An Incisive Interview with Ranil Wickremasinghe
Question: Who, or what, was responsible for the numerous defeats that the UNP had to suffer for the past fifteen years or more? We are, of course, aware that this losing trend began before you became the party leader. But after you took over the party, it has continued ... ?
Answer: This party has suffered two major splits from which it has taken time to recover. The first one was in 1951, when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike broke away. With that we lost our position as the major party in the country. It was only in 1977 that we managed to regain our former position. We were, of course, in government in between in 1960 for a very short while because the other side was divided but we lost again once they united. Then in 1965, we had a narrow victory. But it was only in 1977 that we regained our predominant position, which we held until 1993. But, by that time events had taken their toll on the party. The communal riots of 1983, the conflict in the north, the uprising in the south, and finally the impeachment motion against president Premadasa.
The number of votes we got at the 1994 parliamentary election were far less than the votes president Jayewardene had received at the 1982 presidential election. We came back to the 1982 position in terms of votes only in 1999, but by that time, the number of voters in the country had increased. We were unlucky in that election – if not for the assassination attempt on Chandrika it was becoming a close run election, and I felt I had a lead. In 2001 we won, but had the JVP and the PA come together, we would have been in a minority. In 2004, they came together and we lost some votes to the Hela Urumaya, but we picked up again by about a million votes in 2005, and had the Tamils been allowed to vote we would have won. To pick up a million votes within about 15 months was a great achievement. Then again events changed and with the end of the war, President Rajapaksa went for elections early because he thought if he held on for two more years, he might not be able to make it. But, the situation will change, and we have to plan for that. It is now a new fight in the post war scenario. I think we are all responsible for what happened, the set backs as well as the victories.
Q. It may be the case that the UNP missed the target narrowly at the presidential election of 1999 and again in 2005. The latter instance was very close fought election and had the LTTE allowed the Tamils to vote, one never knows which way the cookie would have crumbled. Despite that, there is this feeling that if a party leader loses for whatever reason, that he should resign ...?
A. After 2005, I offered to move away but the reaction of the party was different, that’s why I stayed. This time also after the presidential elections, I told the Working Committee that I was willing to step down, but the Working Committee said I should stay on. After a setback, the leader should offer to go and allow the party to decide. I have never moved away from that.
Q. With each defeat that the party suffers under your stewardship, there is a toll on credibility. Are you conscious of the self-fulfilling nature of that process?
A. Defeat takes a toll. But, credibility is a thing that comes back. All I am concerned with now is how to change the party to meet the new situation and I am dependent on what the grassroots says. I have never tried to hang on. I asked the Working Committee about what I should do and if they felt I was a hindrance it was best for me to move out before the Reforms Committee started their work. But they said no, and I stayed on.
Q. If the Working Committee asked you to stay on, after 2005, that was to lead the party. But, when it came to the last presidential election, you took a back seat and the UNP backed Sarath Fonseka’s candidacy. Now that too brings down the credibility of the party for not having someone to field at a presidential election. Also it was a major mistake. People like myself could see a mile away that he was not going to get what you got in 2005, and I said so in print. So how could the party make such a miscalculation?
A. Generally, there was the feeling that we should have a common candidate at that election. The JVP had said that they were willing to support a common candidate and that view was also prevalent in the UNP. Actually there were two views in the UNP with some saying that there should be a UNP candidate and others saying that there should be a common candidate. I asked them for their views and a lot of them were for the common candidate. I felt then that we should go ahead and back the common candidate.
Q. But you are the leader of a political party in a democracy. You are also a prominent member of the International Democratic Union. So you can’t be a passive onlooker in this. Yet you fielded a man like Sarath Fonseka who is fresh out of the military and has not been house-trained into the ways of democracy. You heard the things he said on the public platform. You saw the damage that he did to the entire common Opposition and to himself as well with such pronouncements. So how is it that you countenanced the fielding of such an individual at a presidential election?
