Thursday, 10 October 2013 00:00
As the main opposition United National Party attempts to undertake major reform to resolve its present leadership crisis, Sajith Premadasa may need to rethink his political strategy
There is an old story in UNP circles about Sajith Premadasa that dates back to May 1993.
His father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa had just been assassinated in a brutal suicide bomb explosion at the United National Party’s May Day rally. The 25-year-old Premadasa had been in pursuit of a Masters Degree at the University of Maryland when he received news of President Premadasa’s death. Upon his arrival in Colombo to attend his father’s funeral, he asked senior UNP members when his mother, Hema Premadasa, would be sworn in as President.
The final days of the Premadasa presidency was when the Premadasa family star was at its zenith. The family aggrandisement had by then reached dizzying heights, making the incumbent Leader an increasingly unpopular figure in urban circles, which never much loved the common man President who had broken all the rules of blue-blooded dynastic politics in Sri Lanka.
Sajith Premadasa could be forgiven for being unable to come to terms immediately with the fact that with his father’s death, his family’s power would wane. He was perhaps too young to understand much about Sri Lanka’s constitutional democracy and that provision was clearly made for the passing of a President while in office in J.R. Jayewardene’s 1978 Constitution.
Premadasa entered politics in 1994, still a very young man who had believed only one year ago that the presidential line of succession included the assumption of office of a widowed First Lady. He has had nearly 20 years to correct and alter these perceptions. Yet Sajith Premadasa in 2013, 20 years after his father’s death, remains as far removed from political reality as he was at the tender age of 25, still mired in a complex sense of entitlement that prevents him from standing on his own merits. It is a failing that has left him vulnerable to powerful political handlers whose personal agendas are threatening to derail Premadasa’s political career.
Sajith Premadasa’s enslavement to his backers has never been more apparent than in the aftermath of the 21 September provincial polls in which the main opposition UNP, predictably, suffered another humiliating defeat. He has seen fit to demand things rather than win them, coming across as a petulant politician. His political advisors have placed personal interests and vendettas above political strategy and Premadasa has fallen hopelessly prey to their machinations.
Over the past three weeks Premadasa put himself out there, demanding not only the party leadership but also its presidential nomination in a poll the Opposition strongly believes will be declared some time in 2014. He had staked his claim at a most precarious moment, ensuring that UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who appeared willing finally to contemplate stepping aside returned to his former intractable position.
The UNP Leader’s hand was strengthened after certain statements made by the younger politician against senior party members showed he was in a particularly vindictive mood. Wickremesinghe loyalists who were already terrified at the prospect of Premadasa at the helm, were digging in their heels. Even sections of the UNP seniors group that believed Sajith Premadasa was a viable option began to lose hope after the Hambantota MP’s repeated outbursts.
Party stalwarts recalled that Sajith Premadasa was personally vowing to destroy the political career of the same man who stood by his father during the greatest challenge of his presidency, the impeachment motion brought by his Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. It was upon consideration of all this that even moderates arrived at the position that if there was no better alternative than Premadasa in his present avatar, Ranil Wickremesinghe was still the preferred option.
It took a major intervention by senior Buddhist monks affiliated with the UNP to break what was increasingly looking like a deadlock with potentially disastrous consequences. Once again the UNP is dangerously close to compromise and it is the kind of compromise Premadasa and his advisors least desire.
Since about 4 p.m. on Monday (7) afternoon, therefore, Premadasa who is the most obvious challenger to the current UNP leadership has been an unhappy man. The UNP Working Committee was set to discuss the proposal presented by the monks as a way out of the current leadership crisis. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had asked the monks for time till Monday’s meeting to decide on the proposal, was to make the bulk of the proposals at the Committee, to the surprise of many of his critics present at the Sirikotha meeting.
The proposal was the establishment of a Leadership Council made up of seven or nine members drawn from both the Ranil and Sajith factions of the UNP, and chaired by former Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya. It was Wickremesinghe who proposed Jayasuriya’s name. The UNP Leader also explained that the Council would be transferred certain powers granted to the party leader and that no office bearers of the party would sit on the Council.
Wickremesinghe intimated to the Working Committee at Monday’s meeting that lasted nearly five hours that the Leadership Council would take care of party matters while he would look after the business of Parliament on behalf of the UNP. It was a clear indication, UNP insiders said, that Wickremesinghe was asking to retain the position of Opposition Leader, while someone with greater mass appeal takes over party strategy and campaign matters.
