All eyes on WC

Thursday, 26 September 2019 01:40 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

All eyes will be on the United National Party (UNP) Working Committee meeting today, as the public hopes it will mark the end of months of infighting, and present a presidential candidate that will be able to make a strong showing at the polls. 

However, the entire enterprise is far from being resolved, after UNP Deputy Leader and presidential candidate hopeful Sajith Premadasa rejected conditions placed by the UNP leadership to allow Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to remain as the leader of the UNP, its Prime Ministerial candidate next year, and commit to abolishing the Executive Presidency. It is clear that the latter in particular is a stumbling block for Premadasa and his supporters, who have so far steadfastly refused to declare their stance, even at the cost of losing minority votes. 

Without a consensus between the two camps, it is unlikely that the Working Committee meeting will end in a decision. UNP sources have indicated there could be a meeting between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa before the Working Committee meeting to try and come to a compromise, to avoid dissention within the Working Committee. 

The Premadasa camp has a reasonable number of supporters within the Working Committee, if not an outright majority and therefore any attempt to steamroll Premadasa out of contention by putting forward Karu Jayasuriya or even Wickremesinghe himself will likely face strong resistance.

Premadasa also cannot move away from the UNP and attempt to contest outside of the party, as his status and familial connections are very much embedded in the UNP. He is unlikely to draw UNP voters in large enough quantities to be able to challenge Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who remains the front-runner despite more and more candidates entering the fray every day. But Premadasa will also not want to run for a position that he is expected to abolish within a short period of time, as it will relegate him back to the rank and file of the UNP, behind Wickremesinghe. 

Dusting off the abolishment of the Executive Presidency as a campaign platform for the UNP is also tricky, as it was an unfulfilled pledge given during the last election cycle. It brings with it the baggage of other unfulfilled policies, and the deep despondency it has thrown moderates and minorities into. Despite their best efforts to push forward the abolishment of the Executive Presidency, a significant chunk of the 2015 voters of then common candidate President Maithripala Sirisena will be suspicious about the genuine intentions of Premadasa, and by extension the UNP. 

Wickremesinghe remaining as the leader of the UNP and its potential prime ministerial contender at the General Elections next year will also fail to rouse a faction of the UNP vote base that is desperate for change at the top. This will play into the hands of the Opposition as well, since they can argue that with key positions still being held by Wickremesinghe and his loyalists, the same level of governance can be expected till 2025. This use of incumbency fatigue could be a crucial tool to use against the UNP, and its effectiveness was proven in 2014 when after nine years of Rajapaksa governance, there was a strong swing to the UNP. 

With everything to play for, the UNP and its coalition parties will have to work harder to get its house in order.