Sajith versus Ranil

Older readers will no doubt remember Mr. Pieter Keuneman, one of the most able parliamentarians in our contemporary political history and longtime Communist MP for Colombo Central who sadly lost his seat in the J.R. Jayewardene landslide of 1977. Many left leaders believed invincible in their day were also victims of that election; but some of their memorable quotes in the parliamentary record of their day remain in the minds of those who witnessed that era. Mr. Keuneman once defined a committee as something that has a sitting, raises some hot air, makes a report and most probably drops the matter!

The Ranil – Sajith shenanigans in the UNP today reminds us of what Comrade Pieter said many moons ago. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the course of his long political career that included periods of deputy minister, minister, prime minister and leader of the opposition acquired a notoriety for resorting to committees to tackle tricky questions. Even the Central Bank bond scam was referred to a committee (of his party’s lawyer loyalists) after the smelly stuff hit the fan. A predictably whitewash report was produced. But as we all know, the matter did not end there.

Before the election that gave us a new president last month, there was a keen contest within the green party for its ticket. Sajith Premadasa wanted it and commanded considerable support within the party. Wickremesinghe who had foregone the ticket, which was his for the taking at the two previous presidential election in favour of Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Siriesena, also wanted to run. We believe that most readers would agree that his and his party’s decisions on not running were right on both occasions. Who but a war winning army commander could have better taken on Mahinda Rajapaksa, the war-winning president at that election? UNP support was imperative for success of that project. But it failed with Mahinda Rajapaksa comfortably re-elected.

But Rajapaksa was stunningly defeated at the premature election he called to win himself a third term in 2015. Maithripala Sirisena, an unlikely contender, was backed by political forces that included civil society activists, sections of the SLFP marshalled by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, some defectors from the Rajapaksa camp and of course the UNP without whose support Sirisena would have been a non-starter. The quid pro quo for this arrangement was that Wickremesinghe would be made prime minister in the event of this coalition, to which Madulwawe Sobhitha gave exceptional leadership, succeded in wresting the presidency.

All that is now water under the bridge and Sirisena is history. The quote from Pieter Kueneman that we used at the start of this comment is germane to how the UNP chose its candidate at the last election. It took an inordinately long time before Wickremesinghe conceded the candidacy to his deputy leader. The delay in naming a candidate cost the UNP campaign time with Wickremesinghe and Premadasa jockeying for the ticket instead of wooing the voter. During the campaign, Wickremesinghe, then prime minister, went on public record saying he would continue to be prime minister in a Premadasa presidency. The constitution, no doubt, devolves the prime ministry to whoever commands the allegiance of a parliamentary majority – something that Wickremesinghe held. But fearing what some called a "serial loser" continuing in office at the cost of votes Premadasa thought he could otherwise poll, he announced that he would have "a first time prime minister."

That Premadasa was routed with a surprisingly high majority is yesterday’s history. He instantly resigned from the UNP’s deputy leadership but was soon back in the fray for the position of leader of the opposition, a post that Wickremesinghe had long held. It was clear that Premadasa had majority support within the UNP parliamentary group. But Wickremesinghe who, as party leader, has the right to nominate 50 members to the Working Committee, commanded the majority there. Hence the reports that a joint meeting of both groups will make the selection gained traction. Eventually Wickremesinghe conceded the leadership of the opposition.

Now the question of party leadership remains up in the air. There is a formidable section of the UNP who believes that this position too should be conceded. But Wickremesinghe does not appear to subscribe to this view. So we have the situation that Premadasa will lead the opposition when parliament reconvenes early next year – but perhaps not as party leader. Whether Wickremesinghe would continue to wear the third hat is not resolved. When Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was defeated in 1970, he conceded the position of leader of the opposition to Mr. J.R. Jayewardene but continued to hold on to the party leadership. In this instance Senanayake was not under pressure to yield the office and did so in secrecy out of fear that he may come under pressure to change his mind. Jayewardene became party leader only after Senanayake’s death.

But he had time to marshal his forces for the 1977 election where he scored an unprecedented five sixths majority. Wickremesinghe should agree to concede the space for Premadasa to prepare for the parliamentary election early next year. It will be a tragedy for this country for any party to win a two thirds majority in parliament enabling constitutional changes at will. This is a target that the SLPP and its allies will surely aim for. We’ve had two tyrannies of absolute majorities in 1970 and 1977 which many regard as the two worst governments in our contemporary history. The UNP should do all that is possible to prevent that calamity.


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