United National Party Parliamentarian Kabir Hashim who once served as a mediator between the two fractions now says it is the responsibility of the three leaders to take the party cadre out of the mess they themselves created.
Hashim asserts that leaders should be able to resolve the leadership crisis amongst themselves without pushing the party members into making a decision at a vote. However, he stresses that there must be a leader who everybody respects and follows. “If the majority of the people come together on a decision, then that decision should be respected and based on that there must be a final settlement,” he points out.
Hashim further explains that Karu Jayasuriya is being looked at as a moderate and has been able to bring everybody together. “At this moment that’s great. The important thing is not to break up into groups but to ensure all are together. We need our numbers together,” he notes.
Following are excerpts:
Q: What is happening inside the UNP?
A: The UNP got some breathing space a few months ago when things came to a climax. At a Working Committee meeting, a new Constitution was adopted. Without going for any kind of election for the leadership, the main positions of the party were decided by consensus.
Unfortunately, due to some misunderstandings, some appointments were not made in line with the Constitution. Once again there was internal bickering. Right now it has come again to a head. However, we can see everybody working together to resolve the crisis without a major split in the party. Though the matter looks serious on the surface, the majority of the party stalwarts will somehow bring some kind of compromise and settlement for the betterment of the party.
Q: Sajith Premadasa, tipped as the next UNP leader, has stepped down and is now promoting Karu Jayasuriya to take over the leadership. How do you view this move?
A: Even though I am an elected representative and a card carrying member of this party, like most of the UNPers in the country I too feel that this is not about the name of the leader. There must be a leader who everybody respects and follows. If the majority of the people come together on a decision, then that decision should be respected and based on that there must be a final settlement.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is a good leader. Karu Jayasuriya himself is also a good leader. Sajith Premadasa is a good leader too. There is no shortage of good leaders in the UNP. The issue is about the unity amongst these leaders. I think amongst them they have to decide who the good leader is for this time. Is it Wickremesinghe, Jayasuriya or Premadasa? Accordingly, they should be able to resolve it amongst themselves.
We don’t want to be pushed into making a decision at a vote; that’s a tough choice. We are hoping that the three of them will be able to discuss it and that one of them can take it over. Like I said, all three are capable leaders and I hope that they will be able to think properly and make a decision.
Jayasuriya is being looked at as a moderate. That’s one of the main pluses. He has been able to bring everybody together. At this moment that’s great. The important thing is not to break up into groups but to ensure all are together. We need our numbers together. If this party is going to pose a serious challenge to the Government and swing back to victory in the upcoming provincial council elections and then the general elections, then I think in the next few months this leadership crisis must be definitely done with and the party must come up with a new vision; a new programme of work and a proper leadership. There is no time to waste. This is the time. This has to be resolved now.
Q: Don’t you think Sajith Premadasa has betrayed the leadership struggle once again?
A: I don’t want to see it as a betrayal. As I told you, when we had the first crisis few months ago, in fact Premadasa accepted the Deputy Leader post without going for an election and creating a division. It was a commendable sacrifice. If Wickremesinghe and Premadasa worked together, it would have been an excellent situation. Unfortunately that did not work out.
Wickremesinghe, Jayasuriya and Premadasa should talk this over and work out a solution that will be best for the party. It is in their hands to get us out of this mess that they themselves created. Since they will not put their heads down together, the party cadre is getting impatient.
Now more and more members who were on the sidelines and watching the situation before are getting directly involved and beginning to put pressure on all three leaders. We are fed up of this. We don’t want to wait like this forever. People like me, who watched and thought ‘there will soon be sanity and they will sort this out,’ are beginning to think ‘they are not going to end this; let’s get involved’. That’s why I said in the short term, in one way or the other, we will sort this matter.
Q: How optimistic are you that Karu Jayasuriya will be able to restore the party and unite it once again?
A: I am not saying that Jayasuriya can do this by himself or that Wickremesinghe for that matter can do it by himself or Premadasa. This has to be a team effort. The UNP has a lot of smart young people who have potential capacity. If Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya can talk together and divide functions and duties and work out some programme together and with Premadasa’s popularity in the country, this combination will be excellent! Jayasuriya right now has been able to bring the Sajith fraction and the Ranil fraction together to some extent. That in itself is a good sign.
Q: But how can you have faith in someone like Karu Jayasuriya who once left the party along with 17 other members and joined the Rajapaksa administration?