A. We disagree on the assessment of Fonseka. But I don’t want to talk about that now. We had taken an earlier decision which I forgot to mention, that the executive presidency should be abolished. This had been discussed even with Prof. Tissa Vitarana. So, we felt that if the common candidate was getting everyone together to go in immediately for parliamentary elections after abolishing the executive presidency with the common candidate not exercising the powers of the executive presidency for more than a few months, that would be okay.
If the UNP put forward its own candidate, the votes would have been split between us and the JVP, which was also asking for the abolishing of the executive presidency. The other point was that because of this decision to abolish the executive presidency, had the UNP contested and won, I would have had to step down to contest the prime ministership. This was a major factor which made me think that if we were going to abolish the executive presidency anyway, and there was an agreement with the JVP and many other groups to run a common candidate, and the winner would not be called upon to run a government but would have to form an all party government to call for parliamentary elections, it would be the party that won the parliamentary election that would govern the country.
Q. You seem to seriously believe that had Fonseka been elected president he would have abolished the executive presidency and relinquished power… ?
A. They would have had to immediately go in for parliamentary elections. There was no way of putting that off. The parliament could have gone on only until the 22nd of April. So, we had to dissolve parliament and the new parliament would have to be elected. Once elected, the president had no way of dissolving the newly elected parliament for one year. So, the new Cabinet could have brought forward the amendment (to abolish the executive presidency) and if there had been a two thirds majority, it would have been carried. The president would have had no role to play in that process. But, it would have been better to do it with the agreement of the executive president than have him oppose it. We backed Fonseka because he gave us the assurance that he would cooperate in the abolition of the executive presidency.
Q. Let’s discuss what many people see as major blunders that the UNP has made over the past few years. Do you think that the policy the UNP followed with regard to the war was the correct line to take?
A. We had to deal with issues of terrorism and the causes for it. We felt that while you deal with terrorism by military means – even when I was prime minister we had made provision for it if the ceasefire broke down – you should use the amount of force that was required at that time. Dealing with terrorism did not in any way justify the suppression of the media and certain restrictions on liberties in the country which had no connection with the campaign against the LTTE.
Secondly, we felt that it was best that the main parties agree to whatever political solution that was there and to put it forward early because then the LTTE had to say whether it was going to accept it or not. That would have created an opinion among Tamils that what the LTTE was doing was wrong. One of the problems that we face now is not having had some solution on the table earlier. Now, the war is over and we have to look at the reconciliation process. It’s a question of how you deal with issues of terrorism. International terrorism has to be dealt with in a different way. When it comes to domestic terrorism, the underlying causes have to be dealt with. If however terrorism does not go away, then you have to look at the military option.
Q. In 1971, J. R. Jayewardene supported the SLFP government when they had to face the first JVP insurgency. Even after he came into power in 1977, he didn’t initiate any inquiries into the way in which that insurgency was crushed. So, his position was very principled. He supported the democratically elected government against terrorists. What people say is that you didn’t support the war effort in quite the same way... ?
A. In 1995, when the war resumed, we supported the government and the main thing they wanted us to do was to sit down and discuss the new Constitution. We agreed to many things, but we could not agree to the concept of the union of regions. When that was taken out we did come to an agreement but the last minute inclusion of provisions for the continuation of the executive presidency, was a major issue for us. Other than that as far as the war was concerned, unless civil liberties were trampled, we did not vote against the Emergency. Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga at that time and Mahinda Rajapaksa later said that we were not supporting them.
Every government says that of the Opposition. But when president Rajapaksa wanted to bring out a political solution and wanted us to sign the joint MOU in 2006, I signed it. When the war was on we took up the question of restrictions on civil liberties which affected not only the media but even the political parties. Some of the abductions in the south were of Tamils whom we knew were not involved with the LTTE in any way. We also raised issues about how the civilians were being looked after. Other than that we have not in any way opposed the war effort, but we had a different view on strategy. Any Opposition has to have a different view on strategy. Tell me, where have I ever said we shouldn’t fight? Dealing with terrorism is very complex. You have to deal with it both politically as well as from the security angle.
