Daily Mirror sat with former Minister and the General Secretary of the UNP, Tissa Attanayaka to discuss the current political situation and the New Democratic Front’s chance to win the Presidential poll.
Q As one of the frontline members serving the grand old party for more than twenty years in various capacities, as a youth leader, General Secretary and a Cabinet Minister, how do you see the current mess in the UNP?
The disputes and disagreements we witnessed in the UNP before the nomination of Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa as the presidential candidate are over now and all those who had different views have come under the Democratic National Front (DNF) and work hard to ensure the victory of Sajith. In fact the UNF is a fully united lot that would work as one until Sajith swears in as the seventh Executive President of Sri Lanka on November 17. However, inner conflicts are not new to the UNP. In less than five years after the formation of the party in September 1946 and coming to power in 1947 on the results of the general elections held in August – September period under the leadership of D.S. Senanayake, the UNP was in disarray by 1951. Leader of the House and Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike crossed over to the opposition and formed the SLFP in late 1951. In the 70s, we had seen the power struggle between Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene. In the 80s, the conflict among JR, Dudley and R. Premadasa and in late 80 and early 90 the disputes between Premadasa, Lalith Gamini and Ranil. I must say that these internecine conflicts are not restricted to the UNP alone. We have witnessed more often than not bigger and more damaging inner fights within all other political parties over the years as well.
However, my opinion is that these conflicts must not be taken to the street as it would contribute to lose confidence on the party among supporters. Our strong vote base is the most important asset of the party and it must not be affected from these disputes. The UNP has resolved its conflicts within the party through dialogue, consensus and compromise while fully adhering to the party constitution. The policy making and top management body of the party, the ‘Working Committee’ has assessed the feelings, proposals and suggestions of all members from the grassroots level to the top when it decided to choose Sajith. Unfortunately, in the recent past this has not happened and as a result it had aggravated the situation.
- All those who had different views have come under the Democratic National Front (DNF) and work hard to ensure the victory of Sajith
- These conflicts must not be taken to the street as it would contribute to lose confidence on the party among supporters.
- I admit that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has effectively launched his poll campaign much earlier and the UNP has lagged behind.
- The victory of the party is based on unity. Each time when there was disunity in the party, the UNP has lost elections.
Q The UNP has made it that losing of elections a trend. How do you react to this adverse trend?
You are right. The UNP has to undergo a complete overhaul in its strategy, policy and leadership and resort to a winning trend. The party must not take decisions on the whims and fancies of a few as it brings nothing but disaster. However, under no circumstances the UNP cannot discard Ranil and he must remain in the party as its top ideologist and elder statesman because his guidance, advice and patience are extremely vital for the way forward of the UNP. Being a seasoned and highly academic political leader, he can serve the party for many years.
Q Do you think the unchanged leadership for so many years has brought about this sorry state of affairs within the UNP?
Mr. Wickremesinghe has given leadership to the UNP for more than 25 years. He has good qualities as well as bad qualities. He failed to take the party to victory at so many elections and has lost confidence among party supporters and voters. The UNP desperately needs a fresh leadership, new thinking and new ideology. But this change has to be achieved through dialogue, mutual understanding and consensus. Peace and unity in the party is paramount. All decisions must be unanimous to prevent dissension. I have no doubt that Ranil will vehemently be unhappy to any sort of change in the UNP. But Ranil has shown his statesmanlike qualities and maturity by acceding to the popular demand and giving the ticket to Sajith. Choosing Sajith as the Presidential candidate 2020 has united the party as never before. Certain UNP top rankers who did not support Sajith’s candidacy have now pledged their fullest support and blessings to ensure Sajith’s victory. I believe that much of the credit for this new found enthusiasm, unity and peace in the UNP must go to Ranil. That is why I say Ranil cannot be discarded easily.
Q Not only the UNP supporters, but a large number of youth who would vote at the forthcoming Presidential poll for the first time - minorities, public and state sector employees, pensioners, farmers and the working class - insisted on fielding Deputy UNP leader Sajith Premadasa as the Presidential candidate. How do you see this popular demand?
