The Battle To Be The Chief Opponent
He came, he conquered and he has now settled down to rule happily ever after. By all accounts, the President is a happy man with at least six years to go without a care in the world. With the opposition decimated, there is nothing to stop him from doing as he pleases with a two-thirds majority in the bank to rubber stamp all that he wishes to pass into law.
While theoretically this might be the case on paper, there is a slight chance that life can become a little more challenging for the President if the main opposition finally manages to get its act together.
Right now all is clear on the Presidential radar screen, except for a tiny little dot that is approaching. And that tiny dot is December the 12th. That is the day the once mighty, almost invincible UNP, now reduced to a 40-odd-member opposition bloc, will be holding their party convention.
The party convention itself was hanging in the balance until two weeks ago when the reformists won the day at the Working Committee, the supreme decision making body of the UNP.
The December 12 convention will be no ordinary convention. And no one will be watching it more closely than Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, for it will decide who will emerge as his main contender.
The race to be party leader is a two horse race – the present party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe being challenged for the top job by Sajith Premadasa, son of Former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, on whose demise Wickremesinghe took over government as prime minister in 1993.
For the UNP in general and Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular, the wheel has turned full circle since those tumultuous days following the assassination of Ranasinghe Premadasa. Today Premadasa’s son, Sajith, who started from the bottom and worked his way into contention from the Rajapaksa bastion of Hambantota, stands at the threshold of creating history by throwing his hat into the ring to take on the leadership mantle of the party.
But nothing is guaranteed and there is every chance come December 13, the status quo in the grand old party will remain the same.
If that were to be, then Ranil Wickremesinghe would be to the UNP what Mahinda Rajapaksa is to the SLFP – an all-powerful one-man show. Such a prospect however will find the President grinning from ear to ear, for he has Wickremesinghe all measured up and there is not much else Wickremesinghe can do that he has already not done to challenge Rajapaksa.
On the other hand, should Premadasa win the day, Rajapaksa would surely have some cause for worry. By and large on a national scale, Premadasa is an unknown quantity. If he were to replicate his Hambantota success on a national scale, then life for Rajapaksa in the next six years will not be smooth sailing. Premadasa using Hambantota as his bastion to launch his national effort will to a great extent take the wind off Rajapaksa’s sails.
Premadasa has the brand name to go national effortlessly. The key attribute of the brand is nation-building with people still recalling with awe the many building works undertaken, done and delivered by his late father. Ranasinghe Premadasa won the war against the JVP, sent the IPKF packing and immediately got down to building houses, roads and infrastructure. Rajapaksa won the war against the LTTE and has got down to building houses, roads and infrastructure. Almost the same thing at the macro level, but with two very different attributes at the micro level. Premadasa senior was informed by the common man and frowned on corruption by public officials. It is the opposite with Rajapaksa where his own ministers label institutions as ‘most corrupt’ and an elite coterie advises him.
Ministry secretaries were up at four in the morning ready to answer calls from President Premadasa. Nothing of the sort happens now. Overnight, Premadasa junior can claim all the aces in the President’s hand but he must play sharp. He must re-invent himself in his late father’s mould. He must speak up on national issues, not on what is happening in the UNP.
It will be recalled that after much deliberation, procrastination and finally relenting the UNP’s Working Committee gave its blessings to party reforms, the key feature of it being the election of party leader, among other posts, when there is no consensus on a nominee. This decision however does not become party law until ratified at the annual party convention. Which is why the December 12 convention is a red-letter day for the party. With there being no consensus on the nominee for party leader, an election for the top post is a certainty once the reforms are approved.
Much backroom maneuvering is ongoing and will reach a climax closer to the big day. There is every possibility that party excreta may engage the fan. The bottomline however is this – it is the UNP that must win on the day and whether the leader is Wickremesinghe or Premadasa is secondary. On December 13, the loser must ensure that intra-party conflicts are a thing of the past and unite to form a challenge worthy of the grand old party to the regime of the day. Democracy demands that. The battle to be the chief opponent has begun. Less ugly the better.