Ranil Is The Best To Hold Party Together
- It’s not popularity but ability that matters to keep UNP together
- Ranil will go when a new leader “emerges”
By Faraz Shauketaly
A stalwart of the United National Party, A.J.M Muzammil spoke to The Sunday Leader as the UNP ‘reformists’ continued with their struggle to make a change to the party’s ebbing fortunes. Muzammil explained just why Ranil Wickremesinghe must stay on – for the moment.
Q: What ails the United National Party? Why is it that the party remains so unelectable?
A: The UNP came in for a short term administration in 2001, where they had the legislative power and President Kumaratunga had the executive power. It was the first time this country experienced this scenario. Whilst Mr. Wickremesinghe did not exert all the pressure he had at the time, he never expected the President to act as she did; she did so due to the pressures exerted by the JVP. There too were the circumstances: the economy was on a sound footing, there was a Ceasefire Agreement in place and the President’s high handed actions were unfortunate. Since then there have been difficulties which is always the case for the party that loses out on the presidency. The UNP has had bad electoral experiences but has always bounced back. It’s a lot to do with the vagaries of the electoral system in place now and about who holds the presidential power.
Q: What is different at the UNP now as opposed to in 1975?
A: In 1970 the UNP had its second worst defeat and was reduced to 17 seats. Mrs. Bandaranaike had a two thirds majority at that time. These 17 members, including Ranasinghe Premadasa who was not even a front-liner but they all worked together. President Jayewardene had a small team but all worked in unison; Mrs. Bandaranaike ruled over a country full of queues and the country had severe hardships. JR instilled sound discipline, sacking people like Rukman Senanayake, Niyathapala, Suriyaperuma — all stalwarts. The party machinery worked so well and the UNP got a huge majority. This experience of good and bad fortunes has affected both major parties but both have managed to make a come back.
Q: Are you saying then that Wickremesinghe has been unable to instil discipline therefore making the party unelectable?
A: Not at all. JR campaigned under a different electoral system. The Proportional Representation system and the presidential election system are quite different from what we had in 1977. This new system has resulted in political parties in the opposition being unable to manage themselves. Mrs. Bandaranaike is a case in point. Her son broke away; Maithripala Senanayake broke away, in spite of the difficulties including losing her civic rights she never gave up the leadership of the party. Kobbekaduwa was introduced as a candidate supported by CBK and Vijaya Kumaratunga. There was little discipline; SLFP HQ was sealed, they were on the verge of losing their party symbol. The UNP has not had these harsh difficulties even though we have had election losses. The UNP is still a force in this country.
Q: Do you see any similarities between what JR did to Mrs. B in terms of her civic rights and President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka?
A: No. Mrs. Bandaranaike was out of parliament only – she was able to work for her causes. General Fonseka is incarcerated. President Rajapaksa has survived on popularity and I wonder why he has taken such an unpopular step – for doing this to the greatest soldier this country ever had – General Fonseka.
Q: But President Rajapaksa’s government has indicated that if a pardon is sought it would be considered?
A: That is a lame excuse! The General will stand on his feet and they know that he will not seek a pardon. This pardon is for persons convicted of criminal charges. There is a serious doubt as to the validity of the Courts Martial. His crime was a procedural error where he sat on a tender board when his son in law was supposed to be a tenderer. Yet the records show that his son in law was not in that company. President Rajapaksa has also ignored the pleadings of the four leading Buddhist monks in this country. The President could have kept him away from jail – instead he has now created a political monster.
Q: The President’s actions can be construed as a warning to all those in power that he will not tolerate shortcomings and corruption?
A: Mr. Shauketaly, we have spent some Rs 700 billion on the war; the media has been full of corruption deals on military procurements and so on over the last 30 years. In all that is it only Sarath Fonseka who has been corrupt? It’s laughable. There are persons faulted by the Supreme Court and yet they have been reinstated. The Court ordered further investigations by the Police and the Bribery Commission. Nothing has been done. Government officials have been tied to trees by government ministers and the same people have been found not guilty. A Minister’s wife found guilty of murder and sentenced to life was released. There are many examples. There is no meaningful expression of what the President says – just where is the justice for all?
Q: Returning to the state of your party. How much of the party’s dismal performance can be blamed on Ranil Wickremesinghe as leader?
A: In a cricket team when you are on a winning streak, the captain, selectors and everyone else is acclaimed. During losses they are collectively of no use despite their abilities. What one has to understand is that the series of defeats – is unfortunate, yes. In 1999 the last day of the presidential election saw a bomb blast and the sympathy vote went to CBK and she won. Once a presidential election is lost the opposition finds it extremely difficult to gain victory.
In 2005 Prabhakaran kept the Tamil voters away costing Wickremesinghe his victory, the Tamils even in Colombo kept away. So therefore when everything is stacked up against you, the party as a whole must be unified. Premadasa ran the election campaign of 1977 even though he had no position as such. Only after the results was Premadasa given his rightful place. I feel sad that there is no understanding that the UNP can bounce back only if there is unity in the face of the strong actions by the government under the Presidential and PR systems.
Q: Why do you say that Wickremesinghe is the appropriate leader for the UNP, despite a growing clamour for his removal?
A: The second level of leaders has not emerged sufficiently to take on the responsibilities of the leadership. Of course we have emerging leaders; I say that they must work closely and jointly with the leader. Now there are no major elections on the horizon and President Rajapaksa has not yet started his second term. So we must not destroy any of our emerging leaders therefore they must carry on under Ranil and work together. I am not saying that he is the ultimate leader of the party but what I am saying is that this is not the appropriate time.
Q: Should there be a change of the UNP leadership?
A: It’s not a question of leadership – the people are crying out for some democratic process and feel that Ranil cannot be changed because of the present constitution. So let the people be very comfortable by making the process more open and democratic.
Q: What do you say about Ravi Karunanayake’s suggestion of a Leadership Council, in order to have change but not create a split?
A: With the amendments now being suggested the leader’s powers are greatly curtailed and over the next two years the leader will have to perform and deliver. The emerging leaders will also feel that they too have a chance. I feel instead of a Leadership Council we must allow the second layer of leaders to emerge slowly and Ranil must allow more dialogue and discussion. That is what was missing and inclusive participation should be widened and it will happen with the proposed reforms. If he does not there is provision to change – it’s a question of another session to vote.
Q: You have a long history of supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe. Have you told him how unpopular he is that the people want him out?
A: Well after losing so many elections you can’t expect a leader to remain popular…
Q: But have you told him he is unpopular?
A: Yes, he is aware of it. As a leader he is aware. But change is a challenge no other person in the party is willing to take on; at the same time we must not destroy our emerging leaders. There is time to nurture them. We have a long way to go. You don’t use your best items all at once – you have to save these emerging leaders for an appropriate time. The party must work together as a united force starting from the grassroots – we must be aware that it is not easy to challenge this administration.
Q: So what exactly can Ranil Wickremesinghe do for Sri Lanka that Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot?
A: President Rajapaksa was given a vote of gratitude by the people of this country. They now expect him to deliver on the war against the economy. I am telling you, that in the fight to develop our economy, the best politician we have in this country is Ranil Wickremesinghe. Undoubtedly. Ranil will emerge like JR did – JR was not a popular person but the economy was so bad that the people voted him in to sort the economy which is what will happen now. People want comfortable living, not a high cost of living. And there is no further chance for another war victory mandate.