- SJB had originally been recognised by NEC as ‘Our National Front (ONF)’ before Premadasa took over from its former leaders last month and renamed it SJB
- With the ascension of Premadasa to ONF leadership, Ranil has been disarmed in the leadership war
Two issues prevented media discourse on the proceedings of the 43rd regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) where Sri Lanka, on February 26, withdrew its co-sponsorship for last year’s resolution on the country. One was the leadership crisis within the United National Party (UNP) and the other was dissolution of Parliament on March 2 by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
In a way, all three issues could be deemed interconnected. They could contribute to the early and easy elevation of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to power. The dissolution of Parliament six months before its scheduled date clearly advanced the general election while the other two – the government’s decision to withdraw its co-sponsorship from the UNHRC resolution and the UNP crisis – would be exploited by the SLPP at the election and they may facilitate the party (at least slightly) to go closer to its professed target of obtaining a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
The UNP, despite the ability to increase its vote bank by two million at the November 16 presidential election, has been engaged in suicidal and ridiculous infighting for the past several months. Leaders of the party knew their electoral prospects were sagging since their utterly humiliating defeat at the local government election held on February 10, 2018 and that their survival and dignity – leave alone coming to power – hinged upon the unity within the party and a thorough introspection. Yet, they have been fighting, displaying downright irresponsibility towards the party and millions of its supporters.
"As a last ditch attempt to liquidate SJB, UNP leaders insist that the former must contest the general election under its elephant symbol. This is an attempt to legitimately bring SJB under its control. If Premadasa agrees to it, his group will once again come under the purview of the UNP leadership"
In fact, the UNP is split now. There are two political parties registered with and recognised by the National Elections Commission (NEC) – the UNP and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) – under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe and his deputy Sajith Premadasa respectively.
Moreover, an interesting situation has unfolded in respect of the relationship between the UNP and SJB which might prompt one to think whether the UNP is a constituent party of SJB or the other way around. The SJB had originally been recognised by NEC as ‘Our National Front (ONF)’ before Premadasa took over from its former leaders last month and renamed it SJB. Although UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, on behalf of the Wickremesinghe faction, made a request to NEC not to recognise SJB, it later fell in line and accepted SJB as the UNP-led coalition.
Prior to that, the UNP Working Committee accepted Ranjith Madduma Bandara as secretary to the alliance led by the party and recognised Premadasa as leader of the alliance, chairman of the nomination board and its prime ministerial candidate. Thus, the UNP is a constituent party of the alliance – a group within the SJB.
However, Premadasa and leaders of the SJB have accepted a condition set by the UNP Working Committee that the appointment of SJB Secretary and nomination of UNP members for the general election be approved by the UNP Working Committee. Also, many leaders of SJB including Premadasa are still members of the UNP Working Committee appointed and headed by Wickremesinghe. Thus, for the sake of argument, SJB becomes a group within the UNP.
"Premadasa has his own party which seemingly musters the support of a majority of UNP’s rank and file, members of just dissolved Parliament, local councils and former members of provincial councils. Therefore, he is in a position to sever links with the UNP to have his own way"
With the ascension of Premadasa to Our National Front (ONF) leadership, Wickremesinghe has been disarmed in the leadership war. Earlier, he was the UNP leader, an invincible position within the party, as a majority of members in the decision-making body – the Working Committee – were and still are his loyalists. Now, Premadasa has his own party which seemingly musters the support of a majority of UNP’s rank and file, members of just dissolved Parliament, local councils and former members of provincial councils. Therefore, he is in a position to sever links with the UNP to have his own way.
Nevertheless, one might argue that Wickremesinghe still has the power to control SJB on the grounds that its leaders have formally accepted the authority of the UNP Working Committee in respect of the appointment of its secretary. And the nomination board – selecting candidates for the April 25 general election nowadays – is nothing but the one appointed by the same committee.
If SJB members resign from the UNP, the authority of the Working Committee over SJB will no longer be valid, Premadasa loyalists may contend. Besides, the NEC had already rejected the Wickremesinghe loyalists’ plea not to recognise SJB.
Whatever the legal authority of the UNP over SJB and vice versa, the two recognised parties are vying for the ‘elephant’ symbol. As a last ditch attempt to liquidate SJB, UNP leaders insist that the former must contest the general election under its elephant symbol.
"If SJB members resign from the UNP, the authority of the Working Committee over SJB will no longer be valid, Premadasa loyalists may contend"
This is an attempt to legitimately bring SJB under its control. If Premadasa agrees to it, his group will once again come under the purview of the UNP leadership. Then, the UNP General Secretary would be the legally-recognised person to deal with NEC on behalf of SJB. Thus, the whole exercise of the Premadasa faction will go down the drain. Therefore, it insists that the elephant symbol be formally handed over.
In light of the literacy and education levels of Sri Lankans, the symbol is not a big deal in elections. Supporters of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has thus far voted for various symbols such as hand (original symbol of the party), chair, betel leaf, and this time around, they are going to vote for SLPP’s lotus bud. Similarly, people in plantation areas, despite being provided with least educational facilities, have never made a mistake when voting for various symbols such as cockerel, elephant, betel leaf and swan as requested by their leaders. Hence, SJB will not lose anything if it contests under the telephone symbol.
Yet, a division within the UNP, in the event both groups led by Wickremesinghe and Premadasa decide to go their separate ways, will cost dearly for both sides at the election, which will be the ultimate eventuality.