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Wickremesinghe refuses to budge

Last week was another eventful week for the UNP. Matters are basically coming to a head within the party. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has been running around in circles for a decade, avoiding calls for him to step down. But the circles have been getting smaller and last week marked what may well be the beginning of the end for him. At Tuesday’s stormy parliamentary group meeting of the UNP, Lakshman Seneviratne stood up and said that leaving aside anything that is in the agenda, there was the fundamental issue of the trust and confidence of MPs in the opposition leader and that this problem had to be decided one way or the other right now.

He proposed a vote on the question of whether Ranil Wickremesinghe should remain the leader of the opposition. The motion was seconded by Moneragala district parliamentarian Ranjith Madduma Bandara who said that there were precedents for this in the party and that they could not keep on losing every day and that Wickremesinghe should step down. Ravi Samaraweera spoke in favour of this motion, but struck a conciliatory note saying that this was not due to any hatred against Wickremesinghe but that there had to be a solution to this mistrust among MPs. Jayalath Jayawardene said that if Wickremesinghe wins the vote, they would all pledge their support to him and if he fails, he will have to make a decision about stepping down.

Constitutional gymnastics

This was Vajira Abeywardene’s opportunity to rise and shine. Whenever the party leader is criticized or asked to step down, it’s always Abeywardene who rises to the occasion. Bringing up a legal point, Abeywardene raised the question whether this meeting was legally constituted in terms of the party constitution. Given the balance of power within the UNP, the majority of the parliamentary group was for the removal of party leader, but the majority of the UNP working committee, being Wickremesinghe appointees, was for Wickremesinghe. Hence the move made by the rebels was to bring up a vote of confidence in the parliamentary group meeting and to defeat Wickremesinghe there in the hope that the working committee will bend with the wind. This idea of removing Wickremesinghe from the position of opposition leader has been on the cards for a long time and it was discussed by the 2006 rebel group as well. So the Wickremesinghe camp had prepared for such an eventuality well in advance. When matters came to a head on Tuesday, what was trundled out in Wickremesinghe’s favor was not shouts of support, but the party constitution.

Abeywardene’s point was that a suggestion expressing no confidence in the leader of the opposition could not be discussed at a UNP parliamentary group meeting. Quoting article 8.2 of the UNP constitution, he pointed out that if the party leader is not a member of parliament, he should appoint a UNP parliamentarian as the leader of the parliamentary group. However, if the party leader is a member of parliament, he automatically becomes the leader of the parliamentary group. Abeywardene also pointed out that according to article 8.3 of the party constitution, the UNP parliamentary group is bound to follow any instructions issued by the party leader. He said that the person appointed as the leader of the opposition is the leader of the parliamentary group of the main opposition party and that this is something that happens automatically and is not something decided by a vote.

Responding to Ranjith Madduma Bandara’s reference to a precedent in electing a leader of the opposition through a vote, as was done in 1994 after the August parliamentary election, Abeywardene said that it was done in accordance with the provisions of the UNP constitution that he had just quoted. Abeywardene pointed out that he was a member of the working committee even at that time and that he was privy to what went on. He said that in 1994, the party leader was president Wijetunga and he was not in parliament. So he had to name another MP as the leader of the UNP parliamentary group. President Wijetunga had informed the working committee that he would be making a decision as to who would be appointed in accordance with the provisions of the party constitution and the working committee had approved that. It so turned out that President Wijetunga’s way of appointing a UNP parliamentary group leader who would then become the leader of the opposition, was to hold a secret ballot within the UNP parliamentary group.

That decision, said Abeywardene, was completely in accordance with the party constitution, whereas, the present meeting of the UNP parliamentary group was not competent according to the UNP constitution, to elect a different UNP parliamentary group leader. Abeywardene accepted that there was a lack of confidence in the leader, but that the parliamentary group meeting was not the forum to discuss these problems and that it should be discussed within the working committee which was competent to decide on these matters.

Expressing agreement with Abeywardene’s position, Tissa Attanayake said that this problem should be resolved in accordance with the party constitution. What is significant is that even after the attempt to have a vote taken failed with Abeywardene’s law points, courtesy of Tilak Marapone, those in the parliamentary group did not fall silent. Rukman Senanayake, the assistant leader of the party, stood up and said he’s too embarrassed for words at this shameful attempt to hide behind the party constitution.

Presidential sympathy

Jayalath Jayawardene was even more aggressive saying that Abeywardene will leave this committee room and enter the room of the president’s parliamentary secretary, Kumarasisri Hettige, and later he would be in presidential secretary Gamini Senarath’s room. Late in the night, he would be with the president himself. There is widespread suspicion within the UNP parliamentary group that even though Abeywardene plays the role of a Wickremesinghe loyalist, he is actually playing a double game with the president and that he is actually fulfilling a Rajapakse contract by helping to keep Wickremesinghe in the UNP leadership.

