- UNP Settles Internal Strife
Last Thursday was Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 62nd birthday. It was yet early morning when he received a telephone call from President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He first wished Ranil for securing his leadership position of the UNP at the Working
Committee meeting held the day before.
Secondly, he wished him a happy birthday. Ranil was in a hurry to finalise his leadership position before his birthday. Some say that this decision was based on astrology. It is whispered that it is not such a good time, for Ranil after his birthday.
Astrologers had predicted that last Monday was favourable for Ranil. Sajith was in Hambantota after the mini elections. Though all the mini electorates were lost, the UNP had gained votes when compared with the last general election. Even in the kingdom of Rajapaksa, that is Beliatta, the UNP had increased it’s percentage. UNP which was in third place prior to this election in Tissamaharama had pushed one place up at this election. The UNP lost the Tangalle Municipal Council by a mere 100 votes. It is in this electorate that “Carlton”’ the President’s ancestral abode is situated.
With Hambantota being developed akin to a capital city and despite the meetings of Sajith being targeted for assault, even government MPs congratulated Sajith for his performance. He was in Hambantota during the weekend. Some senior UNPers called him about the forthcoming Working Committee meeting and advised him that the leadership issue should be sorted out without a contest. “Your father told JR that unless there is consensus he would not accept the party leadership nor be the nominee for President.” Later, JR was able to get the agreement of Lalith and Gamini. “Ranil is on the way out but you are to take over sometime. It is upto you to keep the unity within the party,’’ the seniors said.
Ready for elections
Ranil’s office was quick to inform the Working Committee members no sooner the mini election results were received that a meeting would be called on March 12. Sajith on hearing this inquired from General Secretary Tissa Attanayake whether this sudden meeting would discuss the new office bearers to the party. Attanayake was clear and assured that such discussion would not take place but the election results would be the focus. He also added that a separate date would be set aside to discuss the new office bearers.
Sajith therefore informed his supporters that there was no need to canvass as this meeting was for other purposes. Sajith was to then receive a call. The caller said though the agenda for this meeting had no such mention, Ranil was to take up the leadership issue at the tail end of the meeting. He was told that Ranil was even preparing to go for an election on this issue post haste. The caller warned him to come prepared for an election and if he was to object, plans were underway to show through the media that it was a defeat for him. Even at that stage Sajith said that such a thing would not happen as Attanayake had assured him otherwise.
Ranil wants election on day one
Accordingly on the day Sajith’s group noticed that the agenda did not state anything on the election of office bearers. But, towards the tail end of the meeting Sajith’s group were disturbed at a statement made by Ranil. Ranil had said that according to the new Party Constitution all office bearers have to be elected and that he would be contesting for the leadership and if there were any other names, those should be nominated at this instance. This led to Sajith’s Group looking at each other in amazement. Sajith was quick to ask what the hurry was to elect new officials.
“We came today to discuss the results of the mini elections. Even the Agenda does not state that this issue would be taken up. Besides the constitution states that issues should be settled with consensus and if it is so, why are you in a hurry to hold elections?” Sajith queried. Ranil was in no mood to alter his position.
“Why can’t we hold an election? We will have an election now. We must finish this today,’’ said Ranil. Vajira Abeywardene, Palitha Range Bandara and Ranjan Ramanayake spoke in support of Ranil’s proposal. They too were of the view that this issue should be finalised at this meeting.
Sajith was not ready to accept such. He felt it would lead to the division of the party. He requested 48 hours to discuss this issue with his group. After such discussion he would inform if he was going to contest or come to a consensus. Ranil was not ready to yield. He wanted to finish the issue, then and there. Even the seniors within the party were not too happy at this inflexibility of Ranil. They said that a reasonable time frame should be given for Sajith’s Group to have a discussion and it would be very unfair not to do so.
UNP Parliamentary Group
Accordingly 24 hours was given and the meeting was fixed to recommence on Tuesday 22nd at 5 p.m. But, according to plan the next day the newspapers dished out that Sajith was afraid to run against Ranil. Some stated that Sajith withdrew in the face of Ranil’s onslaught. Sajith’s Group felt that all the adverse news was being handled through one source.
