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Majority prefers Ranil to remain:

Sajith considers Ranil a precious resource



Tissa Attanayake

While the UNP is in the doldrums with a full internal crisis over its leadership and divided into two factions, the majority of UNPers still want its present leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to retain his post.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer, UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake agreeing that the UNP has divided into two groups, confirmed that majority of UNPers prefer Ranil Wickremesinghe to remain in the party.

"This was endorsed not only by me and others but also by Sajith Premadasa. At a recent party convention, Sajith has said that Ranil is a precious resource to the UNP and he should remain with the party", he said.

Attanayake, who said that he was not a Ranil sympathizer and does not idolize personalities, said the UNP could not hide the popular secret that its split into two.

He said the UNP was putting all its energies to give a fresh breath to the party and to keep it intact.

Explaining its reform process that needs to be finalized before April 12, the party's future and facing the forthcoming local government polls, he said the UNP would become a strong political party under reforms, soon.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: How successful is the Grama Charika program? Is the UNP winning back grassroots support?

A: Grama Charika was launched by the UNP as a program to reach the grass roots level. All UNP leaders will go to villages campaigning for the party. The main objective is to get the support of the villagers, religious leaders, social workers and others in each village.

This is an important program as a large number of UNPers will enter the villages and this will boost the interest of people to join the campaign. We do this to boost their interest and have carried out four Grama Charika programs since last November. The campaign has been curtailed due to Local Government (LG) polls.

Q: Do you agree that still the UNP is far away from the ordinary people?

A: Yes, we have to do a lot to take the party back to its glorious past. I don't think that we can win the hearts and minds of people completely through Grama Charika. But when compared to other political campaigns to reach the grass roots, this has proved successful so far. Parliamentarian Sajith Premadasa led a similar campaign from Kundasale and it proved popular among the people. I agree that there are several lapses in the party which need to be corrected, give a fresh breath to the party.

Q: The Budget was defeated in several local bodies controlled by the UPFA. Do you think the UNP could take advantage of this situation and win more local bodies at the upcoming elections?

A: The main reason for the government to get defeated at the Budget in several local government institutions is that it has breached the trust of people by its broken promises. The government gives various reasons, but according to what we see, people don't trust the government. The government's popularity has receded.

At the beginning, the government told us that Local Government polls would be held under the ward system. As the main Opposition political party we had discussed the issue with the Ministers - Dinesh Gunawardena and Basil Rajapaksa. We have reached consensus with them and tabled a Act related to this issue on January 4.

But why did the government suddenly announced LG polls? There are some reasons for doing so. One is the budgets of some Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabahas were defeated and the government got a signal.

As the government is loosing at grass roots level the UNP can tap that vote base to make the party popular among the villagers.

Q: Have you chosen more young candidates, especially women, for the local elections?

A: The party organizers are instructed to increase opportunities for women to contest at the forthcoming polls as the majority of voters in Sri Lanka are women. But the problem is women are not interested in taking part in politics. Yes of course, under the present election system, we have to allocate 40 percent for youth.

Q: What is the present position of UNP's leadership struggle?

A: Under party reform recommendations the UNP has to appoint a new leader and the members of the executive committee. It was mentioned in the report that reforms should be effected within 120 days after releasing the report. The party needs to complete the initial requirements of the reforms.

One is appointing of new office bearers, second the executive committee members and third is appointment of other committees proposed by the reform committee. We were in the process of implementing those recommendations but unfortunately the process got slow due to the forthcoming elections. The executive committee agreed to implement the recommendations after the polls.

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith, both agreed to commence the process once the LG polls are over and also to implement the recommendations before April 12. We have only 30-days after the elections to bring reforms to the UNP.

Q: Depending on the party's performance at the local elections, what will be its party's immediate priorities?

A: The UNP's main intention is to win the LG polls as this is the best election that people can give a strong message to the government, which gave heaps of promises including reducing the cost of living.

The government promised to give relief to those who were affected by the war and also to those who patiently supported it to win the war. It promised to increase the salaries of government employees.

Our priority in this election campaign is to educate people at grass roots level about the truth and the country's present crisis situation.

We are doing a door-to-door campaign.

Q: Will you be able to elect a new leader immediately after the polls?

A: Yes, it is in our constitution. Under the new constitution a new leader will be appointed and as I said before we have only 30 days to bring changes. The UNP has not only to appoint the party leader but all other posts like deputy leader, assistant leader and national organiser need to be filled April 12.

