Can the UNP get its act together?

Image credit: SLBC

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Badly wounded at the last Presidential Elections, a deeply divided United National Party will try this week to reach a “settlement” between its fighting factions to face the upcoming Parliamentary General election, senior party member and former Leader of the House Lakshman Kirielle told economynext.

The deal, he said, will be for Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa to lead the campaign at the head of the UNP-led Alliance and be the Prime Ministerial candidate.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, he said, will remain as Party Leader.

Kirielle also said that the vacancies in the UNP Working Committee will be filled and the proposal to endorse the settlement will be carried out through that body “early this week.”

The settlement as proposed by Kirielle came forward after a group of 48 MPs from the UNP shuttled back and forth between the two factions urging a coming together of the party to face the elections.

But can the party regroup? Divisions within are deep, and sadly, in some cases, split along caste lines.

The UNP leaders Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe in happier times/PM Media

The decades-long struggle by those opposed to Wickremesinghe to remove his stranglehold on the party leadership has created many fissures. Leading figures have left the party, and Wickremesinghe’s obstinacy has forced the party to stay in Opposition for too long without fresh blood at the top.

This was a key factor in the inability of the UNP to function as an effective government when they did get power in 2015, as they had very few MPs with the experience or the ability to function as Cabinet Ministers.

The division between the Sajith and Ranil factions were exacerbated during the Presidential campaign as former party-men who fought the Leader and left or were made to feel unwelcome, such as Tissa Attanayake, Shiral Laktilaka and Maithri Gooneratne joined the Premadasa team.

Meanwhile, moves are on to remove some of Premadasa’s supporters in the UNP from the Party Working Committee. Among them are the former Minister Ajit P Perera and two others who have not yet been named.

Wickremesinghe has the power to make the appointments to the WC which holds the powers to choose the Party Leader and for decades Wickremesinghe has had this body in lockdown with a clear majority of members on his side.

On the other hand, the last time the UNP Parliamentary Group discussed the issue, Premadasa appeared to have a majority of MPs on his side.

This struggle prevented the UNP from choosing a Presidential Candidate early enough in the November campaign and finally went into that race hamstrung by the divisions.

After the heavy defeat, by more than 1.3 million votes, the Premadasa faction blamed the Party leadership for engineering his defeat and denying him party resources. His supporters in the campaign said Team Sajith simply ran out of cash.

Mutual Photo session with Sajith Premadasa and Hela Urumaya leader Patali Champika Ranawaka

Former Minister and UNP Galle District MP Vajira Abyewardene, points out that Premadasa received more than a million votes from the minority-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces. “Without those votes, the margin of defeat would have been more than two million votes,” he told the Lankadeepa Newspaper last week.

Abeywardene, a strong Wickremesinghe supporter, likens the Party Leader to the Chief Incumbent of a Buddhist Temple. “Younger and more educated Monks may join the Temple and engage in good works for the Sasana, but the Mahanayake goes on as leader until he passes away,” he says.

The Sajith faction argues that in order to become a better fighting force he needs the Leader’s post as he can then harness all the available resources.

Sujeewa Senasinghe, another UNP MP, says there has to be a change in the leadership at the top. “I am not insisting that it be Sajith, but we have to go to the election with new leadership and a new plan.”

All this infighting has upset the UNP’s allies. Mano Ganesan, leader of the Democratic People’s Front, has already indicated he has lost patience with the UNP’s endless squabbling and decided to go it alone at the next election.

A high-ranking source from the Hela Urumaya, another allied party, who spoke to economynext on the condition of anonymity says he wishes Sajith would stop seeking Wickremesinghe’s removal from the Party Leadership and get on with his task of leading the alliance.

After the drubbing they got at the Presidential election it is highly unlikely that the UNP can win enough seats to cobble together a government.

All they can hope is that they can prevent the smoothly-run giant Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna-led alliance from winning a two-thirds majority in the Parliament so that it can roll-back features of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that took away some powers of the President.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not made it a secret that he wants full executive powers restored to the Presidency.

Rajapaksa has made it clear that he was elected by a huge majority who have great expectations of him and he will not be able to fulfil those promises unless the 19th Amendment is removed.

The President’s brother and the organizer of the SLPP Basil Rajapaksa told reporters last year that the Amendment should be “abolished.”

However, it is also true that in successive elections the people have voted against the continuation of the Executive Presidency. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe all promised to abolish the Executive Presidency. Mahinda and Chandrika won but made no move to reduce the power of the position. Mahinda actually proposed an amendment to the Constitution to remove term limits on the Presidency.

The only time some changes were made was by the 19th Amendment proposed by the Sirisena administration of 2015 -2018.

The effectiveness of the changes brought about by the empowerment of Parliament and the independence of the Judiciary was displayed in the eventual resolution of the 2018 October Crisis when the Courts prevented President Maithripala Sirisena from dissolving Parliament.

While the people did vote for an effective government that can get stuff done, giving the Rajapaksa administration, or any administration for that matter, untrammelled power is not advisable.

To prevent the SLPP from winning a two-thirds majority the Opposition would have to cobble together more than 75 seats in the next Parliament. Of that number, the UNP will have to contribute more than 50 seats.

To do that the UNP has to show exceptional leadership to the disparate opposition which is dismal and discouraged by the November election result.

From the Walt Disney Cartoon Jungle Book, the castle crashes down around King Loui

Wickremesinghe has led many times and has taken his party to lower levels almost every time.

If his obstinacy continues he may end up like King Loui in the Jungle Book, holding up just the brick he can cling to as the castle collapses around him!

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