A jumbo-sized crisis

Thursday, 3 October 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As one Opposition party makes waves in the island’s north, Sri Lanka’s main opposition United National Party has been dragged back into debilitating crisis, after the party’s humiliating defeat in last month’s provincial elections renewed calls for the resignation of its Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe.   Wickremesinghe, who was dejected following the election and even told confidants he may be willing to step down from the party leadership, appears to have hardened his position once again after his most obvious challenger Sajith Premadasa has resorted to ugly abuse against the leadership and several key figures in the UNP. Premadasa, whose role in the recent provincial elections on behalf of the UNP was marginal at best, is still smarting over Wickremesinghe’s decision not to reappoint him Deputy Leader of the UNP earlier this year. Premadasa has powerful backers who are pushing him towards greater confrontation with Wickremesinghe and believe the moment is right for the younger MP to wrest the party leadership and secure the UNP presidential nomination for a poll many Opposition activists believe will be declared next year. Premadasa has openly declared his readiness to take up the party leadership and presidential candidacy and abused his detractors within the party using near-profane language. Wickremesinghe, whose leadership has seriously eroded support for the UNP and resulted in successive defeats for the country’s single largest political party, found himself surrounded once more in the wake of Premadasa’s outbursts by party members who fear that while the present leadership is weak and ineffective, the younger MP may herald more turbulent, polarising times. A decision by the UNP’s Matara Working Committee to suggest Premadasa contest as the UNP chief ministerial candidate at the soon-to-be-declared Southern Provincial Council election has been met with contempt and derision by the former UNP Deputy Leader, who views it as an attempt to defeat him and destroy him politically. Statements made by senior party members like General Secretary Tissa Attanayake who called the chief ministerial contest a springboard to greater political success have resulted in a spate of vitriol by Premadasa against such senior party officials he claims are trying to “assassinate” him politically, using words that evoke the memory of his father Ranasinghe Premadasa, who famously told his detractors that they could assassinate him but never assassinate his character. Sajith Premadasa’s decision to go public with his abuse against UNP members is not finding favour with most UNP members, who believe he is doing irrevocable damage to the already-diminished party brand. According to UNP insiders, although Premadasa is intent on viewing it as an insult, the call by the Matara Committee is grounded in the fact that the UNP will badly need a famous face in the southern polls contest, as it goes up against the Rajapaksa juggernaut in its home base. Premadasa, who remains popular in his electorate of Hambantota, the committee believes would be the man for the job, especially considering the recent success of UNP defector Dayasiri Jayasekera in the recently-concluded North Western Provincial Council election. Jayasekera, who many UNP members thought would be destroyed in a vicious polls campaign in Wayamba, is now Chief Minister of the Province and his political future has never looked so promising. Questions are being raised as to why Premadasa who has similar common man appeal and significant popularity in the southern region cannot perform similarly or at least prevent a massive defeat for the UNP in the forthcoming polls. A statement by UNP Communications Chief Mangala Samaraweera yesterday that if Premadasa is unwilling he would sacrifice his own Parliamentary seat to contest in the southern poll has been hailed by some sections of the party. That Premadasa, who recently alluded to political eunuchs and SLFP conspirators in a vicious speech many believe was aimed at Samaraweera, was somehow unwilling or incapable of taking up a similar challenge is cause for concern, some UNP members claim. But most importantly, Premadasa’s imprudent and ill-timed conduct is jeopardising what was a real chance for reform, including Wickremesinghe’s stepping aside, these sources explain. Many senior party members are now concerned that under a future Sajith Premadasa leadership, reprisals against his detractors will be swift and the UNP will effectively be replacing one aggressive, intractable leader with another. Meanwhile, representations are being made to Wickremesinghe on a daily basis, by different sections of the party, urging that radical measures be put in place immediately to prevent another electoral washout in early 2014. Calls are mounting for the mantle of leadership to pass to a unifying figure such as Karu Jayasuriya in the interim, until a suitable candidate for the UNP Leader can emerge from among the party’s younger membership. The former UNP Deputy Leader will be reinstated to the party’s Working Committee next week, after a lapse of nearly two years. Jayasuriya, unlike Premadasa, will not create further divisions within the party and has an elder statesman capacity to build bridges and ensure Wickremesinghe is also granted his due in the leadership structure. Premadasa has made it clear that if he wrests control of the UNP, he will ensure Wickremesinghe is completely sidelined and removed from the Opposition leadership, a scenario a majority of the party membership prefers to avoid. Wickremesinghe, despite his leadership failures, remains a former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the UNP traditions call for party elders to be given their due. Ranil Wickremesinghe recently told confidants and sections of his MPs that he would step down subject to the decision of his Parliamentary group. Wickremesinghe claims he would prefer to avoid a decision by the party’s Working Committee since there are allegations that its membership is appointed by the UNP Leader and are therefore loyal to him. It is unclear, however, when and under what circumstances the Parliamentary group decision would be made.