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UNP must renew itself as a party and take on the dictatorial Rajapakse regime

Jun 19, 2010 10:27:41 PM- transcurrents.com

By Ranil Wickremesinghe

Politics is a dynamic process, so political parties cannot afford to be stagnant. Whether we win or lose, parties need to renew themselves periodically because the needs and desires of the electorate keep changing.


The human mind is not constant, as the Buddha said; it can be rational or emotional; calm or agitated. Any district or country consists of millions of human minds which keep shifting according to external situations and personal experiences. This is why political parties keep re-branding themselves from time to time the world over. The strength of the UNP has been in its capacity to revive and renew itself under trying circumstances.

Many forget that we can trace our party's history back to the Buddhist revival and the Temperance Movement of the late 19th Century. Furthermore, the UNP has always upheld the principle of responsible government which C.A. Lorensz of the Burgher community first agitated for in the Legislative Council during the mid-19th Century. Sir Ponnabalam Ramanadhan, the first elected member of the Legislative Council, saved the lives of some of the founder members of the UNP during the 1915 riots. Subsequently, many of his Tamil followers joined the party in forming the party. The support of T. B. Jayah and the Muslims helped the UNP to establish a multi-cultural Sri Lankan identity, on which we have always stood steadfast.

The UNP has given a lot to this country. Its governments were instrumental in achieving independence from the British, joining the United Nations and the Commonwealth as well as forming the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). It was responsible for granting free education for millions of children and establishing a free healthcare service for all. It initiated massive development programmes during the time of successive leaders starting from D. S. Senanayake and especially during the administrations of J. R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa.

These include the establishment of the armed forces in the 1940s and later re-building them as fighting forces, hydro-electricity power generation; the establishment of many of our universities, the Mahaweli, the Free Trade Zones and more than 200 garment factories, a new capital city - Sri Jayewardenepura; the opening up of the economy in 1977, the facilitation of migrant workers and better standards of living by instituting and introducing TV, mobile phone and information technology; and the resurrection of the economy from dire straits in 2001 and achieving self-sufficiency in rice production by 2004.

Like many of you I see 2009 as a defining moment in Sri Lankan politics as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was defeated and Velupillai Prabhakaran killed during that year. The LTTE'sarmed struggle was effectively over. Since 1983, the war that raged in the North and East had overshadowed other issues such as the economy and disputes over political liberties. However, now that the war has ended, these issues have come to the forefront.

But one year after the end of the war, we have yet to deal with thousands of displaced people in the North and East and evolve a political solution to ethnic grievances -- a solution that is acceptable to all communities. We have to contend with the increasingly sophisticated challenges of a globalised economy such as gaining preferential access to larger markets for our products and upgrading ourselves to the next levels of technology.

We have to provide better quality food at affordable prices, meaningful education, efficient healthcare, and better living standards to our people. Furthermore, we have to institute good governance and democracy.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government used massive propaganda on the war to gloss over these issues and win the last presidential and general elections. But the government cannot keep on doing that because the people are tired of waiting for results ad infinitum - especially since some of the central issues in local politics are no longer dominant. Therefore, over the next few years, the government has to demonstrate that it is capable of satisfying the urgent needs and aspirations of our people.

I have grave doubts as to whether this will happen.

The government's actions are aimed at centralizing and confining power to members of one family to perpetuate an indefinite political dynasty. This can only be achieved by Mahinda Rajapaksa by curbing the hard-won democratic rights of our people.

The economy which is based on policies of market fundamentalism cannot provide for the welfare of our people -- given its short-term, high-profit motive. A few are capitalizing on this; the favoured are making money through bribery and corruption; and the rest are trying to balance their household budgets. A number of workers have lost their jobs. These trends are now alarming even those who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

As a responsible opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) has to renew and re-organise itself to take up these issues. Our primary duty is to take on the government on behalf of our people. We did it once in the seventies and then again in 2001-- and there is no reason why we cannot do it again. And that is what the UNP is planning for.

However, the electorate of 2016 or 2017 will be different from today's electorate.

On the one hand, there will be younger voters. On the other hand, the over-50s will also be a significantly large category. There will be greater urbanization and more and more people will be aware of global events outside the country and the global reaction to us as a nation.

Firstly, the UNP has to rebuild its vote base. We have done it before. We lost our vote base in 1956 but we were returned to office in 1965. The vote base we gained in 1977 we lost in 1994, having lost part of the middle class vote -- to the Lalith Athulathmudali-Gamini Dissanayake faction. We regained it in 2001.

Secondly, we have an additional challenge in the form of large-scale voter boycott and apathy at national elections. This is a new and startling trend that we have to deal with at future elections. At this year's presidential election, there was extensive abuse of state power and this impacted greatly on the general elections that followed.

Discouraged by the outcome of the presidential election, millions of voters simply stayed at home; and asking them to vote became a futile exercise. Consequently, not only the votes of the UNP, but the votes of the UPFA, DNA, and all other parties declined drastically. In fact, the most drastic decline was for the UPFA between the presidential and general elections - not that we can get comfort by comparing the declines. It is a measure of the immensity of the problem.

Thus the UNP has to face the challenge of reorganising the party so as to garner this vote and a new generation of voters -- this is the path to victory. There is a broad agreement emerging as to how the party should set about to become the leading political party in the country. The UNP has neglected its organisational capacity at grassroots and the potential to mobilise support as has been evident at provincial council elections and then at the general elections.

This is a result of the proportional representation (PR) system, where candidates neglect their constituency base in favour of campaigning for preference votes from the entire district. This is known as pillion-riding where candidates go after the second or third preference of a vote that has already been canvassed. There is less focus on attracting new votes. The UPFA and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have also been affected by this.