Q. But the feeling in the country is that you and certain other members of the UNP actually ridiculed the war effort. Those comments on Thoppigala that you made and other comments about Alimankada and Pamankada and any gona being able to fight a war have taken their toll in terms of public perception... ?
A. Spin is a part of the game today! All I said was that Thoppigala had first been cleaned out during the time of President Premadasa and it was a jungle and it had been done by the commandos. I was going on statements that president Premadasa and Janaka Perera made at that time. Even today General Sarath Fonseka agrees to that.
Q. Because of that ceasefire agreement that you signed, people have the impression that you are an appeaser and not someone who fights terrorism. In hindsight do you see the ceasefire agreement as a mistake?
A. All I can do is to quote Prabhakaran who called it a trap and me a fox and preferred to be with president Rajapaksa. By 2000, the army had suffered major setbacks. But because of the assistance that we got it became a different fighting force by 2004. The army had to take time to train and the economy had to be put back on track. The Tamils also had to see that there was a genuine effort at peace. And as for the failure of the ceasefire, the fault lies with Prabhakaran and not with me. If you ask any army officer he will tell you that during Operation Jayasikuru in the late 1990s the fighting was very intense in the Vanni, but this time the same commitment was not to be seen among Tamil youth.
Q. When the LTTE unilaterally broke off the peace talks in 1995, Chandrika Kumaratunga came out fighting. She called Prabhakaran a megalomaniac and launched military operations against them, the highlight of which was the capture of Jaffna. But you didn’t react in quite the same way when the LTTE violated the ceasefire, did you?
A. There was no breach of the ceasefire agreement when I was Prime Minister. The sea was not covered by the agreement, and we told them that. They had a different interpretation and they paid the price for it. President Kumaratunga captured Jaffna but what happened thereafter? The military suffered a setback. I had to take over from that point onwards. The army was trained and for the first time we could get weapons from India, we had intelligence, we got help from America and from Europe. It was because of this help that the LTTE funding network was broken up in the West. That’s why they could not get any missiles. From what I understand, the LTTE smuggled the planes into the country in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster.
Q. Are you suggesting that your ulterior motive for entering into the ceasefire agreement was to destroy the LTTE by other means?
A. I wanted to bring peace, but I don’t know what Prabhakaran’s intention was when he entered into it. If he wanted peace, the path was open.
Q. There is this perception in the country about the way you went about implementing the ceasefire agreement and the way you reacted to the war...?
A. It’s no longer a question of the war but how you face the future. Those are the issues. It was said of J. R. Jayewardene that he was the most unpopular politician, but he won the largest majority. I am not saying that of myself but people said he could never win an election. The public perception is that the UNP is good at economic management. That is a plus point. That is also one of the reasons why Mahinda Rajapaksa went in for elections early. There is also the question of how we are going to face the international community. On those fronts the UNP has a good track record.
Q. If that is so why did the 2001 government fall in just two and a half years?
A. We had a tough time as we took off. For the first time the economy had experienced negative growth. Our opponents were worried that if the money started coming in, we could not be shifted out. There was also the fact that the PA and JVP together still had more votes than we.
Q. Let’s move on to the internal reforms within the UNP. Are you satisfied that these latest proposals will lead to a substantial change in the fortunes of the party?
A. The first step will be the amendments to the party constitution. That by itself will not lead to victory. There has to be unity in the party. Then we have to go down to the grassroots. Our grassroots organisations have been weak over the last three to four years. Some of our organisers have neglected things. If you don’t attend to that and to political education and grassroots level propaganda, nothing will happen. Generally, the voter turnout is around 75% at a parliamentary election. We didn’t see that this time. Nearly 2.5 million didn’t vote. The government peaked at the presidential election. Those who didn’t vote didn’t vote for the UNP either. Some people had lost faith in the system. There are also the new voters who are going to come into the system and who would have experienced only UPFA rule except for the two and a half years that we held power. So we have not got to aim at that. You need new faces, both at the top and the grassroots level together with the committed experienced people.
