UNP Badulla district parliamentarian Harin Fernando, a vocal member of the opposition, at an interview with Daily Mirror expressed his views on the UNP crisis, the election results and the way forward for the ‘grand old party’. Below are texcerpts from the interview
Q: There is this notion that people like you, who support or are propping up the present UNP hierarchy, should be held responsible for its decay. Isn’t that notion justified?
To be honest, I don’t see what we are doing as an attempt to protect anybody; what we really need is unity within the party and that is what is most important. I am supportive of both factions coming together; why I say this is because today we need a leader who is accepted nationally and internationally. Although I believe that the present UNP leader may be lacking in areas such as Public Relations Skills and Charisma, I am convinced that he is a visionary and we need such a person to lead our party. On the other hand we also have an emerging young leader, who is our trump card and if they consent to work together, I think it will be a successful formula to take the party forward on a national level.
Q: But despite your saying this, the fact remains that the electoral results have been very poor and as such how is this continuation justified?
Well if you talk about the electoral results I personally feel that the UNP didn’t secure a clear victory. I’m very open with my thoughts and that is how I feel. However, there is also a significant loss for the government and this is a hopeful factor for the opposition. The fact that there was an 11% drop and a decline in the number of seats from 109 to 88 is not something for the government to be happy about. The UNP meanwhile has secured more seats and has marginally increased its voter-base. You may be aware that these elections were 44led by the President himself with his face painted on every wall. So we had to fight tooth and nail at this election and I think that in a sense we were successful despite many who believed that the UNP would be pushed out of the equation. We gained more than 17,000 votes in Hambantota and more than 20,000 votes in Kalutara while In the Gampaha District there was an increase of more than 12,000 votes. Even in the Colombo District we gained marginally and despite a small setback over Mano Ganeshan’s issue we held on to the Colombo Municipal Council area amid all the development work carried out there.
The people gave two signals, one was that they were not happy with what the government was doing and the other was that though the UNP vote-base remained intact, those who rejected the government had not voted for the UNP but opted for other alternatives. So there certainly is an issue but the positive that we take from this is that of the people’s willingness to confront the government. Those who rejected the government had chosen to vote for General Sarath Fonseka and the reason for this was the lack of unity within the UNP. There is a clear message that if we are united we could easily achieve greater heights.
Q: Won’t you agree that this rejection of the government you are talking about is a natural phenomenon given the fact that the government has been in power for several years and not because the people are willing to rise up against the government?
It’s true that the decline in popularity is natural when a government is in power for a long period of time, but if you look at these elections it is the government that decided the date of the elections, we saw ministers publicly stating that they were expecting a sweeping victory with an 85% voter turnout. The government was riding high and backing themselves up and were all geared for the kill. What I said was that the UNP did not win, but this is an opportunity to be grabbed and made use of. Everything will depend on how well we grab this opportunity. My simple theory is that these two groups, one backing Sajith Premadasa and the other backing Ranil Wickremesinghe should iron out whatever differences and resolve to work together as one powerful force. If you take the simple example of the recently concluded T20 Cricket World Cup, if the team captain is not playing well but has to lead the team and you are one of the prolific scorers and the Vice Captain, would you opt out of the
team because the captain is not good?
Q: But he didn’t stay back did he?
That was only in Hambantota, he refused to participate in the Leadership Council and participate in party affairs on a broader level. Let me be clear here, I voted for Sajith both times because I think he is a young leader and we all have to rally round him. But I also feel that he should come on to the same platform and play together.
Q: Are you hopeful that this will happen?
I have made a suggestion to the party regarding the upcoming Uva Provincial Council election which I believe is going to be a crucial. It’s the last election before the general and presidential elections and we have to use all our strength to win this election, which is also going to be crucial for the government. If we can forget all our differences and fight this election as one team then I am prepared to come forward as the chief ministerial candidate. I have told the party that my only condition is that the entire party mechanism must come together and fight this election. It is only one election and therefore it is crucial. I want the entire mechanism to work together just for this election so that we can also assess our real strength and to see how the people will endorse our work plan.
