party politics impacting on the nation and, consequently within the Parliament, will reside in the hands of Ranil who is the Leader of the Party.
Even the Speaker will be dealing with the Party leaders in settling affairs of the Parliament. In the current state of play a nominal role will be allotted to the Leader of the Opposition, if at all. The policies, programs, directions and political alliances at the national level at all times will be with the Leader of the Party and not in the hands of part time Leader of the Opposition who has no significant role to play now that the Parliament is not sitting.
Even when Parliament resumes its sittings after 3 January Sajith will be jobless because it is due to dissolved to make way for next election. So Sajith is back to square one: an empty title with no role to play.
The trump card is still with Ranil who commands a majority in the Working Committee – the key instrumentality which has been manipulated by him solely to serve his survival. It is questionable as to whether Sajith will even have the full control of the Parliamentary group to run the opposition according to his will as Ranil is bound to manipulate the MPs to dance to this tune.
Can a divided party win the confidence of the people?
All this reflects the utter chaos in which the UNP is struggling to survive as a credible party in the eyes of the nation. Can a divided party win the confidence of the people? This also raises a critical question: if the UNP can’t manage its own internal affairs how can it manage the affairs of the nation?
It is clear that the division within the Party is deep-seated with the pro-Sajith ranks presenting formidable opposition to Ranil. They are ready to take on Ranil at every level. But as things stand now, Sajith will have to twiddle his fingers and hang around doing nothing as the Parliament is prorogued. Ranil still has the whip hand to determine the critical issues of the Party. Not that he is going to revamp the Party and make it a dynamic force to contest the coming election. At this late stage he is doomed. He has no vision, no formula or strategy to recover. Whatever he does now, it will result only in the Party losing again to the overwhelming forces that triumphed in the Presidential Election.
The future of the Party depends on democratising the Party
The future of the Party depends on democratising the Party. And this can begin only with the removal of Ranil from the leadership. It is his leadership that has dragged the UNP and the nation to the prevailing depths of despair. He is ensconced in power because the UNP Constitution has empowered the Leader of the Party with dictatorial authority. Together, Ranil and the UNP Constitution negate the possibilities of the Party gaining maximum internal democracy.
The Ruwan Wijewardene report that inquired into reforms of the UNP had recommended the democratisation of the Constitution as a prime necessity. But Ranil, after paying lip service, undercut any meaningful changes. The Constitution and the packing of the Working Committee with his yes-men have given him the necessary powers to move his pawns on the chess board.
In other words, Ranil still has the power to move Sajith from place to place without giving him the power he needs to make a difference. Sajith has been moved from Deputy Leader to Presidential candidate and now to Leader of the Opposition. Ranil has been playing snakes and ladders with Sajith. Ranil is bent more on pulling Sajith down than sending him up the ladder.
The latest move is to turn Sajith into another Rajavarothiam Sampanthan – a ceremonial figure head who would be the best prop for him to retain his power inside and outside the Parliament. In any case, there is no Parliament for Sajith to play any significant role. The only role left for Sajith is to play that of the Leader of the Opposition to Ranil!
The attempt to kick Sajith into an empty chair upstairs is nothing but a cosmetic exercise with no substantial change in the power structure for the Leader of the Opposition to make meaningful changes to create a new image of the party to win back the voters who had deserted the Party in droves. What the UNP needs is a radical change of politics, policies and personalities. What the UNP has got is the same old leadership of Ranil – a change doomed to fail.
The so-called reform of appointing Sajith as the Leader of the Opposition is not to promote him but to save Ranil’s skin. Each time recommendations were made for the reforming of the Party Ranil has been sweeping any change that threatens his dictatorial grip on the Party under the carpet.
The Ruwan Wijewardene report
Furthermore, no other party has appointed committees as the UNP to report on the necessary reforms. Starting from the Panditharatne report to the most recent Ruwan Wijewardene’s report the UNP has been warned of the changes needed to make itself relevant to the contemporary electorate. The Wijewardene report has been the best so far.
Ranil had the necessary blue print to adjust the direction of the Party in the Ruwan Wijewardene’s report which drew attention to the need of (a) creating a second tier leadership giving more authority to the young (b) democratising the party by whittling down the executive powers of Ranil who was running it like a one-man dictatorship (c) make provision for the election of a leader (d) moving the party closer to the grass root base (c) adjusting the party to meet the historical aspirations of the Sinhala-Buddhist base, etc. Ranil made big noises about it in the media but the status quo remained unchanged. Ranil who spends all his energy on handing over the powers of the nation to the Tamil separatists, or whittling down the powers of the presidency to make his Premier’s seat the centre of State power, never moved a finger to devolve his powers to his own party men. He doesn’t trust his own party men but he has implicit faith in making Sampanthan the Leader of the Opposition with 16 votes in a House of 225, violating all known principles of parliamentary democracy.