Q. Are you happy at the introduction of the elective principle in making leadership level appointments?
A. The elective principle has always been there. Even now the power lies with the Executive Committee. This power has always been delegated to the Working Committee. Any election at the national executive level would have ended up not in electing a leader but in a whole lot of stay orders. So we felt that this provision had to be changed. There is another principle that has been brought in that the election of leaders should be as far as possible by unanimous choice. It is difficult for a party to be changing leaders annually. A new leader especially should have the stability to carry on. All these have been major concerns and that is what is being discussed now.
Q. In the various arguments that went back and forth about the need for party reform, there was the allegation levelled at you in a weekend newspaper, that you have been keeping the bulk of the money that comes into the party at election times. The sums mentioned range from hundreds of millions to billions.
A. This issue came up at a Working Committee meeting. The Reforms Committee was mandated to go into what changes should occur in the way financial matters are handled in the party. That will be stage two of the reforms. I don’t keep money. As far as my assets are concerned, I have filed the details in accordance with the law. The party accounts are handled by the Treasurer and these have been duly audited. At election time, the candidates get the bulk of the money. At presidential elections, there is a committee appointed to run the campaign and some people are put in charge of the funding. Money is collected in different ways. Sometimes people come and give money or they undertake certain tasks – if you need vehicles, they will provide you with vehicles. The presidential candidate does not have the time to be looking into money matters. Whatever he gets is passed on to those handling finances.
In 1982, Mr. Panditharatne and a few others handled it. In most elections, your expenditure is more than what you have got. If you win it’s easy to raise the money to pay but if you lose it will take longer. In 2005, both presidential candidates spent more than they received. In 1982, president Jayewardene was the only one who had a surplus. He didn’t tell us the amount, but he told some key people and said that he would be spending that money to build the new party headquarters in Kotte. I have told those responsible to tell the Reforms Committee how much had been received and how it was spent at the last presidential and parliamentary elections. We are far more transparent than some other organisations. Look at the banks. Details have been coming out worldwide that the banks were concealing accounts. This has been happening even in Sri Lanka. In 1994, when we wanted to go into the affairs of banks they were against it. In one case it was terrible, the chief man in the bank had given a lot of money to a Korean company and the bank nearly went down and Mrs. Kumaratunga had to sort it out after 2004. And they talk of transparency! I am surprised at this type of thing. Then about the allegation made in that weekend newspaper – only one newspaper had made it and this newspaper had received money from the UNP for Sarath Fonseka’s presidential campaign.
Q. Was it you or Sarath Fonseka who gave the money?
A. I didn’t give that money, but it was from the UNP side. The money was raised. I also told some people. The money was given to them in three tranches. Now they have got a businessman to throw mud at me and when this businessman gave an interview to that newspaper in his office, the editor of the newspaper and the head of the company were also present in the room, but that is not revealed in the interview. So where is transparency? We are the only party that has said that there must be limits on expenditure and there must be public funding. The problem now is that big money can take over political parties. We saw this from the fights over preferential votes.
In India you can see how big money is taking over political parties. That way, I must compliment Germany, where political parties are publicly funded and today they can take on the financial sector and impose a tax without a problem. Whatever the business community gives, is also what they have got from their customers. There should also be a cap on donations. In the USA you can’t donate more than $ 5,000. The media should take up this issue. In Jamaica, the chief drug smuggler to the USA backed the prime minister. The USA wanted this man extradited but the PM refused despite the protests of the Opposition. Then the US Congress threatened to cut off aid and the PM reluctantly agreed to extradite the man. Then fighting erupted in the capital the government lost control of parts of the city, the ruling party split and the man in question is still missing. In many parts of the world, there are worries about the underworld or big money taking over political parties.
Q. You are now leading a party that had been resoundingly beaten at elections and for the next five years or more there will be no major elections. What does the future hold for you and the party?
A. We have to see how the post war scenario unfolds. It’s a bit to early to say now either from our side or the government side. ~ courtesy: The Island ~