When all these proposals found virtually unanimous favour with the Party’s Working Committee, Wickremesinghe suggested one more thing. He said a meeting would be required between himself, Jayasuriya and Premadasa to hammer out the formula for the Leadership Council. It was suggested that the meeting be held within the week, to ensure the party’s rank and file knew its leaders were operating with a sense of urgency and that a joint media briefing should be held to assure the party that the three were willing to work together going forward.
Jayasuriya was not present at Monday’s meeting, having decided to defer his acceptance of an invitation to rejoin the Working Committee. UNP Kegalle District MP Kabir Hashim proposed to the Committee that Jayasuriya be extended an invitation to attend the next meeting which would be compelled to make several decisions about the UNP’s future course. It was clear however that Jayasuriya who has made numerous calls for party unity would not stand in the way of the Leadership Council proposal.
The Working Committee then turned to Sajith Premadasa. The members asked Premadasa if he was in agreement with the proposals laid out by Wickremesinghe. Making his discomfort obvious, Premadasa mumbled that he could not make a spot decision on whether the Leadership Council proposal was acceptable or not. He said he would need to consult with other provincial council members and local government members of the party before he could make his feelings known on the subject. Since it was a wholly new proposal, the decision could not be arrived at suddenly, he implied.
The uncertainty did not go down well with the other members of the Working Committee, insiders say. While Premadasa was attempting to portray himself as a democrat with the suggestion, UNP members felt that as the party’s most vociferous proponent of radical changes in the leadership structure, the onus was on Premadasa to seize the moment. Working Committee members told the young MP that as someone seeking to be a party leader, he should be able to make decisions on his feet. Many members in the Committee believed that Premadasa could not make a spot decision without talking to his powerful advisors.
Wickremesinghe told Premadasa that the proposals were new to him too, but he was willing to make a decision within the day since that was what most of the party membership wanted from Monday’s meeting. “I am the one who will be transferring my powers; none of you will be called to do that. So if I can make the decision now, there is no reason why others cannot,” Wickremesinghe told Premadasa.
Pushed to agree to the proposals, the Working Committee meeting ended on a buoyant note, with the three leaders set to meet within the course of the week.
But the next day at the UNP Parliamentary Group meeting, Premadasa appeared to be backtracking once more, when he said he would not be available to meet today (10) since he would be in Hambantota on a personal matter. This week would not be convenient to Premadasa for the meeting, it was intimated, even though both Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya were ready to meet as soon as possible. Once again, it seemed odd to members of the Parliamentary Group that the same man who was openly challenging the leadership and demanding radical changes in the party was the one dragging his feet when meaningful reform was finally on the table.
Premadasa’s reservations are understandable. He is being advised not to permit the emergence of a stop-gap leader like Karu Jayasuriya because it would further delay his advent to the top of the party hierarchy. But there is a useful lesson in Jayasuriya’s re-emergence for the likes of Premadasa. Despite all the grassroots support he can muster, Premadasa’s political fortunes have never taken the positive turns Jayasuriya has managed, even though he is the younger, seemingly more energetic challenger to the current status quo.
Pushed by the Sajith faction to unsuccessfully challenge Wickremesinghe’s leadership in December 2011, it was widely believed that Karu Jayasuriya would enter the realm of political oblivion. He had a Parliament term to sit out, but he would do so out in the cold, with no Working Committee membership, few opportunities to speak in Parliament and denied official party press briefings because he had fallen out of favour with Wickremesinghe.
In the nearly two years he was ostracised, Jayasuriya remained an out and out party man. Never radical, never critical of the party leadership, the former Deputy Leader called time and again for party unity above all else. Week after week, at his small Kirulapone office, seated behind a desk that held an elephant paperweight, Jayasuriya issued scathing criticisms of the ruling regime, standing up for everything from media rights, to the impeached Chief Justice to the victims of the hideous Weliweriya shootings. He has made the call for the reinstatement of the 17th Amendment and the repeal of the autocratic 18th Amendment which gives an already powerful President untrammelled power and endless terms in office, the cornerstone of his anti-Government campaign.
Jayasuriya is no great orator, but he has remained true to his principles, an engaged member of the Opposition, always bowed to party directives and in a highly factionalised UNP, a much-needed voice for unity. It is these glaring hallmarks of his political character that has made Jayasuriya the unanimous choice of UNP moderates. While he commands the support of the reformist Sajith faction because he contested the leadership, Jayasuriya is also backed by the Ranil group that realises he will not further divide the party or exact vengeance against the UNP Leader when he is in a position of authority.
