Sunday in Colombo was Gotabaya’s day. Monday in Badulla was Sajith’s. Tuesday, it was reported, Ranil had his day with Sajith hurrying to meet his leader. Wednesday it was Poya for all to prove they are pious Sinhala Buddhists. All these days people became and for days to come they will become hoarse and agitated, cheering their pet candidate at every public appearance they make.
While Sajith is being hoisted by an unusually large ‘Ginger Group’ in the UNP to stake a claim for the presidential candidacy, Gotabaya for now is the officially declared candidate of the SLPP as decided by the Rajapaksa family. It is “democracy” Rajapaksa style. Basil manages the party and invites brother Mahinda to takeover party leadership. To handover the party to Mahinda, a two-hour ceremony called a ‘party convention’ is held. After taking over party leadership, Mahinda announces his brother Gotabaya as the party presidential candidate. Everything is ‘official’ and unanimously-accepted and agreed; a clear sign of how decisions would be made in the future.
The UNP that too was happy with such decision-making in the past two decades has now run into a major roadblock. Exactly a week ago on August 9, Avantha Artigala summed up the total crisis in the UNP in his two-part single cartoon in the DM. “One man” democracy has messed himself and ruined the entire dining table. Although one thought it was a neatly-dressed liberal who entered the leadership, everything in the dining room now needs to be cleaned and rubbished is what Avantha communicates. But that is not what Sajith Premadasa “backers” are asking for. They want to sit at the dining table this time.
Senior Premadasa too had to fight his way to presidential candidacy over 30 years ago. His battle to reach the top was quite different. He was a determined young man who came into politics in 1954, contesting St. Sebastian’s Ward of the CMC from A.E Gunasinghe’s Labour Party (LP). His actual political career with a serious determination to become a national leader began with the UNP in 1956 and was nominated to contest Ruwanwella against N.M. Perera. From what the late Haleem Ishak, an SLFP parliamentarian who was also a Colombo Municipal Councillor in early ’60s told the writer, young Ranasinghe Premadasa was the only serious council member who was always punctual. He came well-prepared for council meetings with necessary explanations for issues collected from department heads. He, Haleem Ishak said, was the person who made the ‘Deputy Mayor’ post a strong and accepted one in the Colombo municipality. While leading his charitable organisation ‘Sucharitha Movement’ that kept him closely linked to the urban poor, Ranasinghe Premadasa in mid-’60s formed a civil organisation called ‘Puravesi Peramuna’ (Citizens’ Front) and chose a darker shade of yellow as it’s colour. He worked tirelessly to groom himself to reach the top rung of the UNP leadership then dominated by personalities like M.D.H. Jayawardene, Montague Jayawickrama, M.D. Banda, Jinadasa Niyathapala; all closely behind Dudley and JRJ right at the top.
In the decade of 70, he had actually reached the top. He was chief opposition whip in the ’70 to ’77 Parliament, after Dudley Senanayake’s demise and when JRJ became the opposition leader. He was next to JRJ in the 1977 general election campaign and was the most popular platform speaker the UNP then had. His role in the election campaign made him virtually the second in command in the party and compelled JRJ to appoint him PM after JRJ in February 1978 lifted himself to the chair of the executive presidency. JRJ also groomed two new entrants to UNP politics as second-level leaders in his government. Both eminent lawyers and scholarly speakers, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali grew as national leaders with very important portfolios under them, handling them as seasoned politicians. When it came for President Jayawardene to leave politics and the party, UNP had three well-established national leaders in Premadasa, Gamini and Athulathmudali, all vying for presidential candidacy by 1988. With Gamini Dissanayake as a facilitator of the Indo-Lanka Agreement in July 1987, India perhaps favoured him to succeed JRJ. But with mass protests and the JVP insurgency against Provincial Councils (PC) established under the Indo-Lanka Agreement, Premadasa and Athulathmudali who opposed were closer to presidential candidacy than Gamini.
While Sajith is being hoisted by an unusually large ‘Ginger Group’ in the UNP to stake a claim for the presidential candidacy, Gotabaya for now is the officially declared candidate of the SLPP as decided by the Rajapaksa family. It is “democracy” Rajapaksa style. Basil manages the party and invites brother Mahinda to takeover party leadership
As a political party that had always played a rabidly-Sinhala racist role, Premadasa had a definite edge over Athulathmudali who was seen as a liberal extension of President Jayawardene with a nationalist flavour. A homegrown leader, Premadasa with his long career in grounded politics that established him as a Sinhala nationalist leader outside even the UNP could not be ignored. It was his success in clinching the UNP presidential candidacy that later led to rivalries within the UNP leading to sacking of both Dissanayake and Athulathmudali from the party.
