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UNP’s internecine feud

12 Sep 2019 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs Minister Sajith Premadasa sat down for talks on Tuesday night, the party members thought   the quarrel over presidential candidacy would end raising positive prospects at the upcoming presidential elections. After   talks that lasted for two hours, there was no final agreement on the candidate though doors remain open for further talks. Nevertheless, Minister Premadasa dubbed the talks ‘positive’ .

“Talks ended on a positive note,” he said after the meeting.  

The two leaders should have reached some consensus on presidential candidacy for talks to become successful or positive. According to inside party sources, the stalemate will continue since Wickremesinghe has not given his OK for Premadasa to join the presidential race. 

Instead, at the discussion table, Wickremesinghe is reported to have said that he does not mind giving candidacy to Premadasa, but he has to come up with a winning formula which is convincing enough. 

The Prime Minister said the UNP could not win as a single party, and therefore it should clinch up support from other likeminded parties including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). So, he asked Premadasa to ensure how he ropes in the alliance partners.

Ranil said the UNP could not win as a single party, and therefore it should clinch up support from other likeminded parties

“If you can get that support, the working committee of the party can decide,” he told the meeting. 

It is ample enough that the meeting ended without any conclusion. If the Prime Minister, as the party leader, agrees, the Working Committee approval is automatically secured. In other words, the Working Committee only has to ratify what the leaders agreed upon. 

Now Premadasa has to prove that he has the backing of the alliance partners of the UNP.  Among them, the TNA is the party that really matters because it commands a decisive vote base.  To get its support, Premadasa has to declare his position on the TNA’s traditional demands- a power devolution package, the merger of the northern eastern provinces, the release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the release of the lands held by the military in the north and a probe into war crime allegations.  

It will be a heavy political toll on any political leader in the south if he promises solidly on these lines. Of course, the popularity of the UNP waned in the south because, among others, it attempted to address these demands during the past.  

  • PM leaves it to Sajith to ensure support from alliance partners 
  • TNA asks Sajith to spell out his stand on political question
  • It is ample enough that the meeting ended without any conclusion

Premadasa is a politician   who bows down to popular and populist sentiments of the south, and as such, one cannot expect him to appease the TNA.  

One cannot yet be sure that the internecine feud of the UNP is over. As it became apparent at Tuesday’s talks, the Prime Minister has not given up his interest in contesting. He asked Premadasa to make sure that he has the backing of all the parties that matter at this juncture.  He would have said it since he believed that Premadasa would find it difficult to obtain the support of the TNA.  

However, any strategy adopted by the Prime Minister has not deterred Premadasa from   pursuing candidacy. Premadasa has reached a point of no return. So, he rebuffed the Prime Minister.

“I will contest the presidential elections no matter what. I will not backtrack from my position even by an inch,” he vowed at a meeting.

TNA asks Sajith to solve internal party issues Before talks with the Prime Minister on Tuesday, Premadasa held informal talks with the TNA representatives in Jaffna. On Monday, State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne accompanied Premadasa to Jaffna for an informal luncheon chat with the TNA. They hosted four TNA MPs- M.A. Sumanthiran, Mavai Senathirajah, Dharmalingam Sithadthan and P. Sarawanapawan -and mayor of the Jaffna municipal council Emmanuel Arnold for lunch at a leading star hotel in the area. 

Sumanthiran coordinated the meeting on behalf of the TNA. At the lunch table, he started airing out his party’s viewpoints as far as the presidential election is concerned.   The TNA support for any candidate depends on what is on offer to resolve the political question. Key among them is the set of proposals for constitutional changes devolving more power to the north and the east. 

At the meeting with the TNA, Premadasa, it is learnt, was cautious not to utter anything that would antagonize the majority community.  He told the TNA that the majority community had to be convinced on any political, and without their support, it could not be delivered. He said he is ready to devolve powers but within the framework of a unitary constitution only. 

However, Sumanthiran replied him that it would be difficult for him to convince the Tamil people for anything within the structure of a unitary constitution.  The TNA delegation did not commit anything. Instead, it advised Premadasa to sort out the UNP’s internal issues as far as the presidential election is concerned,   as otherwise any prolongation of squabbling would be politically counterproductive. 

“You discuss and sort out the existing issues within the party. After that, we can have formal talks,” the TNA said.

Political solution has been the dominant factor that shapes the voting pattern of Tamils in the north and the east at successive   elections.  The TNA, an amalgam of three Tamil parties, still remains the largest political force that can sway Tamil votes in favour of any candidate at a presidential candidate. In pledging its support, it will weigh one main candidate against the other and decide appropriately.  There is one defined line in their voting pattern at the last two presidential elections, though.  That is that Tamils have always voted for the candidate fielded by UNP-led camp.  In 2010, they marked their ballots in support of former Army Commander MP Sarath Fonseka as opposed to then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Likewise, they voted en masse for President Maithripala Sirisena as against Rajapaksa once again in 2015.  As such it won’t be difficult to galvanize majority support in the north for a presidential candidate fielded by the UNP, be it Ranil or Sajith.  But, to get that support en bloc is the challenge.  That is what matters for the UNP in choosing between the two, or opting for a third candidate.