Q: Are you saying this in all honesty?
This is going to be a make or break election, the government knows that. A Rajapaksa is contesting for them, and they know it can be a turning point. I have told the Leadership Council of my wish and my condition to contest. Many people have spoken to me after the news broke that I was willing to contest and assured their support for me. Everyone is pumped up and is keen to show a change. Unless the UNP makes a change at this election, the future is going to be very bleak. All the party leaders have to put aside their personal differences and work for the betterment of the party.
Sri Lanka has had a culture where all four major communities have lived in harmony for centuries if not millennia. This new trend is completely politically motivated and this government has to make sure that it stops
Q: Moving away, don’t you think that this government had done much more than what we could have ever imagined under a UNP government within such a short time?
I completely disagree with that. Under a UNP government this country would have been developed much, much faster and much more efficiently. This country is a facing a management crisis. Take the state sector for example; it has crumbled because it is riddled with political appointments. Good governance and the rule of law have collapsed with government-backed goons and politicians in Hambantota using guns and threatening and assaulting lawfully elected members of parliament.
Then what about media freedom? If you really analyze why the UNP is in this situation it is because media freedom is hampered. Most TV channels and Radio channels have some sort of affiliation to the government and they don’t give the opposition message to the masses. They have either been bought over or are being intimidated. The myth that the UNP is not voicing the peoples concern is incorrect because this is what has been created by the government through direct and indirect media suppression.
But despite all these obstacles, I’m certain that if we all come together there could be a drastic change. The people of the county are frustrated and waiting for an opportunity to come out. This fantastic opportunity should be grabbed by the UNP leaders working as one powerful force. Therein lays the medication and the solution.
Q: Taking up what you said, isn’t it a fact that the media do not create politicians but unfortunately the UNP has overly relied on the media instead of actually reaching out to the people at grassroots levels?
True I agree with you. But today unlike in those days, the people make judgments on politicians and parties based on what they see and what they read in newspapers. It is only through the media that people make these judgments. I agree with you on what you are saying, we have to have a strong foundation at grassroots level. But there are many practical difficulties which arise because the lifestyle of people has changed. The people don’t stay at home as often as they did. That said I do believe we have got into this comfort zone of using the media to reach the people instead of working with them at grassroots level. I think this strategy must change. That is an error we need to rectify it.
Q: Finally, we are sad to note that during the past two years there has been a tendency towards inciting racial hatred especially against the minorities of this country. Why have your party and especially you being one of the most vocal MPs kept silent about it?
It’s a double edged sword. This issue can be manipulated in different ways and a lot of politicians are very careful in saying anything about it. I represent a District which has a vibrant minority community. I have made sure that in our areas none of this is tolerated. But yes I haven’t been vociferous about it because there is a certain element of doubt that has been created in this country that the UNP does not profess a Sinhala Buddhist ideology. I’m very careful because of this. I don’t want to jeopardize the party’s future. However, our party has designated a few people to speak on this matter. I totally condemn these brutal acts and unruly behaviour that we have seen against minorities and we condemn it with one voice. Even a fair number of government politicians are totally against this, but I personally feel that this is government-sponsored. I say this because it is the government which depends on these groups and it is only the government which will align itself with groups such as these. Again there is a huge issue regarding the rule of law, where certain groups openly discriminate against another. Sri Lanka has had a culture where all four major communities have lived in harmony for centuries if not millennia. This new trend is completely politically motivated and this government has to make sure that it stops. I agree that the UNP’s efforts to quell these unfortunate incidents are not adequate but that is because we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. We are worried that talking about this might hamper our electoral fortunes, but I agree that this is something that we need to speak against and condemn.
Having said all this, I think that the people are wise. If you consider this election, there was one extremist candidate, who openly said he did not want the votes of the minorities and he ended up being resoundingly defeated. The Sinhala Buddhist majority do not accept this sort of discrimination and that is why I believe that our people our wise. These acts are a bad example on our kids, the younger generation who will be influenced by these things. We don’t want our younger generation to grow up nursing hatred towards one another.