Xeyes are on the United National Party (UNP) Convention as it readies to pass a proposal that will give Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe six years at the helm. As the country faces a growing need for a stronger opposition to promote much-needed accountability and balance of power, the fate of the UNP becomes a facet of the entire country’s future.
The prolonged crisis at the apex of the UNP has entered a new phase with the proposed amendment of the Party Constitution, which seeks to grant the elected party leader a six-year term. The existing system of electing the leader on an annual basis was introduced during the Party Convention in December 2010, which was celebrated as a symbolic victory for party reformers. This revision has its merits, but it‘s also a step back from the reforms.
Readers will recall that Sajith Premadasa did not contest the leadership in 2011, running for Deputy Leader instead and successfully consolidating his position within the party despite rifts. UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe trumped the challenge by then Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya to secure the vote and consolidate the legitimacy of his leadership.
This could have stabilised the UNP. But instead it resulted in intense posturing and divisiveness between the factions of Premadasa and Wickremesinghe. While these have somewhat cooled off recently, Premadasa continues to strengthen his grassroots support base, with an eye on the future leadership of the party. Certain members are of the firm belief that Karu Jayasuriya must be given an opportunity as he is a better option to unite the UNP as well as rally support from like-minded other political groups and civil society.
Although the UNP Working Committee has already approved the proposed amendment, it is yet to be approved by the Party Convention, which is why this event is so important. Ahead of the Convention UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, known for being a staunch Wickremesinghe-man, insisted that detractors of the leader as well as supporters of former General Sarath Fonseka will not be allowed to attend the convention. They also put in place a staggered attendance procedure through which participants are picked depending on the success of their performance during the previous election rounds, reducing the possibility of dissenting members being present at the convention.
Given this set-up it is highly unlikely that Wickremesinghe would be undermined. This could allow for a period of calm within UNP ranks and a consolidation of the party hierarchy. Given the isolation of former presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka, it could also be the precursor to the UNP becoming a stronger Opposition party. Apart from stricter discipline, greater unity with all factions being accommodated and given responsibility are critical for UNP to become a potent force in politics.
Even though a sturdier Opposition is needed for a more effective democracy, the internal procedure for the adoption of the proposals is also important. An independent vote at the convention would set a better tone for much-needed checks and balances seen outside of the UNP. Moreover, a six-year leadership would mean that Wickremesinghe will have to face the next presidential election – a weighty task indeed given his dismal track record. Even with the leadership of the UNP consolidated, there is much more that needs to be done before people are convinced to return them to winning ways at national elections.