UNP leadership struggle rankles | Sunday Observer

UNP leadership struggle rankles

UNP MPs at a press conference at Opposition Leader’s Office  on Friday, aired their anger at leader Ranil Wickremesighe for not  heeding calls to step down before the next election after a crucial round of discussions failed at Sirikotha Headquarters on Thursday.
UNP MPs at a press conference at Opposition Leader’s Office on Friday, aired their anger at leader Ranil Wickremesighe for not heeding calls to step down before the next election after a crucial round of discussions failed at Sirikotha Headquarters on Thursday.

The meeting that was to be the final to resolve the leadership crisis of the United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe on Thursday at Sirikotha headquarters again wrapped up without a conclusion.

The MPs who were inflamed by the indifference shown by the leader and frustrated due to lack of progress to end the deadlock turned almost violent and slated Wickremesinghe and his team who later walked out of the meeting.

The MPs who support Sajith Premadasa’s leadership showed that they outnumber the others by holding a mock vote and endorsing that he should be made the next leader before the decisive parliamentary election in March or April.

Wickremesinghe has been firm at the Sirikotha meeting that he was willing to discuss the matter of a new leader by 2023 and not before that since he had been appointed to be the leader till 2024. The rebels have decided to abandon the party under Wickremesinghe and form a broad alliance to face the upcoming election. The discussions to this end is to continue over the weekend. The Sunday Observer spoke to two UNP parliamentarians, a veteran, former Minister and Kandy district UNP MP Lakshman Kiriella and a young member, former Minister and UNP MP for Badulla Harin Fernando on this issue.

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Working committee should decide on party leader - Lakshman Kiriella

Q. Did the MPs agree on anything on the leadership issue at the parliamentary group meeting on Thursday? Did you come to any conclusions as to how it should be resolved?

A. The meeting became unruly. Hence, the leader walked out of the meeting, and there was no proper vote yesterday.

With him, the party General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam also left. Without the party head and the secretary, you can’t hold a meeting.

What was held is a mock vote, you cannot call it a proper vote. However, the majority there voted for Sajith to be the leader. Members of Parliament cannot decide on the party leader.

The party leader has to be appointed by the working committee. And it must be confirmed at an annual convention.

If the majority of MPs don’t like the party leader, there is an issue. Unless the leader gets majority support from the UNP parliamentary group and the working committee, it’s difficult for the leader to continue in his position, that is the bottom line. I have told him that.

Q. Earlier, there was an agreement for a leadership council to select the next leader of the party. What happened to that proposal?

A. Some MPs opposed that proposal.

Some wanted to take a vote on that also. Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said if you ask for a vote for every proposal that comes up, then how can I run the party. He left the meeting at that point.

MP Ajith Perera got up and asked him to step down to facilitate the appointment of a new leader. Sujeewa senasinghe seconded it saying that they needed to appoint a young leader.

UNP leader Wickremesinghe did not respond to it.

Q. Why can’t you settle the internal crisis after the election which is only two months away?

A. This is the view of the moderate MPs. Both Ranil, Sajith and everyone must stand together and go for the election as a united front.

After the campaign, we can summon the working committee and an annual convention and decide a leader for the next five years.

We lost the Presidential Election badly. We should unite for the Parliamentary Election. The seniors of the party are generally of that view. But the others say there should be a leadership change before the election.

Q. When will you set in motion the election campaign? Are there any preparations to that end, given the that the UNP has to do a lot of damage control after the Presidential election defeat in November and the next crucial election is only two months away?

A. No, we have to sort out this problem first. There is another meeting of the UNP group scheduled on January 24. I told the leader to call a working committee meeting and settle this once and for all.

The Speaker will meet Leader Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa during the weekend, and they will discuss the matter of the leadership council further.

