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Sajith to be UNP Deputy Leader?

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When the UNP’s seniors committee appointed to look into party reforms met last week, they at last finalized the criteria for appointing a deputy leader and an assistant leader. The criteria have not been put to the working committee yet for approval.

But broadly speaking the four main criteria agreed on are as follows:

1. He should be a sitting member of parliament, and he should have been in parliament for at least six years.

2. He should be a sitting member of the working committee and he should have been in the working committee for at least 3 to 5 years.

3. The person appointed would assist the leader in his work and not try to supercede the party leader.

4. The appointee should, in and out of parliament, spearhead the campaign against the government; and he cannot be someone who hunts with the hound and runs with the hare.

If one looks at these criteria, they seems to be clearly designed to keep S.B.Dissanayake out as he is not a sitting member of parliament. A few weeks back, this seniors committee met and decided that ‘seniority’ would be a major criteria in appointing the deputy leader. This made many people believe that what was meant by ‘seniority’ was something like having been in parliament for 15 or more years. This gave everyone the impression that Wickremesinghe was preparing to appoint one of the doddering old seniors in the UNP as deputy leader. But now, the seniors committee seems to have dispensed with the requirement of seniority. Having been six years in parliament and around three to five years in the working committee cannot be deemed to be ‘seniority’. One wonders why the threshold was brought so low. Given the position that Wickremesinghe is in, this cannot be to appoint one of his favourites as deputy leader.

Rukman Senanayake

The distinct possibility is that Sajith Premadasa could be appointed as deputy leader. The criteria fits him more than anyone else. Even criteria number three fits him because he has never tried to oust the leader and has never been associated with any of the numerous rebellions that have racked the UNP in the past decade, even though there may have been some sparring between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa in the past. As far as groups go, Premadasa has been somewhat of a loner, not being associated with any of the cliques in the UNP. It could be that the UNP leader is trying to use Premadasa’s popularity among the rank and file of the party for his own benefit.

Premadasa has managed to maintain a private welfare programme for the past several years whether he was in power or out, and his father’s name evokes memories of better days in the minds of most UNPers. Even though this lowering of the seniority criteria has in fact brought Premadasa into the picture, there’s nothing to prevent Wickremesinghe from appointing someone else if he gets cold feet. It was party chairman Rukman Senanayake’s name that was most often mentioned in relation to the deputy leader’s post, but last week, he gave an interview to the Daily Island where he said that he was prepared to work under anybody and that SB and Sajith were undoubtedly the two most popular individuals in the party.

When the UNP working committee met last week, Kurunegala district parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekera raised a question regarding statements made by Rukman Senanayake and Lakshman Seneviratne to the press and declared that either UNP should join the government straightaway or confront them head on. Jayasekera had raised the same issue earlier at the UNP parliamentary group meeting as well. Jayawickreme Perera said that it was important for the party leader, general secretary and the others to discuss the stands to be taken on various issues and to make the party stand known.

Speaking at the working committee, Jayasekera said that if some people were trying to make ‘balanced statements’ then he too will make balanced statements in the future. Jayasekera, said that while it is the LTTE that killed Janaka Perera, the government paved the way for the assassination by not providing security. He said that the roads in Colombo were being closed for Karuna Amman to travel in safety but Janaka Perera had no protection . He had also questioned why members of the UNP were talking about ‘Indian invasions’ and he accused Lakshman Seneviratne and Rukman Senanayake of having washed the dirt off the government.

Senanayake had replied to the matters raised by Jayasekera and said that while it is unforgivable that the government consistently refused to provide security to Janaka Perera, the party should not gloss over the fact that the LTTE assassinated him. Senanayake reminded all those present that it was the LTTE that had wiped out the entire leadership of the UNP, including Ranjan Wijeratne, Premadasa, Lalith Athulatmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and many others.

When Athulathmudali was done away with, everyone put the blame on Premadasa and the real culprits then killed Premadasa as well. Senanayake warned that this misguided rush to put all the blame on the government for assassinations done by the LTTE will endanger Wickremesinghe’s life as well, because the LTTE may do away with him in order to have the blame foisted on the government. Everyone in the working committee listened to Senanayake in silence.

Last week, Senanayake was not the first to warn Wickremsinghe to be careful. The chief incumbent of the Sarananda Pirivena also warned Wickremesinghe to be careful.

Last week, Rukman Senanayake in an interview to the Island said it was the LTTE that killed Janaka Perera, and that had anyone cared to ask him, as the chairman of the party, he would have said so point blank. He stressed that terrorism must be met militarily and that the UNP should support the government in this. It was plain speak by the party chairman for which Senanayake must be commended. Of course nothing has yet come from the investigation of the murder. It must be remembered that the Anuradhapura police, among those investigating, watched Dr. Johnpulle’s house being burned down without lifting a finger. They may be off the hook because both Dr. Johnpulle and his wife died with Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera.

The UNP, rightly or wrongly, has been suspected of following a policy of appeasement towards the LTTE. This is why even the high cost of living made no dent in the government’s popularity. The public saw no acceptable alternative in a situation where the UNP was seen to be incapable of dealing with the problem of terrorism. But statements like that of Senanayake will make the public look at the UNP in a new light. The UNP leader himself, realized the disadvantage that the UNP was in, which is why at last year’s J.R.Jayewardene commemoration, he mooted the need to drop the UNP’s federalist stance and the need to renegotiate the ceasefire in terms of current realities.

But these points never became an explicit part of UNP policy and to this date the UNP remains in the minds of many members of the public the party of appeasement and the party of capitulation to the west. Hitherto, all attempts made to change the UNP’s image has failed. But Senanayake’s statement may help turn the tide if the UNP acquiesces in it. What Rukman said was obviously not meant to change UNP policy , but were prompted by the need to give a clear answer to a pointed question.

Last week the UNP held a one day workshop for electoral organizers of the Uva, Southern, Western and Eastern Provinces who are not MPs. Tissa Attanayake spoke on the future course of action of the party, Kabir Hashim spoke on the collapse of the economy, Palitha Range Bandara spoke on the present state of the war, and Lakshman Kiriella spoke on the corruption and waste in government under the Rajapakse regime. For any UNP audience to be really happy, it has to hear that the economy is on the verge of collapse, that the government is losing the war, and that corruption is at its height. Every opposition party, even in the less desperate West, needs to hear that the government is not doing well, in order to be really happy.

In the US, it was to the advantage of the Democratic Party that the USA did not fare too well in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Similarly, in Britain, it was vital for the Conservatives that the Labour governments led by Tony Blair and latterly Gordon Brown should emerge with egg on their faces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Every democratic opposition party has to hope for the worst for the country under their opponents, but without making this too obvious to the general public. This essential manoeuvre, which most political parties the world over manage to do without much trouble, is an almost in-surmountable obstacle for the UNP. Therein lies its problem.


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