Q: Do you think having a new leader will solve all the problems faced by the party?

A: No, I don't think that appointing a new leadership can bring the party to a new era. It alone can't solve the issues. The truth is UNPers don't want to have internal fights. There are diverse opinions about the party leadership and we have to listen to their views too.

The UNP has democracy within the party.

Q: Do you believe that the party needs a new leader to take the UNP forward?

A: What I can say is, according to the party reform recommendations a new leader should be appointed. The responsibility for appointing the new leader lies on the hands of the executive committee and the parliamentary group. If they want a change then we have to honour their idea.

Q: What is your view on the leadership issue?

A: I have my views but as the General Secretary I have to give ear to the majority's views.

Q: You mentioned two factions - Ranil and Sajith groups?

A: Yes, we don't want to hide the truth, which is a popular secret in Sri Lanka. But still we believe that the party should not be divided and we need these two groups to be united for the betterment of the party's future. I believe we should be united despite all our differences.

The majority is of the view that Ranil should be in the party and this was endorsed not only by me and others but also by Sajith. At a recent party convention, Sajith has said that Ranil is a precious resource to the UNP and he should remain with the party.

However, there are different views among the UNPers who say Ranil should retire. Others say the party needs both of them. I think under party reforms the UNP will get a fair outcome on the leadership issue.

Q: Will Ranil Wickremesinghe come to a compromise with Sajith?

A: Several senior UNPers have discussed the issue with the groups concerned. They have discussed the issue with Sajith and also with Ranil. Then Ranil and Sajith had a separate discussion on the issue and discussions are still going on. Sajith has recently requested the UNP to appoint a group to discuss the issue.

We will appoint a committee comprising two or three senior UNPers to discuss the issue soon. They will first have a discussion with both and reach a solution. They will look into the possibility of solving the issue through discussions or having a secret ballot.

Q: How can you plan for the election when there is no unity in the party?

A: No, we are not divided where the forthcoming elections are concerned. We are fighting together to win the polls and we believe we have a strong voter base. Both groups agreed at the executive committee to face the elections together. We do not want to take the internal crisis of the party to the people. The UNP will contest at the LG polls as one unit.

Q: You have recently told the media that there would be no new UNP leader other than Ranil after April 12?

A: I think they have misquoted me. I never made such a statement. I am not the sole authority to decide on a new leadership and as I said before the authority to appoint a new leader is with the executive committee and the parliamentary group. They will decide and appoint a good leader.

Q: Some say that you are a Ranil sympathizer. How true is this claim?

A: I don't idolize personalities. I am a strong UNPer. I am in Parliament for over 23 years and I have worked with several party leaders - J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunge, Ranil Wickremesinghe. I do not belong to any group and as the General Secretary of the UNP I have to work closely with Ranil.

Q: What is the strategy for spearheading the LG polls campaign?

A: We want more voters to cast their votes at the LG polls. There was a low voter turn out at the last Presidential and General Elections.

Due to some reasons, there was a considerable reduction in UNPers who came to cast their votes. What we saw was after the presidential elections people lost their interest in casting their votes and this time we have to attract them to polling booths.

Q: Is the UNP going to have any alliances with other political parties to contest the election? Are any discussions under way?

A: The UNP had alliances during the previous elections. When we analyse the outcomes of each election, where we had alliances, the UNP was at the loosing end. Senior UNP politicians and organisers often complain of the danger of entering into such alliances. Members of the other party which had an alliance with the UNP, after wining the polls crossed over to the government. In the North and the East the situation is worse and Tamil and Muslim UNPers have cautioned the UNP to have a mechanism when entering into alliances.

The UNP has now taken a decision to contest elections from the UNP and use 'elephant' as the symbol. It will not change even it we enter into alliances.

Q: It was said that non-party candidates will not be accommodated on the UNP ticket unless they obtain party membership first?

A: Yes, if any party or a person wants to contest at the elections on the UNP ticket, they have become members of the UNP. We have taken this decision as we are unable to take disciplinary action against those who cross over when they are not UNPers as they still belong to another political party. The examples are Minister Rauf Hakeem and MP Sri Ranga. They contested under the UNP and crossed over to the government later.

They became MPs because of the UNP. We have sacrificed the chances of UNPers contesting elections because of them. But the ultimate result was that they crossed over to the government.

 

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