UNP Internal Skulduggery Alive And Well
By Faraz Shauketaly
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s hold on power at the helm of the UNP has become tenuous at best. This past week it dawned on him, quite how hard it is to maintain party discipline and retain at least a façade of party unity.
Last Wednesday a fund-raising event was held in the Kalutara constituency under the stewardship of the Kalutara Chief Organiser, Lakshman Wijemanne. The event was attended by party leader Wickremesinghe, Ravi Karunanayake, Tissa Attanayake, Karu Jayasuriya and other senior stalwarts. With differences apparently consigned to the backburner if not mostly forgotten, the fundraiser was quite a success. The final tally showed a healthy Rs. 550,000 collected towards the party’s funds.
However it was not missed that Sajith Premadasa had become conspicuous by his absence in Kalutara. Premadasa’s dislike of Lakshman Wijemanne is well known with Sajith considering Wijemanne as one of Ranil’s trusted acolytes. This precluded him from sending out a discrete message to Wijemanne that he too would be willing to attend the function. Instead, Wijemanne had to contend with the fact that Sajith was not too far off: in fact in the adjoining constituency of Panadura where he was indulging in his own programme which raises monies for donation to Buddhists temples (Sasunata Aruna).
It was also not lost on many that the crowds would have been better had there not been two venues in adjoining constituencies. Had there been a single meeting in Kalutara the crowds would have been much larger and arguably possible for even more funding to have been credited to the UNP’s bank balance. The lack of pro-active action from the new National Organiser Daya Gamage was partly to blame for the two venues on the same day, in adjoining constituencies. Party leader Wickremesinghe has now instructed Gamage to be more alert and to prevent such duplication especially since both meetings were in close proximity to each other.
A day later a protest rally (Podhu Vipakshaya) was held near the clock tower in the centre of Panadura. Previously it had been agreed that the leaders of the various opposition parties would address the crowds at the joint protests. The UNP was represented by its leader Wickremesinghe. After the leaders of the smaller opposition parties like Wickramabahu and Mano Ganeshan had spoken it was the turn of the star speaker, Wickremesinghe to address the crowd of a around 3,000 people. As he finished speaking he handed the microphone over to an aide. The microphone was taken by a Premaasa supporter but was then taken back by Wickremesinghe.
The Opposition Leader then gave the microphone to someone else and made his way towards the head of the procession. The microphone was then handed over to Premadasa who started to address the crowd. Ranil meanwhile was making his way towards his vehicle at the head of the procession which had by now depleted in numbers. As Premadasa took the microphone and started to speak, the crowds were split up: some following the Leader and the others remaining to hear Premadasa. However what was heard the most was that Wickremesinghe was hooted at and booed right up to him getting into his vehicle and speeding away. Wickremesinghe was livid that his well laid out strategy of presenting a single ‘leader only’ voice as the focus of the protests against the government had gone awry.
Many of the Party faithful were astounded that the party machinery allowed such an event to take place especially knowing that Wickremesinghe can do with all the positive publicity he can garner. Some also questioned as to why if Premadasa was as popular as is widely claimed, there was a need for him to go over the Leader’s head and address the crowds and cause a further rift in the UNP when in fact Premadasa was doing precisely nought in his own district, Hambantota. By not organizing any form of protests against the escalating prices including fuel, diesel and kerosene has led to charges that Premadasa is unlikely to take a hard line stance against the government – leaving Hambantota District one of the few places not to have experienced any form of popular protests and paving the way for President Rajapaksa to further strengthen his stranglehold on that district. Said a former UNP parliamentarian, “Premadasa will be at any event which he perceives as being a positive for him. He does not care a hoot if the event will not generate positivity for him; he appears to run away from even jesting with the First Family.”