A fresh and futuristic work programme and a national plan to save the country from present mess and take the economy to new heights is the need of the hour. The voter round the country demanded a leader who would not walk out on the mandate given to him, who would strengthen national security, personal liberty and dignity of all Sri Lankans. To deliver these, a leader needs a good team and a vision. As such, there is room for a new national leadership and a new team who have new ideas, new thinking and abilities to take bold decisions because no candidate up to now has presented a policy or programme that would fit into these essentials.
On much talked about national security by the opposition, I must say that patriotism or national security is not a legacy of any politician or political party. Sajith is well aware of how to strengthen national security without offending any community. As Samuel Johnson once said Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
However, I admit that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has effectively launched his poll campaign much earlier and the UNP has lagged behind. The UNP Working Committee and leadership have been discreet enough to field the candidate who commands the confidence not only among the grass roots level UNP vote base but of all minorities, professionals and intellectuals, public and private sector employees, pensioners and most importantly among young voters who would cast votes for the first time at this election, yes, he can emerge as the absolute winner at the 2019 Presidential election. To achieve that goal, the entire UNF machinery led by Ranil, Karu, Champika, Rajitha, Ravi and leaders of the Tamil and Muslim political parties must come on stage of the Democratic National Front (DNF) election propaganda campaign. If that happens, I don’t think the victory is a distant goal for the DNF, the UNP led alliance that has united all right thinking people including minorities who don’t want to see that Sri Lanka falls into a military dictatorship and family rule.
In 1988, R. Premadasa won the Presidential election in a similar campaign spearheaded by Lalith and Gamini. This unity shown by our past leaders is a good lesson for current UNP leadership. What happened later is a different story.
Q What is your view on the struggle launched within the UNP by a majority of members of the parliamentary group, Ministers, MPs, local government members and former members of Provincial Councils and party organizers to nominate Sajith as the UNP Presidential candidate?
The UNP follows a time-honoured system to select its Presidential candidate governed by the party constitution. After the unanimous approval of the candidate and the party membership and supporters think of a winnable candidate, his nomination has to be approved by the Parliamentary group and the Working Committee and also by the party convention. If the demand is for Sajith from UNP supporters round the country, minority parties and the civil society, his nomination has also to be approved by the Working Committee and the Parliamentary group with no division. In short, it must come as a decision of the Lichchavi clan in ancient India which has quoted by Ranil in many instances. As you know Lichchavis assembled peacefully, discussed peacefully, took decisions peacefully and dispersed peacefully, one of the best approaches for conflict resolution. The UNP has failed to field its own candidate for the Presidential election in the last 15 years. This is a setback for the party. I think, the UNP or the political alliance led by it has a very good chance after many years to elect an executive President from the UNP. If the UNP failed this time, it would be the end of the world for the party. I am glad that the final outcome of the campaign ‘Sajith for Presidency’ ended in a very positive note and supporters of the UNP from round the country firmly determined with a new found enthusiasm to ensure Sajith’s victory.
Being a seasoned and highly academic political leader, his experience, shrewdness and guidance have to be used for the way forward of the party.
Q Do you think the party leadership, the Working Committee and other decision-making bodies of the UNP chose Sajith as the Presidential candidate because they could not ignore the huge pressure for Sajith coming from all parts of the country?
Yes, indeed. Firstly, the party supporters and members have a right to choose the candidate they think who has the potential to win. Their demand, seems based on certain factors such as failure of the UNF government to deliver, broken election pledges, choosing of the wrong candidate in 2015 by the party, bond scam and many more. The popular thinking is that Sajith is not responsible for many of these misdeeds and broken promises and his image has not been tarnished from these failures. They also think, if given the opportunity he would deliver. If the working committee took a wrong decision at this crucial juncture would have been a disaster. The Central Bank bond scam not only made a huge negative impact on the economy but did an irreparable and irreversible damage to the Yahapalana government and to the UNP. .
My personal view is that Mr. Premadasa, after assuming Presidency must give priority to bring former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran back to Sri Lanka - the first suspect of the bond scam case - and produce him in courts. The downhill journey of the ‘Yahapalana Government’ and the UNP started with the infamous bond scandal.
