Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s biggest mission to forge unity in the UNP

20 February 2014 04:57 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was this week appointed to the Leadership Council thrusting him into the centre of the long festering leadership crisis in the party that has been continuing for the past few years.

Rajapakshe fills the slot that was originally assigned to parliamentarian Thalatha Atukorale. Atukorale, the sister of former UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale and a Sajith Premadasa loyalist refused to accept her position in the Council despite being nominated several months ago.

In contrast, Rajapakshe is known as a Ranil Wickremesinghe loyalist. His appointment as a replacement for Atukorale will necessarily alter the balance of power in the Leadership Council and give rise to claims that it is no more than a body that rubber stamps Wickremesinghe’s decisions.

Such controversy is nothing new to Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, who for most of his political career has been known to buck the trend. It may have cost him high political office even in his relatively short career in the legislature, but it has earned him much respect.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, now 54 years old, hails from Walasmulla, in the Hambantota district. He trained as a lawyer although he first tried his hand at banking before donning the black coat. In the latter, he quickly made his mark and commanded a lucrative practice within a few years.

Rajapakshe was also a keen educator. He was an examiner at the Faculty of Law in the University of Colombo and has authored seventeen books, nine of them on matters relating to Law. In 1988, at the age of 29, he was awarded the Ten Outstanding Young Persons (TOYP) award in the field of law.

Rajapakshe took to politics in 2004, entering Parliament representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He was probably the only parliamentarian to refuse a ministerial portfolio, declining an offer to be appointed as Minister of Constitutional Affairs. He however remained in the ruling party.

With the ascension of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the presidency in 2005, Rajapakshe accepted the portfolio of State Banking Development in November of that year. That appointment though was short-lived, as he resigned over differences in policy in April 2006.

Rajapakshe was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE), the parliamentary body tasked with ensuring financial discipline in public corporations and other semi-governmental bodies in which the state has a financial stake.

It was this role that catapulted Rajapakshe to the limelight. In January and August 2007, COPE under his chairmanship published two reports highlighting various instances of financial mismanagement in the state sector. This embarrassed the government greatly as Rajapakshe was still in the ruling party.

As Opposition demands for action on the COPE report grew, Rajapakshe’s position in government ranks became increasingly untenable. After making a brief statement in Parliament, he crossed over to the opposition in November 2007.

A few weeks later, the state-run ‘Silumina’ newspaper published an article under the heading “Wijeyadasa left in the lurch in his dreams of becoming Chief Justice”. Rajapakshe sued the newspaper and was awarded Rs. 500 million in damages by the Colombo District Court in March 2011.

Rajapakshe was promptly embraced by the United National Party (UNP). He was appointed as the party’s organiser for the Maharagama electorate; the electorate he nursed when he was in the SLFP. Clearly, the UNP leadership saw great potential in Rajapakshe and was keen to enlist him to their ranks.

Since then, Rajapakshe has remained with the UNP. He was fifth in the list of UNP MPs returned from the competitive Colombo district at the 2010 general elections, polling more than 60,000 preferences and finishing ahead of seasoned politicians.

Rajapakshe continued to practise law despite entering politics and has been a President’s Counsel since 2001. In February 2012, he contested the presidency of the Sri Lanka Bar Association (BASL) and won, polling nearly double the number of votes polled by his opponent Tirantha Walaliyadda.

Rajapakshe’s critics would argue that he could have performed a more proactive role as President of the BASL in tackling many legal measures adopted by the government during his tenure. It was a period that led to moves to impeach former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

In June 2012, Rajapakshe moved a private member’s bill in Parliament seeking to ban Buddhist monks from engaging in national politics. Rajapakshe, a Buddhist, said the intention of the legislation is “for the purpose of maintaining and preserving religious dignity and holiness of all religions”.

With the only priests in Parliament being Buddhist monks from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the amendment clearly targeted that party. With the government enjoying a steamroller majority in Parliament, the proposed bill did not become law.

In December 2012, while Rajapakshe was still President of the BASL, gun shots were fired at his residence in Nugegoda. No one was injured and Rajapakshe was not at home at the time of the incident. President Mahinda Rajapaksa later visited him at his residence to assure him of his safety.

From a purely practical point of view, Rajapakshe’s inclusion in the UNP’s Leadership Council should benefit the party. Rajapakshe’s experience as a lawyer will be particularly helpful to the Council as it grapples with legal hurdles placed both by the government and  dissidents within the party.

However, with Sajith Premadasa and Thalatha Atukorale refusing to serve in the Council saying it was not properly constituted, some dissidents have already castigated the Leadership Council saying it is only a front for the party’s National Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and questioned its integrity.

The Leadership Council President Karu Jayasuriya, until recently a firm advocate of the UNP leadership changing hands, appears to have embraced his role in the Council with gusto. To be fair by him, Sajith Premadasa has only himself to blame for rebuffing a position in the Council.

The inclusion of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe will not end the deep- seated divisions in the UNP. In fact, it may aggravate them. If the seasoned lawyer turned politician can forge some degree of unity in the UNP, it will be his most notable achievement yet.

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