Times are different, political leadership is different and the political scenario is different no doubt. UNP lost its most aggressive leader Ranasinghe Premadasa, the only President to be assassinated by the LTTE. It then lost a popular campaigner in Gamini Dissanayake, the only presidential candidate to be assassinated by the LTTE. Athulathmudali, assassinated while on a campaign stage, had his own political party. With all three formidable UNP leaders eliminated, Wickremesinghe became its leader by default and rules by a party Constitution that keeps him leader as long as he wishes.
For over 24 years, he succeeded keeping out a second-level leadership emerging that could qualify for leadership. Sajith was brought in for his father’s legacy and not for his political acumen. Guitar-strumming, easy-going Sajith in politics is not his ‘father’ in serious politics. Sajith was never the determined politician his father was. He never traversed the path his father did in achieving authority and leadership within the party and in national politics. He was just a Hambantota politician who could never bring more than two UNP MPs to Parliament including himself as one. His recognition within the party is his father’s legacy. He was not a major challenge to Ranil when young Turks like Dayasiri Jayasekera, Ravi Jayawardene, Maithri Gunaratne and Shiral Lakthilake were demanding a change in party leadership. All of them had to leave the grand-old party with Sajith backing out from the fray.
Political rebellion for a leadership change in the UNP became a growing issue with the fall of the UNP Government in 2003 after President Kumaratunge took over three major ministries. Perception within the party that Wickremesinghe cannot be positioned as a winning candidate was sealed after the 2005 presidential election, when the LTTE politically assassinated him by boycotting elections in Rajapaksa’s favour. The perception that “Wickremesinghe cannot” made 17 leading parliamentarians led by Karu Jayasuriya to cross over to the Rajapaksa Government in early 2007. Most including Karu became Cabinet ministers. Before their crossover to the Rajapaksa Government famously explained by Karu as their responsibility to strengthen President Rajapaksa’s hand in winning the war, there were individual crossovers like P. Dayaratne, a long-time UNP loyalist from the Ampara District, the lone elephant from Badulla District Lakshman Seneviratne and the strongman in Kesbewa, Gamini Lokuge.
Two attempts at gaining political clout via a ‘Common Candidate’ for presidency failed miserably for Wickremesinghe. Although he was able to have the (in)famous 19A to keep a tottering government in place for four years, that 19A cannot make him win an election. Dilemma in the UNP is it has no leader to replace Wickremesinghe. Promoted by a lone TV channel, Sajith for some in the UNP is the only substitute with a parental legacy that can be ‘marketed.’ The added strength in pushing Sajith to the fore comes from political parties in the government also demanding a ‘winnable candidate’ in place of Wickremesinghe. The new alliance that was to be ushered in last week therefore had to be postponed indefinitely. With Mangala in the forefront, the new generation in the UNP has now decided on Sajith as their candidate with public rallies.
This open challenge in establishing Sajith as the UNP candidate has never in UNP history been this ugly and out in the open. This infighting created serious divisions in the UNP, reaching the electorates too. It does demoralise sections of the electorate. Fight for a new leadership gained new strength with the failure of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government. It proved the UNP cannot have a government of its own with ‘common’ candidate formula for presidency. ‘Yahapalanaya’ also proved Wickremesinghe is no Dudley Senanayake who in 1965 managed the popularly termed ‘Hath Havul’ (seven partners) government that ran the full five-year term with diverse and opposing politics in it.
This coming presidential election is therefore extremely-decisive for the UNP. It certainly is fighting a losing battle at elections though ‘dissidents’ would win their battle for a new leadership. Gotabaya from SLPP is therefore not the issue for this massive upheaval in the UNP. It is about winning a new face. About gaining new life. Sad part yet of this battle for a new face is that it looks a smaller and a weaker version of Gotabaya, though they speak the same political language of “peace, democracy, equality, national security in a Sinhala Buddhist unitary State.” The UNP will therefore have to look for yet another leader after elections. Sajith is no Rajapaksa to fight for a new comeback.
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