But as usual Ranil never took the necessary steps to implement the report. The changes, if any, have been mere optics and theatrics to appease the forces threatening him. He would craftily offer changes (like appointing Sajith as the Leader of Opposition) not to revamp the Party but to get his rivals out of his way to consolidate his position as the sole leader of the party.
Had Ranil implemented the Ruwan’s report there was a possibility (though remote) of avoiding the crash of 16 November. There are, of course, several reasons that led to the crash of 16 November. But the primary cause was undoubtedly Ranil. If the UNP won he would have crowed that it was his leadership and his political alliances with the minority parties that led to the victory. Now that the UNP has lost he must take full responsibility for its failure – for the 30th time!
Removing Ranil alone will not solve all the problems
The current reformists, however, must not fall for the belief that removing Ranil will solve their problems. They have to go deeper than that. They must root out the policies and programs of Ranil that alienated the Sinhala-Buddhist base. When 70% of the Sinhala population reject the UNP then it is time for the new guard to revisit the policies and the programs pursued by Ranil-Mangala gang. If Ranil inflicted the wounds on the Sinhala-Buddhist body politic then Mangala rushed in and rubbed salt into it.
The first prophetic UNP pioneer who realised the destabilising role of Ranil and its destructive impact on the Party was Bodhi J. Ranasinghe. He was a party loyalist but like all loyalists he moved away from Ranil realising that he was not the man who could save the party or the nation. The seminal rebellious group of UNPers gathered round him and he gave the necessary quantum of oxygen to the disillusioned UNP youth. Bodhi invested his hopes in Sajith, having been a committed loyalist of his father, President Premadasa.
Like all those who followed Ranil initially, Bodhi realised that Ranil’s power to repel is far greater than his power to attract. A common complaint of all Ranil loyalists is that he is never loyal to them. He either casts them out or keeps them at arms’ length. Bodhi too was a victim of Ranil’s karapincha treatment. Sadly, Bodhi’s untimely death dispersed the UNP youth who gathered round him.
Ruwan’s report got the same treatment of all other reports presented to Ranil: it was locked up inside the nearest drawer, unread, untouched and unwanted. Ranil will not touch anything that threatens his supremacy.
Overthrowing the old guard
Ranil’s latest move to appoint Sajith as the Leader of the Opposition is only a bone thrown to keep the barking dogs quiet. He thinks he can deceive the young Turks again with false hopes and promises. But their thinking is that they have come as close as they can to overthrow the old guard represented by Ranil.
Harin argues that the rebels had won every battle they had fought so far and there is no reason why they can’t deliver the final coup de grace. They are exasperated and impatient having come to the end of the tether. They are right: there is no point in following a leader that can’t win. After losing 30 elections under Ranil can they hope to win the next critical Parliamentary Elections with a born loser? Nor can they be happy with Sajith playing the second fiddle?
Though Ranil is playing his own games to survive in the leadership Sajith, in a sense, has been inching his way like the camel in the Arab’s tent. Sajith still has some distance to go to oust the Arab and capture the tent. He has been drifting more horizontally than vertically. He has been going across the chess board from Deputy Leadership to presidential candidate and from there to the Leader of the Opposition. Despite these advances he is still not in command of the Party to determine the fundamental policies and run the party under his leadership. In Parliament he will have space only to act as the peon who will deliver the policies dictated by Ranil.In any case, Sajith has nothing to do now because Parliament has been prorogued till 3 January. Ranil loses nothing by making Sajith the leader of the Opposition as there is no Parliament for Sajith to act. Ranil, of course, has merely postponed his day of departure. But he should know that his days are numbered. The seething anger rising within the lower layers of the Party indicate that the power struggle within the Party has not ended. The young Turks are hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles.
Ravi Karunanayake argues that for the sake of unity they have to keep Ranil as the Leader. But can the UNP win the coming Parliamentary Election under Ranil? What the UNP needs is a leader who can lead them to victory; 16 November proved once again that Ranil is not a vote-winning candidate. What the UNP needs is a radical change – a change in policies, personalities and the failed politics. In short, it means throwing Ranil out because he has nothing new to offer the Party.