It looks as if the UNP is down in the dumps and might not be able to raise its head, with its members disagreeing on every count. Consecutive defeats in elections and the stubbornness of some of its MPs have made the UNP realize that reforms are a must. Even on this count there seems to be disagreement between the members with some of them wholeheartedly agreeing while others are in total disagreement. With several candidates bidding for party leadership, each ‘section’ makes sure that their versions of an incident leaks into the media and each side assures that their version is true.
For example last week there were media reports which stated that the majority of the Provincial Council members rejected the proposal to elect a party leader through a secret ballot in the absence of consensus during a meeting between them and a committee headed by Joseph Michael Perera, who is in charge of the committee to recommend changes to the UNP constitution. But these reports are now being refuted by a majority of the UNP PCs and MPs. They added that there has been a misinterpretation of what actually took place on June 1st.
Southern provincial councillor Maithree Gunarathne told LAKBIMAnEWS that the councillors who gathered at Sirikotha agreed to appoint a committee comprising parliamentarians, provincial Councillors,Chairmen, opposition leader of local councils and organizers of electorates who have voting rights to elect a leader.
“We said that in the case of an election, the parliamentary group, Working Committee(WC), members of PCs, local government members and also electoral organizers should be allowed to vote and we did urge Ranil Wickremesinghe to develop a second-tier leadership with an opportunity to allow Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Lakshman Seneviratne to play a pivotal role. The rest as I said was what were discussed unofficially, I think these are stories planted by someone in the Wickremesinghe camp.”
Although the meeting for provincial councillors was held as a forum to freely express their views about reforms, a one-on-one with the man in charge of party reforms so to speak. But the arrival of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe for the meeting not only put a dampener on the event but also angered some of the members, while making nervous wrecks of others. Wickremesinghe pulled the same stunt a few days later when UNP trade unionists met Joseph Michael Perera.
“His arrival created a lot of tension and many councillors felt that Wickremesinghe tried to intimidate the gathering by his presence. This meeting was called by the WC so that provincial councillors could express their ideas freely and come up with our own proposals. Ranil, Ravi and Sajith are the three main contenders for the post of party leader, either all three should have been present or none of them should have been allowed because the presence of one would affect the impartiality of the process. Wickremesinghe is the party leader and he wields great power. People who left us are claiming that Ranil Wickremesinghe will remain in power using his power unduly and this kind of action just proves that they are right.”
While Wickremesinghe’s scare tactics might have won the day, his actions had alienated the moderates who have been impartial towards the main candidates. There race between the three men is quite close and ultimately, it will be the moderates who will decide the outcome of an election Gunarathne said.
“I think by coming there he lost the vote of a lot of moderates who have hitherto remained impartial. As it is, nobody has a massive majority. It’s very close; the party leader should realize it and should not have come to the session. Then again Sajith Premadasa should not get carried away and attack other seniors in the party. As a man trying to become the next party leader he should try to unite the party and not to widen the cracks. I have nothing against Sajith, he was my classmate but he should also be a bit more responsible.”
The opposition leader of the North Western Provincial Council, Shamal Senarath and North Central provincial council’s opposition leader, Anuruddha Kasthuri have raised concerns about the composition of the proposed WC claiming that there is not enough space in the WC for grassroot leaders. But UNPers who support the proposed reforms claim that they can only help grassroot organizers.
“I would like to ask them whether they have adequate representation now. Grassroot level leaders need the top brass to take good decisions and empower local and provincial councillors. They should be given more power to take on the spot decisions and these should be men of talent. Men like Senarath are afraid of elections because they know that they have not performed and if there are elections, the UNPers in the North Centra provincel would reject them. These men who were appointed by the party leader without any consensus are talking about grassroot structures,” said UNP MP Dayasiri Jayasekara.
A prominent UNP politician from Uva claimed that some district organizers appointed by Wickremesinghe are doing their best to halt reforms. By carrying out contracts given by a desperate Wickremesinghe, these men are destroying the UNPs chances of performing better at the coming local council elections.
“Some of the people who are at the top level in provincial councils were appointed by Ranil. Shamal Senarath of Kurunegala and the North Central provincial council’s opposition leader, Anuruddha Kasthuri are two of them. They were given top positions ignoring party seniors and even those who have performed well.”
Meanwhile, Maithree Gunarathne said that there is no need to entangle elections to appoint a party leader with the composition of the WC. The fact that there should be a fair representation at the WC is an accepted norm he added.
“Some people try to confuse elections with the WC. These are entirely two different issues. Of course there should be a variety in the WC; there should be a representation from parliament, the local and provincial councils, trade unions and professionals, only then will they get to know how people are thinking. But is that the case now? One man appoints almost half the WC. Is that a good method?”
The appointees of Wickremesinghe have no affinity withvoters from rural electorates and the decisions taken by them run contrary to the ideas and aspirations of the people claimed Gunarathne. That has lead to a massive erosion of the UNP’s rural vote base.
“The support we get from the village has diminished and I am not talking only about the Sinhala Buddhists, I think the votes we used to get from rural Tamils and Muslims have also diminished. We made grave errors that cost us big time because these people do not know the pulse of the people.”
“The local council elections are near and there is a lot to be done. There are over 250 local and municipal councils, we have to appoint the teams and come up with strategies and we don’t have much time left. How can we attend to these matters when the reforms are not carried out? I am a provincial councillor from the South and whenever I go to my electorate, people ask me what’s new? Why aren’t you guys solving the leadership issue and carrying out reforms. There is so much pressure on us from the grassroots. So the reforms should be implemented by the August 7th meeting.”
Throughout last week Wickremesinghe found ways to disrupt meetings between Joseph Michael Perera and various affiliate groups of the UNP. Apart from the two incidents mentioned in the story, he allowed Kurunegala district MP Akila Viraj Kariyawasam to bring an ‘entourage’ of 13 to the meeting of the National Youth Front. During the meeting these 13 signed a petition objecting to party reform.
Positioning himself as a ‘liberal’, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s gimmicks last week, makes one wonder whether his leadership style is any different from what he labels as ‘undemocratic.’