It’s a well known fact that President Rajapakse wants Wickremesinghe to continue as the UNP leader. Following last week’s blow up in the UNP parliamentary group meeting, the president was telling an acquaintance, who also happens to be a friend of the present writer, in reference to Ranil, "Eyage sugar level eka negala ethi neda? Monawa vunath pau wede". One need not be surprised if President Rajapakse sends Dr Eliyantha White to cure Wickremesinghe of whatever ailments he thinks the latter suffers from and to get him fit and ready for the battles ahead!

Following more verbal exchanges between Abeywardene and the rebel group, the parliamentary group meeting ended inconclusively and it was decided to meet again that evening at Sirikotha, but Wickremesinghe absconded and did not present himself for that meeting. However the sparks continued to fly at that meeting too. Party chairman and general secretary Tissa Attanayake were present at that meeting and it was decided to meet the next morning (Wednesday) in parliament to discuss matters further. Later that night Attanayake, Jayawickreme Perera, Karu Jayasuriya and John Amaratunga met Ranil Wickremesinghe to appraise him of the situation. Attanayake was given the authority to negotiate with the rebels and the next morning Attanayake met the rebels in parliament and it was here that an agreement was reached to create the position of senior leader for Ranil Wickremesinghe.

That evening, when the UNP working committee met, a committee was appointed to look into the appointment of a senior leader position for Wickremesinghe and to decide on the powers and privileges that would be reserved for the senior leader. Jayawickreme Perera, Tissa Attanayake, Renuka Herath, Lakshman Seneviratne, Sajith Premadasa, S.B.Dissanayake, Lakshman Seneviratne and John Amaratunga were appointed to this committee. A brief discussion on the powers that should be allocated to the senior leader ensued.

Sajith Premadasa took a middle of the road position at this discussion where he favoured the senior leader co-chairing meetings of the working committee with the leader. But S.B.Dissanayake was against Ranil’s inclusion in the working committee. There had been an exchange between Sajith and SB on this issue. The eight-member committee was given only a matter of days to present their recommendations to the next working committee meeting which is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

By last Friday afternoon, the eight-member committee had decided that the senior leader would preside at party conventions, at meetings of the party executive committee and would co-chair meetings of the working committee. The position was in other words going to be merely a ceremonial post. On Saturday, as this column was being written, we got wind of the news that Wickremesinghe had gone back on his offer to become the senior leader of the party. The eight-member committee had been appointed mainly on Wickremesinghe’s offer to consider relinquishing the leadership in exchange for a senior leader’s post, but it appears that he had only been playing for time to gather his wits. He knows as well as the rebel MPs that the moment he ceases to wield the powers of party leader, he will be hooted and jeered out of sight by the party rank and file. Now that he has gone back on his word as he has done on many occasions earlier, it will be interesting to see what will happen tomorrow at the working committee meeting.

Playing ‘hora polis’

It appears that Wickremesinghe is going to fight to the very end like Prabhakaran. But he weakened his position last week by agreeing, even as a ruse, to create a senior leader post. The appointment of that eight-member committee by the working committee to create a new ceremonial position for Wickremesinghe and the dissemination of that fact widely by the media undoubtedly would have eroded even the little support he had both within the party and in the country at large. One of the fears that would have led to his temporary accession to such a damaging suggestion would have been the fear that a group of UNP parliamentarians will sit separately in parliament, thus allowing the leadership of the opposition to fall onto the JVP’s lap.

Last Monday’s parliamentary group meeting had sought to take away the leadership of the opposition from him and not the party leadership. If this cannot be done in terms of the UNP constitution, the next logical step would be for the rebels to withdraw support from the UNP in parliament, thus allowing the leadership of the opposition to go to the JVP. This was a move contemplated even in 2006 and apparently some frustrated MPs had been voicing such opinions again, which would have prompted Wickremesinghe to make that feint of agreeing to yield his place. This kind of sleight of hand will inflame passions among the rebels even further. News reaching this columnist indicates that seven of the eight member committee appointed to look into the appointment of a senior leader is now against Wickremesinghe ie, everyone except Renuka Herath.

Vajira Abeywardene, Wickremesinghe’s co-actor in this burlesque, spoke to The Island last week. He still insists that this string of defeats that the UNP has had to suffer is due to no fault of Wickremesinghe and that when the political trend in the country is in the opposite direction, there’s nothing that can be done. Comparing the popularity of the Rajapakse regime to a tsunami, Abeywardene says that when a tsunami hits the shore, there’s nothing that can be done except scrambling to higher ground and waiting for the waves to subside when one can come down and pick up the pieces. So he argues that there’s nothing that can be done in the present circumstances except to watch and wait. His theory is that the next chance for the UNP will emerge when the Rajapakse regime begins to fail. His expectation is that the worsening of the economic situation will clear the path for the UNP. Abeywardene’s position is an unabashed adaptation of the goat and jackal story.

Goat and jackal theory

It’s not that Abeywardene does not have a point here. In the goat and jackal story, the goat’s ding dongs never fall off as the jackal expects, but we all know that in politics, the popularity of every democratically elected governing party reaches a peak and then declines. Abeywardene is waiting for the decline to begin whereas the UNP rebels are trying to force the pace. Almost four years into the Rajapakse regime, its popularity does not appear to have peaked yet.

