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UNP's tryst with destiny

Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya

The crisis within the main opposition United National Party (UNP) has now reached eruption point with the party's parliamentary group firmly divided into two. Yet, with the decision to create a new post of senior leader and the replacement choice of Karu Jayasuriya being accepted on principle, a ray of hope has appeared on the horizon for the Grand Old Party to settle the dispute.

What was originally an intra party issue has now come out into the open with all of its cracks becoming visible and both groups showing no signs of relenting. And while the battle for supremacy raged, there were other developments, clearly engineered to discredit the incumbent UNP leadership.

One such was the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) recording a statement from Gamini Abeyratne, a former director of Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd. Abeyratne alias Taxi Abey was interrogated by the CID for his alleged role in clearing military and communication equipment on behalf of the LTTE when Ranil Wickremesinghe was prime minister.

Wickremesinghe loyalists firmly believe that Abeyratne's statement was recorded after all these years at the behest of the UNP rebels working in collaboration with the government to further destroy Wickremesinghe's name, a charge the rebels reject alleging that this incident would anyway have a negative impact on the party. Taxi Abey, was a UNP supporter but has stronger ties with Rajitha Senaratne, now crossed over and believed to be working with the chief political strategist of the ruling party.

The government has recently commenced a special investigation regarding dispatching high-tech communication and military equipment to the LTTE through customs during the 2002-2004 period.

Fine dining at Commons

Meanwhile, the backdrop for the kill was being prepared when some 'reformists' met over dinner at Commons on Sunday (15) night. The diners included Lakshman Seneviratne, Ravi Samaraweera, Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Johnston Fernando and others. Over a meal, they discussed how best to take on the leadership and push for immediate reforms based on urgent amendments to the party constitution.

A cautious politician, Sajith Premadasa held the view that a prudent course of action was to wait until the conclusion of the Western Provincial Council (WPC) election fearing electoral repercussions.

But others promptly disagreed, claiming it would aid Wickremesinghe to buy further time, a tactic they felt, the party leader had mastered. "This is what happened before the Central and North Western Provincial elections too. We should commit the entire group to a decision and ask for a secret vote to ascertain whether the present leader commanded the groups' confidence," opined Seneviratne.

The UNP leader got wind of the dinner discussion details and realised that his popularity among the parliamentary group was to be now tested through a secret ballot. He called for a discussion with party seniors. This meeting was attended by Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, John Amaratunge, General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and Sajith Premadasa.

Premadasa informed the party seniors that the time for temporary measures was truly over. "Some firm decisions should be taken and followed through. Or else the party will go asunder," he warned.

As Premadasa appealed not to prolong the problem by delaying tactics, Wickremesinghe informed young Premadasa that a decision has already been taken and invited Premadasa to hold discussions with the seniors. Premadasa also informed others that conducting any ballot, be it secret or open would be detrimental to the party and further embarrass the beleaguered leadership. At this point, Tissa Attanayake spoke up, reminding Premadasa that there was no provision for the parliamentary group to arrive at such decisions or conduct a ballot.

"The parliamentary group does not enjoy such powers. Not even to propose that a motion be adapted to express confidence in the leadership. That's a matter for the Working Committee," he noted, reminding Premadasa that his own father, President R. Premadasa went through a similar problem as head of state and party leader.

Group meeting draws blood

 The next day, Monday 16, the rebels again met at a popular restaurant, Peach Valley to discuss further how they should work towards the goal of a new UNP leadership. The group also resolved not to go soft at any point and to insist on a new leadership. It was agreed that Lakshman Seneviratne would bell the cat. This meeting was arranged by UNP provincial councilor Gamini Gunaratne aka Batta who is now under a storm over the contested will of the late Anura Bandaranaike.

As expected, the customary UNP parliamentary group meeting turned into a virtual battleground.  The group traditionally meets on the Monday of a parliament-sitting week, but this time there was a departure.

The group met on Tuesday while the House was in session and it turned out to be a forum not just for political discussion but angry exchanges. When the group assembled, there rose Lakshman Seneviratne, a vocal Wickremesinghe critic, openly calling for a replacement. "The time is right sir, for a replacement," he said, and was promptly seconded by another rebel, Johnston Fernando.