A: It’s a tough question. At one point in time, great leaders like Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali broke away from the party. They did not join the Government but they formed a separate party. Lalith died but Gamini came back to take over as the Opposition Leader and the UNP presidential candidate; unfortunately before he became the party leader he too died.
The point is, when they left it didn’t mean that they actually deserted the UNP principles and policies. Most importantly, they didn’t leave because they loved the UNP less but circumstances forced them to do so. Perhaps Jayasuriya had his own reasons for leaving. It was a move people like us wouldn’t approve of, but when Wickremesinghe wanted him back in the party, Jayasuriya gave up his positions and titles and walked back into the UNP. That took a lot of courage. That move we felt was commendable. In that sense we can be confident that Jayasuriya will show consensus to the party.
Q: There is a procedure to change the party leadership. Why are you trying to do it only through the media?
A: Let me be very candid about this; there are moves to change the party leadership, there is a group who wants a change in the party leadership, there is a group who doesn’t want any change; they want Wickremesinghe to continue. The main fact is that Wickremesinghe is our leader. He is appointed so by the Constitution of the party and therefore he remains the rightful leader at the moment. No amount of pressure brought out by the media or people screaming will dislodge him in that sense.
The UNP is a democratic party based on democratic principles and if there is any change, it has to be done democratically. People still have the greatest respect for Wickremesinghe, therefore I come back to what I said earlier, that if at all this has to change, there has to be consensus amongst the majority of those people who have the right to vote.
At one time there was a set of party members, Parliamentarians and a few other members, who were agitating for a change mostly though the media; right now a lot of moderates who just kept aloof of the whole crisis are now getting engaged in the process of trying to settle the problem. They are not trying to create a coup or anything, but trying to intervene and bring these fractions together and make everybody sit and talk about it. If necessary, if at all, there have to be changes that will better the party – to do it in a civil manner in accordance with the Constitution of the UNP.
People still respect Wickremesinghe. We are hoping things will move in the next few weeks in that direction, where the party members and the seniors sit together with these leaders and work out a solution that goes in accordance with the rules of the UNP.
Q: How optimistic are you that the three leaders will reach a consensus within the next couple of months?
A: At the moment there are people talking with Wickremesinghe, Jayasuriya and Premadasa in parallel. They are trying to bring them together for discussions. There is so much visible dissent in and out about the current state of affairs. People are getting angry and fed up with everybody. I am sure that the pressure that is brought about will to an extent stir the party leaders to take some decision fast. One way or the other they will know that they cannot go on like this and there has to be some kind of change.
I also feel that in the next one or two months if there is no settlement, then of course it will have to get pushed to the next recourse, which is to go for a vote according to the party Constitution at the next convention. And that’s not too far away. Either way it will get settled. But in the long run if it goes for a vote, then it’s a hard way out.
If it goes to that long run solution, the other disadvantage for the party is that we have a few local government elections coming up in the next few weeks. By that time we wouldn’t have resolved the problem that will affect the party negatively. It is on that account that all the urgency and pushing for a solution in the short term is made. I feel there might be at least some kind of settlement in the short term. It can be done in the short term and we don’t have to wait until the next elections come around.
Q: What is your prediction about the upcoming Colombo municipal council election?
A: Basically even the performance at the earlier local government elections were bad – I would say that the main reasons for that was because of the internal issues in the UNP. There was so much of fighting. Because of these inside problems, the UNP cadre didn’t even go out and vote at the elections. Colombo and Kandy are two sure UNP councils; there is no doubt about it.
The UNP didn’t field a proper team last time and still an independent group got in. But if our guys don’t buckle up and sort this problem out before the campaign starts, then it’s going to be a challenge.
I do agree that if we don’t bury our differences, sort everything out in the short term and give the message that the UNP is now together, that the leadership crisis is now over and if the leaders don’t come together and say yes we have sorted it out and we will be doing it in a particular timeframe, definitely Colombo will also be a challenge.
Q: What measures have you taken to ensure that the UNP will not lose at the upcoming election?
A: We need to develop a campaign; we need to make proper partnerships with the different people who are going to work with all the different communities, who will be key voters in this election. The main thing is the issues alone that are around the people are enough for the UNP to come through.
This Government has been running the municipal council through a commissioner. If you go deep into the city, ordinary people who are the main voters of the Colombo municipality have been forcibly uprooted from their living quarters and thrown out like animals. People don’t even have the right to proper shelter and people living in the slum areas have no facilities; water and sanitary facilities are at the lowest level.
Q: The rebels have announced that they will nominate Imthiaz Bakeer Marker for the post of Colombo Mayor. Is this possible?