Therefore, Sajith’s Group decided to come to some consensus and in the event of being unable to do so to contest as a last resort. Some seniors were critical of the way Ranil handled the situation. “We do not endorse the way Ranil handled this, but you have a long way to go within this party. Do not get into a confrontation that would divide the party. Try to come to some consensus and we will support it fully,’’ said the senior members in unison. Sajith informed them that he was ready to contest whether he won or lost, but the seniors urged him not to do it but to accept a position with full powers and that they would support such a move.
Tuesday the 22nd was a day when Parliament met. Therefore as usual the parliamentary group met at 10 a.m. Since Ranil was ready to contest that day and work towards an election, the meeting was charged. At that meeting MPs Dayasiri Jayasekara, Thalatha Athukorala and Sujeewa Senasinghe were of the opinion that the party cadres at grassroot level wanted Sajith as the leader and this sentiment should be taken seriously. Each time Sujeewa spoke Ranil disturbed him. But Sujeewa spoke undeterred and said all he needed to before the Parliamentary Group.
“Why can’t we speak of issues that concern us. We are also MPs. This is the forum for that. There are hundreds of thousands of party supporters being victimised. We go on losing election after election. Yet we are not allowed to speak. Even Gaddafi of Libya is better than this,’’ said Sujeewa in conclusion. Thalatha spoke thereafter. She said that a group had made a decision for the benefit of the party. Therefore Sajith had to be made the leader of the party. “It is ironic that high positioned persons within the government and those that crossed over were also involved in keeping Sajith out of the party leadership”, she said. Dayasiri speaking next said that though Ranil may win at the Working Committee meeting due to them being appointed by him, such victory would be facile. At ground level the overwhelming support is for Sajith.
One day to go
However by Tuesday morning Ranil’s office at Cambridge Terrace was made aware that the Sajith Group was getting ready for an election. Getting perturbed at this turn of events those close to Ranil began operations to bring about a settlement by way of consensus. It was around this time that Attanayake called Sajith and sought an urgent meeting with him. He invited Attanayake to meet him at his Royal Park residence. Attanayake met him accordingly and suggested that this issue be settled amicably.
“You have a special place in the party. Do not go for an election and spoil your future within the party. We will ensure a special place for you. You build yourself within the party. Do not go for an election now,” was Attanayake’s advice.
Sajith whilst agreeing that there should be unity within the party also added that the leadership had attacked him relentlessly and thereby disturbing the very unity he was speaking of.
“All that is water under the bridge. We will give you the position of Deputy Leader with special powers. We will add more later,’’ said Attanayake. Thereafter a discussion took place as to what powers would be granted. Attanayake made his way to Cambridge Terrace and apprised Ranil of this discussion and found Chairman of the UNP Gamini Jayawickreme Perera also present. The ensuing discussion was on what powers would be given to Sajith as Deputy Leader. It was decided, as Sajith requested, to allow him to head the Youth and Women’s groups of the party in addition to strengthening grass root level organisations, be involved in appointing office bearers together with the leadership and many more powers.
It was also decided to confer a new title as Deputy Leader of the Opposition in parliament. What was remarkable was that Ranil did not oppose any of these suggestions. He even went far as saying that these powers would be included in the party constitution. After reaching agreement with Ranil, both left to Parliament to meet with Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya.
They explained to Karu that Ranil had agreed to the appointment of Sajith with the attendant powers to bring about consensus. Karu explained that he was not hankering after positions and if the party unity is to be preserved, then these powers should be given to Sajith. Chairman Jayawickreme called Sajith in the presence of Karu and apprised him of the agreement. He also made a plea, “I am pleased to say that the Leader and the Deputy have agreed to grant you all the powers that you asked for. Please agree to this suggestion now and strengthen the party to take it forward and desist from an election”.
Though this was conveyed by telephone Sajith was not satisfied. “Mr Chairman, please place this before the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group in writing. There are many instances where such agreements have been made verbally. I require this in writing,’’ he said. Tissa too spoke to Sajith on the agreement but Sajith reiterated that he required a written document.
Agreement in writing
Before the Working Committee met there was another meeting at Thalatha’s house in Nugegoda. In attendance were some Working Committee members and parliamentary MPs loyal to Sajith. Whilst this meeting was going on Sajith received a call on his cellular. It was from Sirikotha. The caller informed him that ballot boxes were being prepared for a secret ballot at Sirikotha. Sajith was dumbfounded. After reaching an agreement why was it necessary to prepare for an election? He promptly called Tissa. Tissa appealed to Sajith to be calm. He said that those preparations were only in case that an agreement could be not reached. Sajith wanted the agreement in writing and faxed to him.