Not stopping at that, Fernando faulted Wickremesinghe for convening the group meeting on Tuesday, to which Wickremesinghe responded that it was done to facilitate those who were busy campaigning for the WPC election. Intervening, party senior Gamini Jayawickrema Perera proposed that both groups should try to adapt a neutral position as the spill-over effect of the divisions may prove disastrous as the party faces yet another election.

Buttressing this argument, Tissa Attanayake cautioned that the internal crisis was now public knowledge and it was the government that would benefit the most. "They will take maximum benefit from our angry exchanges and petty divisions. My appeal is that everyone should protect the party's dignity," he appealed.

The initial cordiality was short-lived when Moneragala Parliamentarian Ranjith Maddumabandara cited precedents where a secret ballot was resorted to elect an opposition leader. He argued President D.B. Wijetunge used the same mechanism to appoint Gamini Dissanayake as opposition leader. "Lakshman spoke the truth. We can't waste anymore time. We must see a leadership change," he said, requesting for the conducting of a secret ballot.

Badulla MP Ravi Samaraweera was next. He claimed the party is in deep crisis.

While the rebels continued to argue, next to speak was Galle MP Vajira Abeywardene, a known Wickremesinghe loyalist. He encountered continuous disruptions by Indika Bandaranayake, another UNP rebel. Abeywardene's point of view threw a spanner in the works as he questioned whether the parliamentary group was meeting that day according to the provisions of the party constitution.

Casting doubts over the legality of the meeting, Abeywardene opened a piece of paper, and read out Clause 8.2 of the UNP Constitution. "In the event the party leader is not a Member of Parliament, a member has to be appointed as the parliamentary group leader. If the party leader is also a MP, invariably such person should be appointed as parliamentary group leader," he read. Next he referred to Clause 8.3. "This means, the parliamentary group is bound by the decisions of the party leadership."

Abeywardene calmly noted that the parliamentary group leader with the highest number of parliamentarians under his/her command is recognised as the opposition leader. Therefore, the UNP leader was also the group leader with the highest number of parliamentarians under his command, he concluded. He endorsed Ranjith Maddumabandara statement regarding the election of Gamini Dissanayake as opposition leader.

"At that time, I was a Working Committee member. President Wijetunge explained to the decision making body the reasons for conducting a secret ballot. He followed the same constitution I quoted. He (Wijetunge) was not a parliamentarian and there was a newly elected parliament. I voted against Wickremesinghe at that time," he added.

Citing further examples, he elaborated that the Lalith Athulathmudali-Gamini Dissanayake rebel group opposed the same constitution and were finally expelled using its provisions. "If all of you are here as UNP members, these provisions are binding on you as well," he noted.

Springing to his feet next was Vice Chairman, Rukman Senanayake, a member who has only very recently found his voice and displayed little political acumen. Senanayake, who has regularly shifted electorates and is currently treating Leader Publications and its Founder Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge with contempt, demanded that Wickremesinghe relinquish the top post immediately. "What is this shameless act," he sniped, alleging Wickremesinghe was taking cover under the party constitution.

Abeywardene intervened to add that a ballot was necessary - stating the correct forum was the Working Committee and not the group.

Making some uncharacteristic remarks was Sajith Premadasa who identified Wickremesinghe as a leader who failed to understand the pulse of the people. He also took broadsides at those hailing Karu Jayasuriya as the next leader as people who vilified the member following his brief defection to the government.

Dayasiri Jayasekera was next. He first spoke of speculation that the leadership was keen to promote Ravi Karunanayake and Vajira Abeywardene to the second level when the country demanded S.B. Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa be elevated to higher positions.

He then turned his guns on Leader Publications and urged the party to take a decision against our sister paper Irudina for publishing "calculated untruths." "We should find out the actual owners of this establishment and canvass UNP supporters not to buy or read Irudina," he thundered, and was swiftly aided by Ravi Samaraweera who alleged that though Lasantha Wickrematunge was no more, it was as if his soul reached out from the grave and pulled the party strings.

