UNP MP Ruwan Wijewardene National Youth Front Chairman and member of the Leadership Council in a candid interview describes why the common candidate should come from his party and answers many issues relating to the party, its leadership and how it took the initiative to defeat the LTTE locally and internationally
The main talking point in the country these days is the Presidential poll in the offing and the proposed common opposition Presidential candidate. Is there any possibility for the UNP to produce the Presidential candidate acceptable to the common opposition?
It is our collective expectation that the common opposition candidate would eventually emerge from the UNP. In fact, the UNP is the single most powerful political party in the country. Therefore, we hope that the common candidate will be someone from the UNP.
However, the room for a one single political party to come to power is restricted under the current system of elections, don’t you think it is imperative for the UNP to ally with other opposition political parties given this context?
We witness these days a convergence of opposition political parties for a common national cause. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has now obtained legal sanction to seek a third term in office, for which purpose he got the 18th Amendment to the Constitution passed in Parliament. There is today, a large section even in the government ranks, opposed to the 18th Amendment. The abolition of the Executive Presidency has become a major imperative and this task calls for a united opposition.
Names of both UNP National leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Leadership Council leader Karu Jayasuriya are being mentioned in connection with the common opposition candidacy. Have you spoken to them personally about this?
The party will shortly take a decision about whom the party should field as its candidate or as the common opposition candidate for that matter. Both these leaders meet the requirements to provide leadership to the nation.
The government has once again begun raising the cry that both the UNP and its leader are maintaining links with the LTTE and the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora. Your comments…..?
They are raising a fizzled out bogey. They recently charged that our leader held talks with the Tamil Diaspora in London. The state-owned media gave wide publicity to a picture in a bid to link our leader with the Diaspora. There was a grandson of the late Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara in that picture. This was part of their mudslinging campaign. Mr. Wickremesinghe had to take over an economy in shambles in 2001. And he knew that time was not opportune to wage an all-out war on the LTTE. He had to go in for a ceasefire to bide time to revitalize the economy and take on the LTTE from a position of strength. It was our leader’s political sagacity and acumen that led to Karuna Amman’s defection from the LTTE that greatly weakened it.
Do you claim that it was the UNP government that laid the foundation for achieving the war victory in 2009?
Yes. The split in the LTTE in 2001 certainly laid the foundation for the war victory in 2009!
Government leaders charge that the opposition leader is behind the recent lifting of the ban on the LTTE in EU countries?
Yes. The Government as usual, is trying to palm off the blame for their failing on the opposition leader. No government bigwig, a minister or an envoy was assigned to contest this court decision – to make representations on behalf of the Sri Lankan government. Having defaulted on their responsibility, the government leaders point the finger of accusation at the opposition leader to gain political mileage. They appear to welcome the European Court’s decision for they seem to think that they could use it as a good card against the UNP leader. In the process, they have ignored the extent of damage caused to this country. Their petty political interests and objectives have taken precedence over the national interest!
But don’t you think that this kind of government propaganda could cause serious damage to the image of the UNP; particularly when a national election is round the corner?
Yes. The government wants to create a general impression among the people here that the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora is quite active internationally, because it suits their purpose. It provides them an excuse to hang on to the Executive Presidential system. That is why; the President said that he was prepared to abolish the Executive presidency if the Tamil Diaspora gave up their call for a separate state. Powers that are being used to lift the proscription of the LTTE in EU countries, is to kill two birds with one stone: to use it as a slogan against the UNP at the coming Presidential poll while securing access to the LTTE funds to be defrozen following the lifting of the ban through the conduit available to them.
But don’t you agree that you have failed to effectively counter their vilification campaign?
Our leader recently gave a telling reply to their baseless allegations. Meanwhile, he has informed the EU of his strong objection to the lifting of the proscription while emphasizing the need to enforce it. When it comes to a national issue like this, we have to face it with the larger interest of the country at heart; rising above the petty political gains. Our party front-liners like Lakshman Kiriella and Mangala Samaraweera have already stated the stand of our party on this matter in unequivocal terms.
The demand for the abolition of the Executive Presidency has been a long standing one. But it was quite recently that the UNP decided to subscribe to this call. How do you account for it?
The late President J.R. Jayewardene entertained a vision of an Executive Presidential system in 1977, as an effective means of overcoming the economic backwardness of the country. He wanted to implement a massive development programme and he may have thought that an Executive Presidency was the need of the hour. The system served the purpose at that time. It was used as a shuttle for expediting development then. But what has become of the Executive Presidency now? It has resulted in the loss of the GSP relief, closure of garment factories that flourished during the UNP administrations, recession of the prospect of new industries, a sharp increase in unemployment, a rise in crime and other vices and arising of a drug mafia. The Executive Presidency has miserably failed to address these issues. It has now been proved beyond doubt that while the Executive Presidency under this regime has failed to resolve any of the formidable national issues or any of the pressing needs of the people, it has given rise to a situation where democracy and good governance have been sacrificed at the altar of nepotism, favoritism and corruption. Therefore, we have decided to abolish the Executive Presidency as a must for ushering a clean administration and a society, where justice and law and order reign supreme.
But there is a school of thought in the society that the Executive Presidency should be retained to deal with the LTTE rump reportedly still active?
