- “We are not a party that is in the personal possession of a single individual” – Karu Jayasuriya
By Frederica Jansz
Q: How comfortable are you given that you now have to share the post of deputy leader with Sajith Premadasa?
A: I have always maintained that I will never hesitate to take any action necessary for the sake of the party and the people of our country. Mr. Premadasa along with other young leaders of the UNP represent the future of our party. It is only natural that they will gradually ascend the ranks of the party. Therefore I’m, very glad that the top party leadership has been invigorated with young blood. We need this new energy to make progress in the future.
Q: Has this not effectively robbed you of certain powers?
A: Power is not something that needs to be concentrated among a few selected individuals. The UNP is fortunate that it is spoiled for choice when it comes to leadership. We are not a party that is in the personal possession of a single individual or a ruling family. Therefore the UNP is a party that gives ample opportunity to up and coming leaders to show their grit. There are enough responsibilities to be shared among individuals and we have much work to do to live up to the expectations of our people.
The freedom-starved people of our country deserve a vibrant and effective opposition. We should not be held back from delivering on that promise due to any personal considerations. So I would say rather than being robbed of powers the deputy leadership of the party has been reinvigorated and energised to do a better job than before.
Q: You yourself are now relegated to a sharing of roles. What exactly are your current duties?
A: As mentioned earlier it is not a relegation but a new chapter in our party where a natural transition is taking place from one generation of leaders to another. Our common objective remains to make the UNP a credible option to take over government from this current dictatorial regime. It is therefore the collective duty of all UNPers to work towards this goal.
Q: What will your multiple tasks be together with Sajith Premadasa?
A: Mr. Premadasa has just been appointed as co-deputy leader and in due course we will discuss the responsibilities each of us will be assigned and as mature politicians we will have the ability to share responsibility and work towards a common goal. I want to reiterate that these are not nominal positions because there are enough tasks and responsibilities to be shared amongst the leadership as the UNP embarks on this path to victory. And it is not just for Sajith and myself but the entire party will be assigned tasks in which we will be expected to work in collaboration with each other in order to bring the UNP into power.
Q: Will this move unify the party or only further destroy it?
A: The local government election results prove that the UNP is far from destroyed, despite the fact that the elections were deliberately held only in government strongholds and the UNP contested on its own without creating alliances, facing an incumbent government with a two thirds majority and a virtually all-powerful executive presidency, we have gained more support since the last general election. When we faced the election, the UNP’s leadership questions had not been resolved. Now the Working Committee has agreed upon a hierarchy for the party leadership. The resolution of these issues and the decisions made will only serve to unify and galvanize the UNP.
The fact that the UNP solved the problem without going in to an all out contest, is an indication that all seniors and office-bearers of the party are still keen to work together. No matter how hard government forces attempt to create divisions within the party, in a crisis, the United National Party stands truly united. Whatever problems we might have within the party, my only appeal to all UNP members is that they ensure they do not become the pawns of external forces, such as the government, which will not hesitate to use its power and financial might to keep the UNP in a state of disarray. Let us not work to the agendas of those who seek to destroy us.
I am confident that none of us in the UNP will put ourselves before the best interests of the party. This is why I was not only willing to share the deputy leader post, but give it up if necessary in order to see a resolution to the leadership issues dogging the UNP.
Q: But how can change be effected under the continuing leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe?
A: It is crucial for everyone to bear in mind that the UNP is not a single individual or a single family. It is a political party and it has always done well because of sustained team effort and not because of a particular individual. All decisions are made together and not by a single individual.
Q: Nevertheless, there was a strident call for change because those in your party and the public believed under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe the UNP would only continue to slide. What is the difference now?
A: Change has already occurred. Sajith Premadasa is a deputy leader of the UNP. So it is a fallacy that change cannot be made under Mr. Wickremesinghe’s leadership. Now that the positions have been finalised with the exception of the national organiser position, we should start listening to the UNP’s grassroots support base and start working towards a UNP victory rather than seeking self-glorification. I think the time has come for all senior members of the UNP to not only start accepting the challenges we face but to also start making sacrifices for the greater good of our party. Then and only then will change truly come. The difference between the present government and the UNP is that there is room for everyone in the UNP and going forward, we are going to project ourselves as a team and not as individuals.
