- Premadasa’s taking over of the leadership of the already recognised AJP and its name change happened so swiftly
- Given the issues within the UNP since local government elections defeat in 2018, the current turn of events in the party is an inevitable upshot
- Whatever it may be, a divided UNP facing the highly confident SLPP would cause frustration among a section of the party
Ultimately, after several rounds of rebellion against its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe spanning almost two decades, the United National Party (UNP) split, but not with a bang, as happened in 1951 and 1991. Now, there are two political parties on the ground recognised by the Elections Commission of Sri Lanka and led by the Leader and the Deputy Leader of the UNP. There is no doubt, it is a clear split.
Wickremesinghe heads one party, the officially recognised United National Party with those appointed as office bearers in 2018 and a Working Committee appointed recently by him. On the other hand, the Elections Commission has recognised Sajith Premadasa, as the leader of Our National Front or Ape Jathika Peramuna (AJP) with a name change of it as Samagi Jathika Balawegaya (SJB).
The UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam had requested the Election Commission not to recognise the SJB arguing that the abbreviation of its English name was identical to that of his party. However, the response of the Commission is yet to be known.
Premadasa’s taking over of the leadership of the already recognised AJP and its name change happened so swiftly and surreptitiously that even his close associates might have been taken off guard. By last Monday the country did not know about Premadasa’s association with the AJP, but on Tuesday the news came that the Elections Commission had recognised him as the leader of the party while accepting a request to change its name.
This is the third major split in the grand old party formed by D.S.Senanayake and other pro-dominion leaders of the Independence movement in 1946. It saw its first major split in it in 1951 when S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike broke away from it and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which became the main contender for the UNP for more than a half a century, until 2015.
"The outcry against Wickremesinghe’s leadership resurfaced subsequent to that election in which the party had lost one-third of its vote bank"
Then again there was another split in 1991 when a group of Parliamentarians led by the then ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake fell out with party leader Ranasinghe Premadasa who was also Sajith’s father and the then President of the country. They founded the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) which later faded away into a small entity following Athulathmudali’s assassination in 1993 and Dissanayake’s reentry into the UNP in 1994.
Given the development of issues within the UNP since local government elections defeat in 2018, the current turn of events in the party is an inevitable upshot. The outcry against Wickremesinghe’s leadership resurfaced subsequent to that election in which the party had lost one-third of its vote bank, compared to the 2015 General Elections, with the usual contention that elections cannot be won under him. He applied his customary promise to appoint a collective leadership in place of a single person leadership to the party which he has been using since 2001 to quell the rebellions against him.
Despite this promise suggesting an admission of criticism against his leadership, Wickremesinghe appointed a politburo in 2018 the decisions of which had to be ratified by the Working Committee appointed by him. The politburo vanished into thin air in a few weeks and again the leadership tussle reemerged last year with the approach of the Presidential election. Sajith Premadasa laid claim not only to the party leadership but also to the Presidential candidacy, this time with much vigour and seeming majority support of the Parliamentary group as well as the grassroots level members and supporters of the party.
He managed to snatch the candidacy but not the leadership for which he resumed his battle after the unsuccessful Presidential election. Then he was awarded the leadership of the UNP led coalition and the chairmanship of the nomination board as well as the right to select its secretary, but subjected to the approval of the UNP Working Committee which has always been Wickremesinghe’s strength and the lifeguard. He was also recognised as the Prime Ministerial candidate at the next Parliamentary elections.
In spite of this strategy by Wickremesinghe being very clear to be a ploy to checkmate his deputy and his loyalists, surprisingly they accepted it. Now, it seems that this has been a distracting tactic and in fact they have deceived Wickremesinghe and his group into believing that they had fallen in line, in order to buy time for them to borrow an already registered political party and officially rename it and its office bearers. Hence, Sajith, for the moment, seems to have won the game by checkmating his leader.
In the light of the adamancy of both sides in not accommodating the other side’s views the division of the party has been around the corner for the past several months. Now the question remains as to which group is to survive and which group is to die out. Would both groups survive with equal power, at least for the moment? These questions would not last long, as an apt test is in the offing, probably in April, in the form of a general election.
"Now the question remains as to which group is to survive and which group is to die out. Would both groups survive with equal power"
UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam had stated recently that no group broken away from the party has survived; citing the fate of the DUNF founded by the late Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. He was not correct, the first breakaway group, the SLFP had emerged as a powerful force within five years, even humiliatingly routing the parent party which managed to get only 8 out of 95 seats in Parliament, at the 1956 elections.
Sajith seemed to have mustered the support of the majority of grass root level party loyalists at the November 16 Presidential election and the UNP’s vote bank had swelled by two million votes at that election compared to the previous local government elections. The winning candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa too had increased the vote bank of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) by a similar number, but that included the votes of the SLFP as well. Yet, one cannot conclusively say what percentage of the 5.5 million votes Sajith obtained in last November would remain with him or side with Wickremesinghe in the event they contest separately, at the forthcoming general elections.
Whatever it may be, a divided UNP facing the highly confident SLPP would cause frustration among a section of the party, despite a possible morale boost within the ranks of the Sajith group, which is now huddled officially into a separate political party, the (SJB). The reaction of this frustrated group is also important at the election, as they might even abstain from voting or side with the possible winning party, SLPP, both of which would be favourable to the latter which is eagerly seeking two-thirds of Parliamentary power at this election.
The UNP leadership would now be able to sack its deputy leader and his followers from the party since they are openly working for another party. However, it is now pointless as they have already gone.