The party brought independence to the nation. The party revived agriculture, brought free education, and started providing free text books and free midday meals to school children. The party introduced the Suwaseriya ambulance service and the Suraksha Health Insurance scheme for school children. The party in government, also increased salaries of public servants. These are among the claims made by present-day UNP members and those of the breakaway Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). But the other side of the story is, the party is divided into factions, with personal agendas coming to the forefront. The party faced divisions in the past, but there were instances where amicable settlements were made and the party was saved.
First set back
The first UNP division came in the late 1950s when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike broke away from the party. K.M. De Silva and Howard Wriggins in their book ‘J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka’ note the division came in the form of a battle between the traditional elite and new elite who had accumulated wealth through plantation enterprises and trade. Mr Bandaranaike’s fallout with the UNP caused the latter’s defeat in the 1956 general elections.
After the 1956 general election, the UNP annual convention was planned for March 28 where a decision on the party leadership was due. The question was what to do with existing leader Sir John Kotelawala. Dudley Senanayake had agreed to take over the leadership held by Sir John. Some felt Sir John should be given a position of honour and respect within the party. Mr. Jayewardene proposed the idea of making him the party patron. However Mr. Senanayake opposed this. At the same time there were rumours that Mr. Senanayake wanted to form a new party. Mr. Jayewardene then visited Sir John at his residence in Kandawala to discuss the internal party issues. The latter ultimately agreed to give up the patron’s post on grounds that party unity must be maintained. (J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka’ by K. M. De Silva and Howard Wriggins)
"Mr. Gamage said at an election meeting that Mr. Dissanayake had told him how Mr. Premadasa had promised to name him PM, but went back on his word"
This conflict between J.R. Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake in 1972 nearly broke the party, while it was anticipated Mr Jayewardene would cross over to the government. This was averted as both agreed to confer and iron out differences. The dialogue took place at the residence of G.J. Paris Perera, a senior MP at the time. During this conflict, J.R. lost his temper and berated Dudley who he accused of being outrageous. Mr. Senanayake’s response was surprising, as he confessed that the planned expulsion of J.R. was a mistake. This led to a smooth reconciliation, and the party was saved.
In later years another conflict arose between Mr. Senanayake’s grand nephew Rukman Senanayake and President Jayewardene, which caused the former to breakaway from the UNP and form the Eksath Lanka Janatha Party (ELJP). He dissolved the party and re-joined UNP in 1991.
Sirisena Cooray in this book ‘President Premadasa and I’ mentions the conflict between Mr. Jayewardene and Mr. Premadasa where he says the latter was sidelined in the mid 1970s. He also reveals that J. R. apologised to Mr. Premadasa. It is well known that Mr. Jayewardene made Premadasa the UNP candidate at the 1988 presidential elections. This was a correct move as Mr. Premadasa defeated Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike when the UNP’s popularity was on the decline. The comment by Mr. Cooray in his book is worth mentioning, where he says Mr. Jayewardene should be admired for putting party interests ahead of his personal interests.
Premadasa, Gamini and Lalith
This conflict began with Mr. Premadasa naming D.B. Wijetunga as his Prime Minister (PM). UNP candidate and former Minister Daya Gamage recently revealed what the late Gamini Dissanayake had told him in 1991. Mr. Gamage said at an election meeting that Mr. Dissanayake had told him how Mr. Premadasa had promised to name him PM, but went back on his word. This split caused eight UNP MPs including Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Premaratne Gunasekera, G. M. Premachandra and Samaraweera Weerawani to leave the UNP and form the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). The DUNF later broke into factions in 1993 where Messrs. Dissanayake and Premachandra rejoined the UNP while Ms. Srimani Athulathmudali, widow of Mr. Athulathmudali, formed the United National Lalith Front and contested the 1994 general elections with Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance (PA).
"The comment by Mr. Cooray in his book is worth mentioning, where he says Mr. Jayewardene should be admired for putting party interests ahead of his personal interests"
Challenge to Ranil’s leadership
Conflicts in the UNP after 1994 caused considerable damage to the party. The UNP lost scores of senior members as a result. These include Wijepala Mendis, Susil Munasinghe, Nanda Mathew, Sarath Amunugama, Ediriweera Premaratne prior to the 1999 presidential elections. In 2007, a further 17 members including Bandula Gunawardene, Rajitha Senaratne, M.H. Mohamed, Neomal Perera, Milinda Moragoda, Karu Jayasuriya and Navin Dissanayake crossed over to the government. However Navin Dissanayake and Karu Jayasuriya retuned to the UNP while Rajitha Senaratne and Neomal Perera are members of SJB. Others who left the UNP during Mr. Wickremesinghe’s tenure as leader were Rohitha Bogollagama, Susantha Punchinilame, Keheliya Rambukwella, Johnston Fernando, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Lakshman Seneviratne, Earl Gunasekera, Lionel Premasiri, Mohanlal Grero, Tissa Attanayake, Mahinda Ratnatilaka, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, S. B. Dissanayake, Professor G. L. Peiris and the late A.H.M. Azwer. Mr. Seneviratne left the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and is now with the SJB. Dayasiri Jayasekera is also an MP who left the UNP and joined the SLFP.
The present split in the UNP has also inflicted much damage to the party as it lost some 80 sitting MPs of the last Parliament. Only a few MPs including Navin Dissanayake, Palitha Range Bandara, Ravi Karunanayake, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Wijeyakala Maheshwaran, Ruwan Wijewardene, Arjuna Ranatunga, Daya Gamage and Vajira Abeywardene are left with the UNP today. The conflict arose over disagreements on the symbol of the SJB alliance formed with the blessings of the UNP Working Committee. The split emerged when the faction led by Sajith Premadasa registered the alliance with the telephone as its symbol. It was also reported that Mr. Premadasa wanted the UNP leadership. The UNP Working Committee however approved a resolution to make Mr. Premadasa its PM candidate.
The SJB seems to be facing issues in its early stages with three candidates, including former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, withdrawing their candidacy. Moreover, the UNP claims some SJB candidates would rejoin the party after the elections. UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and former MP Palitha Range Bandara insisted that 56 SJB candidates would return to the UNP. An SJB candidate contesting from the Colombo District did tell the writer he would join the UNP after the election. Additionally a drama is unfolding with UNP candidate Oshala Herath claiming he has recordings of ‘phone conversations to prove the manipulation of documents to legitimise the SJB.
The reality is, the winner of the 2020 general election is quite clear. That neither the UNP nor the SJB will be able to form a government is also clear. There are members in both the UNP and SJB who say both factions must come together for them to have a political future. This includes an SJB candidate from the Gampaha District. Another reality is there are some SJB members who are disillusioned. This includes one person who holds a position in the SJB. There are also those who believe the UNP leader should take the blame for the division.
Another obvious fact is, both UNP and SJB leaders should follow the example of their past leaders like Sir John, who gave up the idea of holding a party position to safeguard its unity, J.R. Jayewardene who ironed out differences with Dudley Senanayake, and Mr. Senanayake himself who was humble enough to confess to his mistakes. One must remember, the actions of Mr. Jayewardene and Mr. Senanayake in 1972 helped the UNP score a landslide victory in 1977. With these realities, it is clear that only gestures like those of Mr. Senanayake, Sir John Kotelawala and Mr. Jayewardene would save the Grand Old Party. If not, the present scenario of confrontation would not bode well for both the
UNP and SJB.