Q: Do you honestly believe that Ranil Wickremesinghe can ever at any stage be a serious contender to Mahinda Rajapaksa?
A: It is not a simple matter of whether one individual can be pitted against another. It is not a boxing match but a matter of national interest where the future of our country depends upon. It is the responsibility of the opposition to ensure that there is a smooth transition of leadership from one generation to another. When the time comes natural leaders will emerged to take over the necessary leadership positions. It is important here to see the contrast with the ruling regime.
The current ruling regime does not allow such opportunities for emerging leadership. Party and government power has been grabbed by a few individuals and one single family. Therefore the more troubling question is not who will contest against President Mahinda Rajapaksa but whether anyone else than a Rajapaksa will ever be allowed to face a UNP candidate. I am confident that in a free, fair and democratic race, not only Ranil Wickremesinghe but just about any member of the UNP can prove a serious contender to President Rajapaksa.
Q: But is this not the key issue? What hope is there in this context for the future of the UNP and those who support the party?
A: Anyone who understands the ground realities and accepts the fact that this is a game for distance runners, will realise that there is a lot of hope for the UNP and its party supporters because on a daily basis now the government’s popularity is on the wane. Slowly but steadily, the UNP is gaining momentum. There is hope therefore not only for supporters of the UNP but also for government members who are sick and tired of the way in which this country is being governed.
Q: When was the last time Ranil Wickremesinghe won an election? How many has the UNP lost under his leadership?
A: The question really is when was the last time a free and fair election was held in this country? Can you remember an election, since perhaps 2001, when the state media and resources were not shamelessly abused for propaganda purposes by the incumbents, when intimidation and thuggery did not determine result outcome and candidates were not intimidated and strong armed into defecting often in the throes of election campaigns?
The last major election resulted in the opposition candidate being incarcerated for the crime of daring to challenge the incumbent. In these conditions, no opposition candidate stands a chance. The government knows this and that it why it has moved to repeal the 17th Amendment and its safeguards by way of independent election and police commissions, replacing it with the 18th Amendment which allows for the strong arm of the incumbent executive to hold sway over all public institutions even in times of election. As an opposition firstly we have to take steps to change these conditions before we can start talking about election victories. Because until these circumstances are reversed, election results will never reflect the true mandate of the Sri Lankan people.
Q: Currently how much is the estimated vote-bank of the UNP?
A: I would prefer to comment only once a full assessment is done.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you currently face as co deputy leader of the UNP?
A: The challenges remain the same – whether I am co-deputy leader, sole deputy leader, a back-bencher or just a regular member of the UNP. My challenge remains the challenge facing the rest of Sri Lanka that believes that we need to save our nation from this dictatorial one family rule. It is not a personal endeavour undertaken by me, but a challenge confronting us all, if we wish to usher in a better day for Sri Lanka.
I have lived a long and content life and my conscience is clear that I have served my country to the best of my ability, as a soldier, diplomat and politician. It matters not whether I am bestowed with a lofty title, but that I do what is within my power to ensure that Sri Lanka is restored to its once proud democratic status and protected for the generations of the future.
Q: Why were you willing to compromise on this?
A: As I mentioned before I am ready to take up any position or sacrifice any position as long as it is in the best interest of the UNP. So I don’t see this as compromise, I see it as opportunity and a new beginning. The party must decide, collectively, on the best way forward. As a steward of the Grand Old Party, I will today and always, bend to the will of the majority towards the greater, common good.
Q: Does the constitution of the UNP allow for the post of co deputy leader?
A: If not, how and when will such a post be legalized?
Constitutional formalities will be finalised at a future convention and the Working Committee fully endorsed such action. The Working Committee already approved the appointment of additional deputy leader and Sajith therefore can now function in this capacity.