"We knew that the late Wickrematunge harboured political aspirations and he used the newspapers to that end. But now he is not there but Irudina continues its diatribe," he accused, only to have UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe defend the slain editor. Wickremesinghe noted only Wickrematunge's newspapers provided the party with some space to air their views and a man who had fought for the media, justice and human rights should not be ridiculed after his unfortunate death.

While the fiery UNP group meeting was underway the government moved quickly to take advantage of the situation. On Tuesday morning, Non Cabinet Minister Jagath Pushpakumara informed Speaker W.J.M Lokubandara that Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had come under attack during a meeting inside a committee room. The state electronic media quickly turned this into a 'breaking news' item, using Pushpakumara's statement made under the cover of parliamentary privilege.

Later when Lakshman Seneviratne sought to correct the information from the floor of the House, Pushpakumara held his ground that a UNP legislator telephoned him and informed him about the incident.

Post of senior leader

"In that case you must disclose the MP's name. I though you had verified information," insisted an annoyed Speaker as the Opposition Chief Whip Joseph Michael Perera lodged his strong protest against the state media maliciously and conspiratorially reporting untruths about the UNP parliamentary group sessions.

By Wednesday afternoon, tempers appeared somewhat calm. The party decision-making body, the Working Committee met at Sirikotha where a resolution to the beleaguered party's raging conflict finally appeared.  The apex body unanimously decided to create the post of senior leader of the party, in addition to the existing party leader's post in the first attempt at practical power sharing. Wickremesinghe is slated for the new post once a specially appointed committee works out the modalities and create a figurehead position with an advisory function. 

This committee is headed by UNP Chairman Gamini Jayawickrema Perera and comprises General Secretary Tissa Attanayake MP, MPs Lakshman Kiriella, Lakshman Seneviratne, Renuka Herath, John Amaratunge, Sajith Premadasa and National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake.

The committee met on Friday at Wickremesinghe's Cambridge Terrace office at 9 am to recommend the powers to be vested in each of the two posts. The committee would submit its report tomorrow (23) to the working committee to be followed by the party's legal committee with its own recommendations.

It is learnt that post working committee discussions have led to the suggestion by some quarters that Wickremesinghe be removed from the working committee and be confined to a mere advisory role. However, others including Sajith Premadasa have opposed this position stating that Wickremesinghe was still the party leader and decisions should not be prejudicial or discriminatory while insisting that the leadership be treated with utmost dignity and respect throughout the reform process and thereafter.

'Treat leaders with dignity'

This topic also became a moot point when UNP legislators casually met in the parliament lobby area. Sharing light banter were Sajith Premadasa, Lakshman Seneviratne, Johnston Fernando and Ranjith Aluvihare.

Premadasa held the view that Wickremesinghe's dignity should remain intact irrespective of party decisions in his favour or against. In the meantime, Gayantha Karunathileka was passing by, and Premadasa questioned Karunathileka on his views. The Galle MP quickly responded that when Homagama Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Manjusri Arangala was also a working committee member, what impression the country would get if Wickremesinghe is stripped of that position while being the 'senior leader.'

As the UNP continued its infighting, personality clashes and battles for supremacy, the result of these divisions that are now in the public domain would become evident in the WPC election results. Undoubtedly, people are going to send a message to the party for the disunity now being displayed. As such, the main beneficiary of the Grand Old Party's inner struggle will be the ruling alliance that has managed to quell all its divisions at least for the time being. That if nothing else, is certain.

Yet the darkest clouds for the government are yet ahead and it is the economy that will have to weather the storm. Despite fast running out of money, Mihin Air is continuing with the hope of SriLankan Airlines securing and providing an aircraft on wet lease basis.

The dues to SriLankan Airlines by Mihin is in the range of US $ 1.2 million and the wet lease amounts to an annual fee of US $ 8 million which the national carrier has insisted be paid upfront. The Treasury is in no position to accede to this with the salaries of government servants due to be paid soon together with an extra month's salary on account of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year which means Mihin will be hard put to cough up the cash to keep flying when the current arrangement with the present aircraft lease is over. The main opposition party the UNP being in disarray is a god-send to the beleaguered government trying its level best to divert attention as the country plunges towards the bottom of the economic pit.




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