In any event this group got ready to meet any eventuality as they were in possession of a letter signed by 51 members of the Working Committee pledging their support to him. Though many tried to push him towards an election Sajith was not interested. ‘‘No. Lets keep that as our second option. If the agreement is broken then let’s look at that,’’ said Sajith. It was at this stage that a fax was received at Thalatha’s house with the powers that were to be conferred on Sajith. The group agreed that all what Sajith had asked for had been agreed to by Ranil. He passed the fax for all to read. They felt that if the powers that were to be conferred according to the fax are granted that there was no need to go for an election.
Thalatha, however, was not convinced. She felt though these conditions were agreed to, they should be ready for an election in the event there was any back tracking. “No, I am not worried. The last time I spoke I said I would contest for the leadership and Ranil simply looked at my face and did not say anything. Let us watch the situation and decide whether the need arises to go for an election,’’ said Sajith.
It was not as if others in the group did not have reservations. They said that agreements have been made in the past only to be broken. But Sajith had other ideas. “Once I start work to build up the party if others start to pull my leg I will make a decision then. I can relinquish all this. I agreed to this at the behest of the seniors. I can win an election within the party. The seniors are the people who agreed to grant me these powers. They will have to guarantee the functioning of the agreement. If such a thing happens, I will relinquish all powers and go amongst the people as before. Let us wait and see…’’ he said. All present wished Sajith and Ranjith Madduma Bandara gave the letter where 51 Working Committee members had pledged their support to Sajith and said, “Take it with you to the Working Committee.’’
Working Committee meeting
The government too had got embroiled in this situation and it was evident in the behaviour of some members. The President had given instructions to heads of state media to devote more time and space for this event. Accordingly, Rupavahini, ITN and the Lake House Group began a media blitz which preceded this meeting. They were also ready to target Sajith through the media. Siri Kotha security too was beefed up.
The UNP Working Committee meeting was held and as agreed upon the office bearers were elected uncontested. Ranil was elected as the leader unanimously and Sajith was made Joint Deputy with powers agreed upon. The other slot of Deputy was retained by Karu. Jayawickreme Perera was elected Chairman with Tissa Attanayake as Secretary and Senarath Kapukotuwa as Treasurer. With the meeting ending all gathered around Sajith to wish him well. Sajith came out of Siri Kotha and addressed the large gathering waiting eagerly for news. Over 200 policemen guarding the premises were witness to the large group of Sajith supporters outside Siri Kotha shouting “Sajithta Jayawewa”.
Those who were inside proceeded to leave in their vehicles. Some policemen arrested a few of Sajith’s supporters saying they had attacked some UNP MPs’ vehicles. Amongst those was Municipal Council Member from Kotte, Nayanajith. The police accused him of being part of a group that attacked MP Harsha de Silva’s vehicle. Even though Harsha de Silva himself proceeded to the police station to state that this group did not attack his vehicle, the law enforcement authorities failed to release them.
Most viewed Sajith’s action of not contesting the leadership as a defeat while others felt that he had won the hearts and minds of the seniors. He would also be consulted when the fresh Working Committee is constituted. Whilst overseeing the youth arm, women’s arm and the local body representatives, he could make certain that those who get into the Working Committee from those branches will not be hostile to him. He could then make certain that in a future Working Committee his stake for the leadership would materialize without an election. This could be his plan B.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s breakfast meeting
Friday, March 25 morning, the President invited the media to a breakfast meeting. Ariyaratne Dombagahawatte asked him if he was not somewhat threatened with Sajith assuming the Deputy position in the UNP. Rajapaksa was all smiles when he said that Sajith had sidelined all the seniors such as Ranjit Atapattu, Ananda Kularatne, Dr. P.M.B Cyril and he would do so with others now. He had also a word of praise for Ranil stating that he is a master strategist and could not be defeated ever as the leader of the UNP. He added that it was Ranil Wickremesinghe who had supported and protected Ranasinghe Premadasa when the impeachment motion was brought against him. “To be a leader one needs to display leadership qualities and one quality would be gratitude. One, which clearly, Sajith Premadasa does not have,” the President had quipped.