Planter turned author Malinga Herman Gunaratne, who is also involved in the tourist industry told the present writer of a conversation he had with a retired British military officer who makes frequent visits to Sri Lanka. Gunaratne, who is in touch with President Rajapakse, had been told by the latter that the army commander Sarath Fonseka and the navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda were in high demand as guest speaks overseas to lecture foreign armies on how to fight terrorism. When Gunaratne mentioned this to the retired British officer, the Britisher had said "Forget the army and navy commanders, there’ll soon be a queue of foreign presidents and prime ministers outside Temple Trees, wanting lessons from Rajapakse on how to handle the world!"

If ever there was a leader riding high, it’s Mahinda Rajapakse. He’s sweeping everything before him both at the local as well as the international level and the way he has handled the often irrational pressures coming from the international community has not gone unnoticed. A few weeks ago, the Sinhala weekly, Irida Lakbima, interviewed several persons including myself and Victor Ivan about the present moves to remove Wickremesinghe from the UNP leadership. The opinion expressed by all those interviewed was that such a removal may not serve any purpose if the intention of the UNP is to come into power soon.

The personal opinion of the present writer also is that the UNP as a party is now far too gone for any quick fix solutions and Abeywardene’s goat and jackal type theory does have some merits. But then the UNP rebels also have a point in that if the present trend continues the UNP will be so weakened by defections that it will become even more difficult to rehabilitate the party. There’s also the point that under Wickremesinghe’s stewardship, the UNP is not only losing what they already have, nobody new is coming in either. The floating voter has completely abandoned the UNP and so has the youth vote. So any haste on the part of the UNP rebels to oust Wickremesighe and vest the party leadership in a leader who can restore confidence in the party is well understood.

What an effective leader can do in the electorate was seen in the Kandy district at the recent Central Province PC elections where S.B.Dissanayake got the highest number of preference votes in every single electorate in the Kandy district. The margins were enormous. While SBD got something in excess of 180,000 votes, the next highest on the UNP list got only something in excess of 20,000 votes. That shows the extent of the hunger for leadership within the UNP. While the UNP is engaged in a valiant struggle to get out of the rut they are in and Wickremesinghe is making a no less valiant effort to remain in power, what of the ordinary citizen of this country who has no particular reason to be concerned about the welfare of the UNP or UNPers? The fact that the voters have been consistently delivering unprecedented margins of victory for the Rajapakse regime at election after election is an indication that the vast majority of the population is quite comfortable with the present government at least for the moment.

Peace and quiet factor

One of the main reasons for this liking that the common folk have for this government is that it is a friendly and mild government. Until the peace was suddenly shattered by the assaults on journalists Keith Nohyar and Namal Perera and the arson attack on Sirasa and the assassination of Lasantha Wickremetunga, there was absolute peace on the political front in this country. The burning of Dr Johnpulle’s house during the NCP elections was caused by an ill advised shooting incident which enraged the passing crowd and it cannot be taken as a premeditated attack. No UNPer has really been harmed during the past three and a half years of the Rajapakse regime. Some journalists have had to flee the country, but the main opposition party remains largely unscathed. One of the main reasons for this peace is the personality of the mild mannered and easygoing Mahinda Rajapakse. The other main reason for the peace is Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The governing party knows that it can win any election without stuffing the ballot boxes or assaulting their opponents; so the number of election related crimes have gone down dramatically. Persecution of the opposition which we have experienced under every government, except during the one and a half year rule of President D.B.Wijetunga, is not to be seen today. Conflicts among supporters of various political parties at the village level have gone down dramatically and even though there is an election campaign on at this very moment, nobody seems to be interested in the number of election related incidents.

For the first time in decades, we have been experiencing a period of relative calm over the past few years. If there is a change in the UNP leadership and a more forceful leader takes over, there is the danger that all this may change. The level of political tension in the country will increase dramatically as the UNP revives and the UPFA feels threatened. Even if the president himself does not want it, regional leaders of the governing party may start terrorizing their political opponents once again as they did during the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime and it is a moot point whether the president himself will be able to play the role of Mr Nice Guy as he is doing at present.

One must say that the UPFA was tested on two occasions when Janaka Perera came forward as the UNP chief ministerial candidate for the NCP and when SBD became the chief ministerial candidate for the CPC elections, but they did not regress into thuggery to meet the challenge. But that may have been because of the secure knowledge that Wickremesinghe would bring down both Perera and Disssanayake.

It’s a moot point as to how the UPFA would behave in a post Wickremesinghe scenario. There will be more conflict, more noise and caterwauls, much spitting and scratching and a complete disturbance of the present peace with no net benefit for anybody. I have been scathing in my criticism of Wickremesinghe and all those criticisms, I believe, are valid. However, the question we have to ponder is what is more important - giving hope to a prostrate UNP or our own peace and quiet?

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