With there being agreement that future elections will be conducted according to a mix of the PR system (without the preference vote) and the first-past-the-post system, the new system of elections would have electoral constituencies that MPs and aspirants will have to nurse. When I entered politics in 1972, we began our careers by being asked to organize a constituency that had to be won to enter Parliament.

Another challenge facing the UNP is the need to enhance the Sinhala vote, especially in the rural areas and devise an approach to woo the Buddhist voter. We also have to develop our own Muslim and Tamil leaders in the party. We need to find new candidates -- and their personalities must go hand in hand with a strong grassroots organisational capacity.

The party will probably require two years of hard work at the grassroots level to establish effective branch organisations and to train the cadre. If we do not do this, we are not only deceiving ourselves, we are also letting down the country.

The party is focusing on creating a new set of second and third line leaders. The new faces in this Parliament have provided us with the opportunity to do so. These parliamentarians will be given the responsibility and the space to develop themselves. I believe they should lead the attacks on the government. Parliament should only be the beginning in mass-scale agitation on behalf of the people.

The next step should be to take the issues at stake to the people -- both directly and through the media. This will enable them to obtain feedback about the mood of the country which in turn would help us to shape our policies. I have already asked the UNP's Parliamentary Affairs Committee to set about this task.

There has been a lot of discussion about the party constitution and I agree that changes to the constitution are essential. The media focus appears to be on the election of party officials. We have had the elective principle pertaining to officials from the beginning of the UNP and the prescribed forum or mechanism has differed from time to time according to the prevailing party constitution. However, in practice, officials were elected uncontested through the Working Committee.

When the Executive Presidency was introduced to the country in 1978 we changed the system within the UNP whereby if a member of the UNP was the President, the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition (in that order) then he or she would ex-officio become the party leader. In 1994 we lost the Presidency to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who was not the head of a party. At the time, some members joked that she could pay ten rupees and obtain membership to take over the party!! We reviewed the situation and decided for many reasons to go back to the elective principle.

According to our present Constitution, the deputy and assistant leaders have to be nominated by the leader of the party with the consent of the Working Committee. This requires that the leader consults the Working Committee in making this selection. The leader is elected by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of 2000 members. Currently, about 800 members have still to be appointed by the relevant organizations to the NEC.

But today in a climate where party decisions are being increasingly submitted for judicial scrutiny by disgruntled party members, these provisions may be subject to interventions by the courts of law. For instance, if an indeterminate state arises as a result of an election, the courts will be giving directions to the party.

Do we really want a system where the High Court of Colombo, for instance, decides who the party leader and the other office bearers should be? The UNP has to look into all these factors and provide safeguards. This is why the Working Committee has appointed a committee headed by former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera to look into these and the other issues mentioned below.

In this process, the committee has already come to an agreement on maintaining the tradition of uncontested election of officials and it is formulating a mechanism to arrive at a consensus for this. Other issues are also being debated and discussed now.

These include the term of office for all office bearers including the leader, the duties of the various officials, reducing the number of members in the Working Committee, a request by women MPs for a quota for women in the party hierarchy, making the NEC more manageable so it could be summoned at least twice a year, restoring the principle of making the Working Committee answerable to the NEC, setting up a forum for local and provincial council representatives and finally, whether the district organisations of the party should be abolished.

The committee has now met most representatives and started formulating detailed proposals. Once the recommendations of the Committee are approved by the Working Committee, they will be put forward at a special party convention. Once accepted, a new party constitution incorporating these proposals will be presented to the party's annual convention.

The reorganization of the UNP has come under intense review by the media. Unfortunately, some sections of the media have gone beyond the task of reporting news and are currently participating in making up or creating 'news' about the UNP. There are daily programmes sensationalizing the divisions in the UNP and the 'greed for power' ('Bala Thanha'). Other newspapers have made allegations of financial impropriety based on the dubious integrity of a statement made by an individual named Sabir Hussein.

The same newspaper, in its issue of August 28, 2005, in an article (written ironically by the journalist who is now its Editor) describes this individual as: "A 45-year-old Sri Lankan, Sabir Hussein, having made a massive amount of money on web-based poker sites, has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison by Swedish Authorities"

Need I say more?

We live in an age where there is a multiplicity of print and electronic media that are supposed to portray diverse views, but may not always be permitted to do so by the government. Yet if any media organization -- regardless of whether it praises us or attacks us - comes under pressure from the government, we will stand for its independence because we are unconditionally committed to the democratic principle.

Doubtless as a political party our central objective is to secure power, but I must emphasize that the UNP is a political party that wields power with responsibility -- both to our members and to the people we represent. However, I don't believe that we are obliged to respond to every stray allegation of the media just because they have the power and the forum to make these allegations; especially, when they are not being made for the public good; but for individual causes which have not been accepted by the party.

The very fact that these allegations are based on the petty self-interest of individual journalists and media organisations and not the collective concern of the nation should say something.

The process of reviving the party has led to different views being expressed publicly and sometimes passionately. There are, regrettably, clashes between personalities. This is the hallmark of dynamic and democratic party politics. Yet in this process the UNP should not forget to oppose the government which is deviously trying to suppress democratic freedoms and impose hardships on the people. We can and must certainly discuss, debate and even disagree -- but we should not allow this to become a circus.

The UNP is unique in that it has the ability to work with all hues of civil society: the Buddhist clergy and other religious organisations, the Muslim and Tamil parties, and the JVP - have all been able to come together on common issues and platforms - sometimes despite ideological differences of opinion. It is a phenomenon that we should retain. Such relationships are necessary for any country to progress because no political party will remain in power eternally.

In the final analysis, our priority at this point should be to renew ourselves as a party and to take on the dictatorial tendencies of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. We owe that not only to our own party members, but we owe that to our country too. ~ courtesy: daily mirror. lk ~