‘Definite’ candidate and indefinite future
Differences of opinion between factions within the United National Party (UNP) are hampering its efforts to get its presidential election campaign on the road, causing concern for millions of its supporters even as its principal opponent at present, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) stages events to bolster the image of its own candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Seniors within the UNP are however optimistic that the party will eventually come together and that party leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa will be able to reach an agreement over who should be the party’s presidential candidate.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has, at times, been mentioned as a possible ‘compromise’ candidate but it is to his credit that he has made it clear that he will run for office only if all sections of the party make a request, a scenario that is unlikely in the currently evolving political drama.
For several months now, a section of the UNP has been demanding the candidature of Premadasa. This is based on the perception that the Deputy Leader of the UNP who is also Minister of Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs attracts a greater following among voters than Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, an opinion that is vigorously contested by those supporting the Premier.
As momentum was gathering in the Premadasa camp, several ministers openly supported this claim. Among those who first did so were ministers Harin Fernando, Kabir Hashim who also happens to be UNP Chairman and, rather surprisingly, Mangala Samaraweera.
Mangala’s political astuteness
Samaraweera had been a Wickremesinghe loyalist ever since his entry to the UNP from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and has been given pride of place by the Prime Minister who rewarded him plum ministerial portfolios such as Foreign Affairs and Finance.
Samaraweera is also known for his political astuteness. Known for his loyalty to then SLFP leader Chandrika Kumaratunga, Samaraweera was instrumental in bringing Mahinda Rajapaksa to power in 2005, even though Kumaratunga had reservations about Rajapaksa’s elevation to the Presidency. A decade later, after he had quit Rajapaksa’s government over differences with Rajapaksa, he teamed up with Kumaratunga again to mastermind the move to extricate Maithripala Sirisena from the SLFP and baptise him as the ‘common candidate’.
While those in the Premadasa camp resorted to making public statements in his favour, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe chose to stay silent. He would only go so far as to say that the party’s presidential candidate would be chosen jointly by its parliamentary group and its highest decision-making body, the Working Committee.
It is no secret that at least a majority of UNP parliamentarians, if not more, would vote for Minister Premadasa as their presidential candidate. By the same token, however, it is also clear that a majority of the Working Committee comprising mostly of Wickremesinghe loyalists would vote for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as their presidential candidate. How the votes would stack up in a final tally is anybody’s guess.
It is against such a backdrop that those endorsing Minister Premadasa decided to launch public rallies in his support.
The first was staged in Badulla, the home turf of Minister Harin Fernando. This was followed by a rally in Matara, organised by Minister Mangala Samaraweera. Both rallies were successful if success is measured by crowd attendance. During these rallies, staged ostensibly to ‘welcome’ Premadasa, he was hailed by speaker after speaker as the UNP presidential candidate and referred to by some as the next President of the country.
The purposes of these rallies would have been two-fold. Firstly, it would test the ground realities and whether a Premadasa candidacy had a groundswell of support. Secondly, it would send a message to the party leadership that this claim for candidacy was a serious move and not to be dismissed lightly.
However, there were pitfalls in this strategy as well. By staging rallies where Minister Premadasa was being hailed as the presidential candidate, his supporters were treading rather close to violating party discipline because the party had still made no official decision as to who its presidential candidate would be.
Also, measuring the popularity of a candidate by crowd estimates is a strategy that could be fraught with high risk in Sri Lanka. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) regularly attracts massive crowds which do not appear to translate into votes. At the last presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rallies were also extremely well attended- but he lost the poll by a substantial margin.
The ‘unofficial’ campaign has provoked a response from the UNP. This came in the form of calls for an explanation from its General Secretary, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam. They were directed to two non-Cabinet ministers, Ajith P. Perera and Sujeewa Senasinghe. Kariyawasam’s demand for an explanation was given wide publicity in the media.
Perera, a lawyer has taken to media, releasing his response to Kariyawasam, where he challenges the latter to prove the veracity of allegations levelled against him. When party stalwarts who are ministers start a dialogue through the media, it does not augur well for the party in the face of an upcoming election.
Despite Kariyawasam’s threat of disciplinary action, the third rally in support of Premadasa was staged in Kurunegala which in recent years has not been a UNP stronghold. Unlike at Badulla and Matara, the rally at Kurunegala was organised by parliamentarians rather than a minister, the UNP’s ministers from the district being Kariyawasam and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera.
Meanwhile, Minister Premadasa himself made a bold statement. That was to say that he would definitely be a candidate at the next presidential election, no matter what. Premadasa re-iterated his claim this week. “I will contest for the presidential elections no matter what. I will not take a step back even by a millimetre in this regard,” he told a meeting of local government members of the UNP.
This has led to speculation that he would contest separately if Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is chosen as the UNP nominee. This, of course, would be disastrous for both the UNP and Premadasa as any split in the UNP vote ensures victory for the SLPP. Others, however, dismiss this as a strategy deployed to secure the UNP nomination.
In an effort to break the deadlock, UNP seniors from both factions met with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe last week on his return from a state visit to the Maldives. While there were reports that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had indicated at this meeting that he entertained prospects of contesting the presidential election, there were also contradictory reports that he gave no such indication.
The discussion, however, did not provide a resolution as Minister Premadasa was not present. It was then suggested that a meeting between the Prime Minister and his deputy leader be held to settle outstanding issues and work out a solution. Late-night talks aimed at achieving this objective were held on Tuesday although its outcome has not been revealed at the time of writing.
While the current state of uncertainty in the UNP with regard to its presidential candidate is causing considerable anxiety within the UNP, some party seniors are not overly perturbed. They note that such rival claims for the candidacy are an indication that the party stands a healthy chance of winning the presidential election.
Democracy at work
They also point out that what is being played out is democracy at work within the party, although it may appear disruptive and divisive at times. This is in contrast to the SLPP, where decision making has been delegated to Mahinda Rajapaksa who has chosen a candidate from within his family with no transparent democratic process in that selection. As a result, party stalwarts such as Kumara Welgama who oppose Gotabaya Rajapaksa have been completely ignored and disregarded in that procedure.
Both aspirants from the UNP, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Premadasa can stake reasonable claims for candidacy. Wickremesinghe guided the party through tough times in the past twenty-five years and held it together. He has been Prime Minister five times but never held office as President. At the end of forty-two years in Parliament and at the age of 70, he would want to end his political career on a high by assuming the highest political office in the country.
Deputy Leader Premadasa’s loyalists would contend that Wickremesinghe has had his chances in the past twenty-five years as party leader, having contested the presidential elections twice in that period. They would argue that his popularity is on the wane and that the UNP needs to be projected as a new brand under a new leader if it is to emerge victoriously.
Despite these rival claims, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Premadasa do have strong links with each other. When Minister Premadasa’s father, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa was impeached by those led by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake in 1991, it was Wickremesinghe who was steadfast in his loyalty to President Premadasa.
It is the strength of such associations that prompted Minister Lakshman Kiriella to remark that that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Minister Premadasa “are working with a total understanding of the issue like a father and son” and that they would resolve issues after a cordial discussion. It is hoped that this will eventuate for the sake of the nation because the next presidential election, crucial as it is, requires a healthy contest between democratic parties and not a one-horse race.