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Whither the wave of support?

Whither the wave of support?

The tussle within the ruling United National Party (UNP) to nominate its presidential candidate has continued to dominate headlines in a week that saw the campaign of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) taking a break, possibly because its leaders were busy with the nuptials of Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa, son of its leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The meeting proposed between UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the party’s deputy leader Sajith Premadasa did take place but did not resolve the issue of candidacy. The Premadasa camp was requested to canvass support from other constituent parties of the United National Front and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) before a final decision could be arrived at.

Paradoxically, some constituent parties of the UNF such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) have urged to settle the issues related to candidacy first, before seeking to formalise the formation of the proposed National Democratic Front (NDF) for the purpose of contesting the presidential election. A ceremony to launch the NDF was already scheduled and then called off because of this uncertainty.

UNP’s presidential candidate

In a reflection of how frustrated partner parties are with the indecision of the UNP, JHU Leader and Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka this week requested the UNP to choose its presidential candidate through a secret ballot of its parliamentary group.

“The UNP was asked to nominate its presidential candidate and inform constituent parties of the alliance by the end of August, but that hasn’t happened. It is more democratic to select the candidate through a secret ballot by the parliamentary group in the government. They have been elected from the people’s mandate,” Ranawaka said.

Ranawaka’s remarks are relevant because there is some uncertainty on the exact procedure of selecting the UNP’s presidential candidate. Previously, it had been suggested that it would be by a joint vote of the party’s parliamentary group as well as its highest decision-making body, the Working Committee. Since then, there have been suggestions to the contrary, with some observers stating that the decision would be made by the Working Committee alone.

It is well known that most members of the UNP Working Committee have been hand-picked by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and are likely to remain loyal to him. Hence, if a decision is left to the Working Committee alone, the Premier could easily emerge as the UNP nominee.

However, among the parliamentary group, it is believed that support for Deputy Leader Premadasa is believed to be strong. There is a possibility that he will be the UNP candidate if votes of both the Working Committee and the parliamentary group are tallied together. However, whether this method would be adopted remains to be seen.

For all intents and purposes, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe continues to express sentiments of wanting to contest the election. Last week, the Prime Minister met a group of ministers loyal to him including Lakshman Kiriella, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Sagala Ratnayaka, Ravi Karunanayake, Daya Gamage and John Amaratunga where they reviewed the composition of the Working Committee and concluded that the Premier would easily command the support of a majority there.

At this discussion, it was also reported that among those parliamentarians who submitted a letter expressing their support for Deputy Leader Premadasa, about twenty have submitted another letter expressing their support for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Unfortunately, UNP parliamentarians, particularly backbenchers, are caught in this power struggle and have to deal with pressure from ministers from both camps who pressurise them into signing letters of support. Perhaps the best way to resolve this would be a secret ballot, as suggested by Minister Ranawaka.

As the uncertainty about the UNP candidacy continues, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe continues to canvass support from various groups during meetings held at Temple Trees. He met with a group of veteran UNP loyalists from his electorate of Biyagama and in an emotional address, recounted how he had held the party together when its leaders were being gunned down, one by one, by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). However, at this meeting, the Premier is reported to have said that he would contest the upcoming presidential elections if he could win but if it was thought that he could not, he would opt-out. The Prime Minister reportedly said that he had held many positions during his political career and now at the age of 70 years it would not be difficult for him to retire from politics.

At a meeting with civil society organisations, the Prime Minister, however, reiterated his desire to run for the Presidency. Venerable Dambara Amila Thera, Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne, Professor Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Jehan Perera and Kumudini Samuels attended this discussion. At this meeting, campaign strategies including obtaining the support of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were also reportedly discussed.

Premadasa camp

As far as obtaining the support of other political parties are concerned, an issue of concern for the Premadasa camp is the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). It is an inherent fact of the presidential elections system where every vote counts, that it would be impossible for a candidate to win without the votes in North and East, dominated by the Tamil and Muslim communities.

There are ample examples of this. At the 2005 presidential election, Ranil Wickremesinghe lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa by the narrowest of margins, a mere 180,000 votes. That was because LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had called for an election boycott. Had the North and East gone to the polls unhindered, Wickremesinghe would have won that election.

Similarly, in 2015, an analysis of the election results clearly showed that in the South of the country, while there was some shift in support towards candidate Maithripala Sirisena, Mahinda Rajapaksa still secured more electoral districts than Sirisena. However, in the North and East, Sirisena secured massive victories resulting in an overall tally which saw him home with a comfortable majority. In fact, after the election, Rajapaksa loyalists produced a coloured map depicting the areas that voted for Sirisena and compared it with the map of the Tamil Eelam proposed by the LTTE!

The only exception to this came in 2010 when Mahinda Rajapaksa won the election despite not commanding the support of the North and East. However, that was when he was riding the crest of a wave of popular support in the South following the war victory over the LTTE. Rajapaksa easily polled over 55 per cent in most electoral divisions and as high as sixty-five per cent in the deep South of the country to make his victory possible without votes in the North and East. No such wave of support is evident for any candidate at this election.

In this context, the Premadasa camp has been negligent in not wooing the TNA’s support assiduously. The lament of the TNA is that Premadasa has not articulated policy with regard to the devolution of power. While the UNP’s deputy leader proclaims from time to time that he would continue the ‘Premadasa policies’ of his late father Ranasinghe Premadasa, it is well known that Premadasa Snr travelled overseas and kept away from the ceremonies associated with the Indo-Lanka Accord that devolved power to the provinces when he was Prime Minister in the JR Jayewardene government.

Indeed, Minister Premadasa has not articulated his position on issues such as devolving power to the provincial councils and the 13th Amendment. He did hold a round of discussions with TNA leaders while on a recent visit to Jaffna but these talks were far from conclusive. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, has an excellent working relationship with the hierarchy of the TNA and has been consistent in his advocacy for more devolution, often at the cost of votes in the South of the country.

Amidst this impasse, there has also been the occasional mention of a ‘compromise’ candidate in the form of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. This is because Premadasa has now publicly declared that he will contest the election ‘no matter what’. This implies the suggestion that he would still run for President if he is denied nomination from the UNP. Having publicly said so many times, it would now be difficult for him to renege on his pledge. If he did run against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe fielded by the UNP that would be disastrous for the UNP and would lead to an inevitable split, the kind of which the Grand Old Party has never seen before.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, even after receiving an invitation from the Buddhist clergy to contest the election, has remained dignified. He has categorically stated that he is indeed willing to contest on behalf of the UNP but only if all factions of the party make a collective decision to invite him to run. Whether that will eventuate remains to be seen.

Staunch UNP loyalists would argue that this is intra-party democracy at its best and is better than the SLPP where its leader arbitrarily chooses his brother to contest the election and everyone nods in blind obedience. There is some merit in that argument but right now, such democracy is coming at a tremendous cost - the cost of being unprepared for the real contest ahead.

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