Q What is the possibility of Sajith emerging victorious at the Presidential poll?
The delay to nominate the UNP candidate has affected the campaign strategy of the party to some extent as it will not auger well for the party to keep the voter in suspense. In 2015, common candidate Maithripala Sirisena to contest against President Mahinda Rajapaksa was selected a several weeks prior to the nomination though it was a sudden decision. I think the SLPP right now is in a better position as the entire country knows its candidate and their propaganda campaign has progressed smoothly.
You may see that after Sajith’s nomination, there has been a huge enthusiasm in the country, in particular among those youth who would be voting for the first time on November 16. I can see a kind of new eagerness among voters in all nine provinces to elect Sajith as their 7th executive President based on the track record of Sajith. Being an MP, Deputy Minister, Cabinet Minister and the Deputy Leader of the UNP, he has shown his CV and IQ to the electorate over nearly two decades. Here is a politician who refused the offer by the executive President to accept the Premiership not once, twice or thrice but for more than dozen times. Here is a political leader who has not got his hands smeared with blood, no allegations on embezzling, murder, threats to the media or judiciary, robbing of public money or mud slinging on his rivals. Can you name a single political leader to the caliber of Sajith not only from Sri Lanka but from any other country? I would like to draw your attention to what Bard said in Julius Caesar, ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’. Sajith is not only above any allegations of misdeeds or crimes but above suspicion. What the Sri Lanka’s voters can expect more from Presidential candidates in the fray than these qualities?
Is there any other symbol than ‘Swan’ the symbol of purity, honesty, integrity, prosperity and peace to stand in for Sajith on the ballot paper?
I never left the UNP. My main grievance was the selection of Maithripala Sirisena as the common Presidential candidate by a coalition led by the UNP and the failure of the UNP to field its own candidate
Q If Sajith was not nominated...
The victory of the party is based on unity. Each time when there was disunity in the party, the UNP has lost elections. It is quite obvious that the UNP stands the best chance since 1994 to win the 2019 Presidential poll as the most popular candidate has been chosen on the request of a vast majority of party supporters, the minority parties, employees in the public and private sector and many others chosen as the party’s candidate. If Sajith was not chosen, no one would be able to prevent the party being disintegrated.
Q Do you think there is any other candidate in the UNP, who could give a good fight to the candidate of the joint opposition and win the election?
No. But once the most qualified and winnable candidate is chosen, the entire party machinery must back him with an aggressive propaganda campaign led by Party Leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Minister Champika Ranawaka and other UNF leaders like Navin Dissanayaka, Ravi Karunanayaka, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Lakshman Kiriella, Kabir Hashim and others covering all 25 districts.
Q What led you to leave the UNP at the last phase of the Presidential poll in 2015?
I never left the UNP. My main grievance was the selection of Maithripala Sirisena as the common Presidential candidate by a coalition led by the UNP and the failure of the UNP to field its own candidate. I still believe that if the UNP fielded a candidate of its own in 2015, he could have won. My argument was that UNP voters and supporters would not be benefited if the common candidate was elected as the President. This has been proved by now. I also felt I am being sidelined or given step motherly treatment after Sirisena was chosen. .
Q Do you repent today for what you did in 2015?
Not at all! Many people have said many things about my departure from the party I served for more than 30 years. Two months of power in late 2014, put me in jail. However, I feel today that if the UNP listened to my warnings on Sirisena, the party would have been in a better position today. I invite any one interested to read my just released book, ‘Nokiu Kathawa’ (untold story) that says it all.
Q You are a free man today without any legal blockades. Are you ready to resume your journey in politics and if so with whom?
Politically yes. I have decided to support Sajith as he is the most qualified and suitable young political leader in Sri Lanka today with an unblemished record. I would like to support a candidate who would become a true leader to all communities of this country, who shows the capability and acumen to put the nation and country in a better position in the next ten years. Sri Lanka has not gained much after independence. We have failed in many fronts and lagged behind in comparison to other countries in the region. The leader who would navigate the destinies of Sri Lanka in the next ten years must be a man who can change this negative trend and take the motherland towards a new frontier filled with prosperity, happiness, peace and harmony. He is Sajith Premadasa.