A: I cannot say anything about nominations because I am not empowered to do that. Usually the party has a Nomination Board and when the people apply, the Nomination Board selects the candidates. There are so many aspirants for the mayoral candidacy. Of course Imthiaz is one of the people who have been proposed. I wouldn’t speculate on anything until the Nomination Board makes the appointment.
Q: If Bakeer Marker is to contest for mayoral candidacy, will he receive the fullest support from the party?
A: Whoever is nominated for the position, whether it is Imthaiz or anybody, true UNPers would have to back the candidate. It doesn’t matter who the candidate is. We did that for General Sarath Fonseka. He was not even from our party, but when he became our presidential candidate we threw aside our differences and worked for him. It doesn’t matter who the candidate is, we will have to bury our differences and work for the victory of that candidate.
Q: How do you see the economic situation in the country?
A: The Government is pumping in huge amounts of money and showing the people that there is huge development. There is a lot of ‘concrete’ development in terms of roads being paved and bridges being built, but this is all on borrowed money. This is mostly because of elections in the north and east. When there was an election, lamp posts came up overnight, roads were paved and overnight fishing harbours were created.
All this was done to woo voters. These projects were not done with specific development targets. These are money, which was mostly wasted, because most of these roads works are not done according to standards. Likewise, this Government has spent massive amounts of money on white elephant projects. On the other hand, the Government is issuing dollar bonds and borrowing from the international market at very high interest rates.
Meanwhile, we see the Government talking about a policy of non privatisation. Because the Government is short of funds, it is trying to find money through privatisation. Prime lands around Colombo are being given to foreign companies at very cheap rates. We have seen islands that belong to our country being unconditionally sold to other governments or other countries. We have seen the Paper Corporation, one of the corporations this Government boasted was making millions of rupees in profit, which has now gone into total loss and is going to be privatised.
What I can assume is that the Government is trying to raise its capital by selling off State assets. Unfortunately, unlike when the UNP did that with a lot of transparency, this Government is doing things very secretly. That is dangerous and wrong. After the war we felt that there should be a trickledown of all the resources to the village level, but we find that all the wealth of the country is still put into unproductive resources and it is all centred around a certain group only.
Q: But economy related figures are doing well. Inflation is low and the Government recently issued two successful dollar bonds. How can you say the economy is in bad shape?
A: Inflation may be low compared to what it was a few years ago, but if you look at it on a month by month basis, inflation is actually going up. If you look at the measurement basis, it reflects the actual cost of living that has gone up in terms of an ordinary man’s expenditure. Therefore, most of the statistics have been questionable in the past few years.
Specialists have alleged that some of the statistics are not right. Figures can say a lot of things. For example, per capita income shows that it has been going up and the figure is around 2,300 dollars per head. As you look, the figure looks great. But if you disaggregate it and look at the per capita income per province, the figure is very low. In Sabaragamuwa where I live, the per capita income is only 530 dollars. All this wealth creation is in the Western Province.
How can you say the country is doing well? Just because the figures look good, it doesn’t mean we are doing well. You can have a 7% or 8% growth rate, you can say the economy is growing, but the growth is mostly dependent not on the productive resources but on Government expenditure. The Government borrows and pumps in large amount of money and then shows there is high growth rate. There is only one sector that is growing – the telecommunication sector – because huge investments are taking place in that sector. This doesn’t mean there is equal growth in the economy.
Q: Although you protested against appointing a Parliamentary select committee to solve the national issue, the Government is going ahead with the appointments. What are your views on this move?
A: The decision we made for not being involved in that process is quite right. When the war was going on, the Government was very elusive. They never updated the opposition on what was actually happening. As a result there are numerous allegations internationally. Now the Government has made statements in the last two years after the war, in different places; inside Sri Lanka and outside Sri Lanka.
In India there are many forums saying that Sri Lanka is going to give a political solution. At one time they were talking about the 13th Amendment. They have been making vague statements without even referring those things from the opposition. They went to India and said they will have the 13th Amendment plus, but they never discussed this matter in Parliament. Why on earth should we get involved and discuss the matter now?
First of all the Government must make a stand and come up with a proposal. Then it must be discussed in Parliament. After discussing in Parliament, which is the rightful place, which has the representation of the people, then it should go before the people. But before this is done, the Government goes and makes promises all over the world. Therefore the UNP has taken the right stand and if the Government is still going ahead with it, it will be just a one-sided affair. We will not support it.