Nearly two years after he was deemed to have committed political suicide, Jayasuriya won his comeback fair and square, by staying relevant and refraining from ego-centric politics.
His own show
Premadasa’s post December 2011 future has been very different. For more than a year he remained Deputy Leader of the party, having contested Ravi Karunanayake and won, but UNP members found him sorely lacking in terms of getting behind the leadership and its political programs. Premadasa always preferred to run his own show, with a few cameras in tow, rarely engaging in the party’s election campaigns or activities. When Wickremesinghe held his May Day rally in Jaffna last year in a show of solidarity with the minority Tamil population, Premadasa held his parallel rally in Colombo, in a clear attempt to undermine the UNP Leader’s program of action.
At every turn, he has preferred to let others fight the battles on his behalf, whether Jayasuriya for the UNP leadership at a time when there was no hope of defeating the Ranil faction in the UNP or encouraging members of his faction to attend the Sarath Fonseka rally against a UNP directive last October that nearly resulted in their expulsion from the party.
UNP Badulla District MP Harin Fernando was to remind Premadasa of this fact at the Working Committee meeting on Monday, when he publicly stated that he had voted against Wickremesinghe in the 2011 leadership contest and voted in favour of Premadasa for the deputy leadership. “Yet, even though I was clearly supporting you and your reformist movement, when a newspaper and a television station that has the closest links to you in this party began attacking me mercilessly, you never asked them to stop,” Fernando complained.
Premadasa’s conduct was given credence by Wickremesinghe’s own intransigence and arrogance towards his Deputy Leader.
At the Party’s National Convention last year, Wickremesinghe ensured major reforms agreed to in 2010 were rolled back, giving himself an uncontested six years in leadership and the power to annually elect the party’s remaining office bearers – including the Deputy Leader.
At this crucial juncture, therefore, when it appears Wickremesinghe has found enough humility to hand over the reins, even partially, it behoves Premadasa to offer some gesture of reciprocity that will ensure he does not become the spoiler when the entire party is backing serious reform. The Wickremesinghe-Jayasuriya-Premadasa nexus, if it can find the strength to pull together, may prove a formidable force, with each of them bringing something unique to the table. Wickremesinghe brings political experience and Premadasa brings grassroots support. Jayasuriya is increasingly seen as a force for party unity. With each move Premadasa makes to reject the overtures now being made, he paints himself into a corner and shows himself to possess the very same personality traits because of which calls are mounting for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ouster.
A political future
If Sajith Premadasa chooses at this juncture to derail the reforms process, he places his political career on the block and ensures that in the event he finally forces the leadership from Wickremesinghe’s hands, he will inherit a party more fractured and broken than ever. If he were to take a cue from Jayasuriya, Premadasa would perhaps realise hope for the future rests in his ability to rise above and put the party first.
Sajith Premadasa may have inherited his father’s appearance and earthy oratorical style, but he lacks Ranasinghe Premadasa’s vision and skill at keeping himself relevant and engaged even in the most trying circumstances.
Ranasinghe Premadasa did not need to be party leader or hold ministerial portfolios to begin building his political legacy. He began as a lowly deputy minister in a Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake who made no secret of his mistrust of the newcomer of dubious origins. The former President won his place in the UNP as a visionary and a staunchly loyal party member, loyal most of all to his party leader. He was hurt many times by the UNP’s aristocratic leadership, Premadasa biographers like Bradman Weerakoon recall, yet no slight was deemed great enough to warrant disloyalty to the party or its leaders.
Weerakoon explains how Ranasinghe Premadasa won JR’s confidence not by challenging him, but by earning his trust, working within the limitations of a redundant premiership and staying the course.
“You may disagree with the leadership, but the party always comes first. You do not destroy the party brand because you hate the leader,” a senior UNP member explained recently.
A paternal shadow
Premadasa tries hard to emulate his father but always falls short in the inevitable comparison. He is the embodiment of a son who has lived too long in his father’s shadow and now continues to seek the shelter of more powerful personalities, allowing them to guide his political destiny.
Unlike his only son, Ranasinghe Premadasa was his own man, capable of challenging the most nepotistic and dynastic party structures purely on his own skill and merits.
The former President was no saint, but even his greatest detractors will own that Ranasinghe Premadasa never allowed his beginnings to guide his destiny. So if Sajith Premadasa’s sole claim to the leadership of the United National Party is that he is the son of an illustrious former President, it is perhaps time he started reading the writing on the wall: He is no chip off the old block.
Just ask anyone who knew his father.