All political parties in the mainstream should take a collective decision on this issue. It is possible that the LTTE is gaining ground politically, but not militarily. I personally don’t think there is a need of an Executive Presidency to defeat the LTTE growing in strength as a political outfit.
There is much talk about possible crossovers these days. Will Mangala Samaraweera return to the UPFA fold?
I don’t think that he will re-join the government. He has been a prominent critic of the government for some time. I believe that he will not quit the UNP.
There is a widespread speculation that Ravi Karunanayake and Wijayadasa Rajapakshe are also on the verge of crossing over to the government. Have you spoken to them about this talk of the town?
I am in touch with them all. These are stories churned out by the government rumour mill. Its high ups now desperately trying to prevent defections from their own ranks set afloat rumours about crossovers from the opposition.
They say that there is a move to field former President Chandrika Kumaratunga as the common opposition Presidential candidate. She held the Executive Presidency for two terms, but she failed to make good her promise to abolish the system. Given this fact, do you think people would place their trust in her again?
She had no intention of entering the fray again. Certain SLFP stalwarts and some opposition MPs are interested in bringing her back to politics as the common opposition Presidential candidate. I believe that many SLFP old timers still remain loyal to her.
Democratic Party leader and former army commander Sarath Fonseka complained at a recent media briefing that many political stalwarts who backed his candidacy as the common opposition candidate left him in the lurch when he had to undergo trials and tribulations after his defeat. Does it mean that the UNP also let him down when he was being persecuted after his defeat?
I think you have to seek an answer from him. As far as I can remember, we organised several demonstrations and public rallies to show our solidarity with him and I too participated in them. We exerted whatever pressure we could for his release. Both our leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa made representations to the government to secure his release. I too visited General Fonseka along with Harin Fernando when he was in prison. However, I must add that he must have had good reason for what he did say at the media briefing.
The government unveiled a populist Budget recently. President Rajapaksa is entering the fray fortified with mighty executive powers and the clout of 162 MPs in Parliament accounting for a two thirds majority. Isn’t it a daunting proposition to take on a strong government like this?
The Budget 2015 presented recently is obviously an election gimmick. People know it well. The government’s highups prior to the presentation of the Budget said that the public servants would receive a pay hike of about Rs. 10,000. But the real increase they got was less than Rs. 1,000. We, in our country, have the largest Cabinet of Ministers in the world. The Ministerial portfolios and other positions offered to MPs are really bribes; meant to induce them to remain in the government. Therefore, I don’t look at this government that has a strong administration.
What is the guarantee that a UNP –led government could take office in the future will not ‘bribe’ MPs with various high positions carrying numerous perks in order to retain its Parliamentary strength intact?
I can assure you that such a situation will never arise. I know the thinking of the young UNP MPs in particular. Our MPs are educated and they have a political vision and a mission to which they are committed to. I am sure that they will always place the country before self.
Don’t you think that you have to necessarily win over the opposition group of government MPs at the end of the day, if you are to defeat this government?
Yes. Several government MPs have already held talks with us. The talk that former President Kumaratunga could be the common opposition Presidential candidate may have sent a significant signal to the government. A group of government MPs, are expected to cross over to the opposition shortly.
The opposition has been making allegations of corruption against certain Ministers and MPs. How would your party deal with the situation in the event of some corrupt Ministers and MPs happen to be among the crossovers from the government?
That’s a possibility. The party leadership should have a clear vision on how to deal with such an eventuality. I believe we should not welcome Parliamentarians against whom there are allegations of bribery and corruption.
There were allegations of bribery and corruption against UNP highups too during the UNP-led administrations. There were allegations against certain UNP Ministers in the Wijayadasa Rajapakshe- led COPE report. Therefore, do you think that the people will seriously take the anti-corruption cry raised by the UNP?
No previous government had been entirely free from corruption. But there had been no government ridden with so much corruption as this government. I think our party leader has taken a cue from the rampant corruption in this government to run a clean administration when the UNP takes office.
Is there a clash between the G 20 group and the Working Committee?
The G 20 group is tasked with taking vital decisions related to the Presidential poll, which is round the corner. These decisions are submitted to the Working Committee for approval. No problem has arisen in this process.
Is the UNP in a position to secure the support of political parties like Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), JVP, TNA and the SLMC, which command their own voter bases decisive for the final outcome of a Presidential election?
Yes. We do command the capability to secure their support. There is no difficulty for us to work with them on a common programme of work in the larger interest of the country.
You are the President of the Yowun Peramuna (Youth front) of the UNP. Have you organised a special programme aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the youth in this country, particularly in view of the coming Presidential election?
Yes. We do have a good programme. We hope to launch this programme soon after the proclamation of the Presidential election.
We have already initiated talks between the university students’ councils, and our party leaders with a view to seeking solutions to the problems of the university students. There is a large segment of youth in the country disillusioned with the prevailing political culture. These unhappy youth have begun joining our Peramuna. We regularly witness the shabby treatment being meted out by the rulers to our youth who are following their higher education.
The government has already begun running its election campaign on a top gear. However, election-related activities of the opposition still remain lukewarm. Your comments?
The opposition will swing into action at the appropriate time. We are waiting for the proclamation of the Presidential election.