Q. Will there be any further action by the party against MP Ranjan Ramanayake?

A. It is in the courts now. The party has suspended his membership, and now it’s for the courts to take action.

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New alliance is only option - Harin Fernando

Q. What happened at the Thursday’s meeting?

A. At the meeting, various things were discussed, including political victimisation of party members. Then came to the topic of the party leader. Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said a new party leader is appointed till 2024, and there was no need to discuss the matter. But then everyone got up and aired their views.

Former Minister Ashoka Abeysinghe said there had been six leaders in the UNP. And the party had been in government for 30 years. During Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 25 years tenure at the helm, the party was in power for just six years. And he had never been the President.

Many members highly criticised this and asked him to step down to make way for a fresh leader. We emphasized that the party needed a new direction and highlighted the importance for him to make a honourable exit.

Within two months, there will be a crucial election, and we pointed out the need for the party to move on and do it fast. Those who spoke included Sarath Fonseka, Ajith P, Perera, Kabeer Hashim, Sujeewa Senasinghe, Nalin Bandara, myself and a few others. We were quite vocal.

When I figured that Ranil Wickremesinghe had no intention of stepping down, I mentioned that the new leader would be until 2025, to clearly put the case to rest. But he insisted on not granting a vote. Our effort was not to oust him, but to restore democratic principles within the party.

Sajith Premadasa has emerged as a people’s leader, and he should be given a chance to test the waters. His defeat in the last election was contributed by the Easter Sunday bombings and the backlash by Buddhists monks after the MCC debacle at the eleventh hour. Despite all that, he managed to secure over 42% of the votes. We believe that the defeat, in a way, is a blessing in disguise. Now we have got a chance to re-brand ourselves and start afresh democratically.

The vote at Thursday’s party was to decide between Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya as the leader of the party or whether the majority support the appointment of a Leadership Council to determine the new leader and put the matter to rest once and for all. We had four options. But the current leader said that some UNP MPs were not present, therefore it was not proper to have a vote.

At that point, MP Harsha de Silva stood up and raised a point and said of the 70 odd MPs in the group, all of them are not UNP MPs and two of them are in jail. Those who opposed the view argued that to win a vote, 50 of the UNP group MPs needed to support that decision. It meant 39 MPs.

But he backed out and said this discussion is over, and we will discuss this later after meeting Karu Jayasuriya. And I will let you all know the outcome by next week. We started to protest, and then he came back and sat down. Later for about one hour, the meeting was disrupted by shouting, there was utter chaos there. We refused to leave the premises until he gave us a vote.

I said if we cannot get a democratic vote to solve the prevailing deadlock within the party, I’m going to return my party portfolio and leave the party.

Ranil walked out, and we had a meeting afterwards chaired by Sajith Premadasa. Ravi Karunanayake was also there. Then we had a vote among ourselves and 52 members voted that Sajith should be the leader of the party. If the party did not wish to compromise, we will go ahead with a new alliance.

Friday, we had a meeting at the Opposition Leader’s office. The leaders of New Democratic Front constituent parties United National Front Champika Ranawaka, Rajitha Senaratne, Mano Ganesan, Rauff Hakeem, P. Digambaram all agreed to support the alliance led by Sajith Premadasa.

Q. Why can’t you face the election as a united front and then settle the internal issue subsequently? Don’t you think these actions are putting a lot of strain on the party which has already suffered a bad election in November 2019?

A. What we put out is not our own voice. It is not the voice of the parliamentary group alone. The party mechanism at the grassroots is not willing to work under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. We have invited him to be a Patron in the party, but not to hold on to power stubbornly.

We are also trying to form a massive network with our local Pradeshiya Sabha and Provincial Council members and organisers to re-brand ourselves before we meet the voters. And we have decided to hold a massive rally against the victimization of UNP parliamentarians and party supporters who have been targeted and taken into custody unfairly.

There is a situation where vegetable prices have skyrocketed so much so that vegetable stalls are now being looted. The government has hoodwinked the masses and using the case of Ranjan tapes to sweep everything under the carpet.

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