Interviews

Party needs rebranding and reorganising – Ruwan Wijewardene

  • We all have to share the blame
  • Defeat is an opportunity for the party
  • People will decide on the best leader for the UNP

By Sarah Hannan

United National Party Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene 23 September 2020. Photo Pradeep Dambarage

 

The dust seems to be settling to some extent with regard to the one-time largest political party of the country, the United National Party (UNP), following the election of a new Deputy Leader to take charge of the party’s reforms process. Ruwan Wijewardene was recently elected the UNP’s Deputy Leader in a secret ballot held during the party’s last Working Committee (WC) meeting.

This week, newly elected UNP Deputy Leader Wijewardene sat in the Hot Seat of The Sunday Morning.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

How are you settling into the post of UNP Deputy Leader?

The party members from across the country have positively responded to my appointment. Many called in to wish me, while some dropped by to congratulate me. The grassroots-level party activists are raring to commence their work and get the UNP back on track.

What will be your immediate responsibilities towards rebuilding the UNP?

I am looking forward to visiting the electorates and reviving the party machinery all over Sri Lanka. Rebuilding the party will be done in a two-pronged approach: On one hand, I will have to pay a personal visit to all the electorates and attempt to win over the confidence of the UNP voter base, which will involve a lot of travelling.

On the other hand, to win over confidence, we will have to look at party reforms. The UNP will go through its much-needed party reform in the coming months.

Where do you think the UNP took a wrong turn, which eventually led to its unprecedented defeat at the 2020 general election?

The loss that we suffered in the recent general election can be seen as an opportunity for the party to look into reforms. Over the years, the party has been distancing itself from its voter base, and there have been calls for reform. We see this as a good opportunity to bring in the changes and to win over the lost confidence of our voter base and the rest of the population.

In almost 70 years of Sri Lankan politics, this is the first time the UNP is not in Parliament. How do you take that defeat and the cause that led to it?

For a long time, I think the infighting within the party really took a toll on our voter base. I think they were getting fed up with the leadership tussles, which came to a point where they were openly criticising each other over media platforms. Then of course, Sajith Premadasa breaking off to form his own party made a dent in the voter base that the UNP had built over the years.

But what really happened is that during the time we were in the Government, all the UNP MPs concentrated only on their work in office rather than the grievances of our supporters.

We were out of power for nearly 20 years, and throughout those 20 years, a lot of our party supporters faced various issues that needed to be addressed. There were a lot of expectations and we failed to deliver what was promised to them during the run-up to elections. That is one of the reasons why we suffered this heavy loss.

You have been in the party WC and been the Deputy General Secretary of the party for a while. What prevented you from ensuring the party didn’t end up in its current situation?

We all have to take the blame for what happened. I don’t think we can just blame one person. Usually, it is very easy to assign blame to one person or, in this case, the leader of the party.

When these disputes happen within the party, one can easily get sucked into these situations, where you get involved and attempt to settle the disputes and mediate.

Unfortunately, amidst all that, we lost our way. This can be considered a wakeup call. Now it’s very clear as to where we went wrong and it’s time, we fixed these things and went forward.

There have been a few party seniors who have objected to your appointment. How do you plan to unite all forces within the party to move forward?

I don’t know whether they were objecting as such. But obviously there were some of the seniors that were also looking forward to being appointed to the leadership position. So, when it came to the deputy leadership, it was put for a vote, and I got the backing of the majority of the WC.

At this point, we should not alienate anyone in the party, as right now, we need everyone. All those seniors are needed, because they all have vast experience in the political sphere and working in the UNP.

How differently would you carry out the party’s reforms agenda as the new Deputy Leader?

We would need to start reforming the party from the bottom up. We will have to look at how we organise our electorates. From 1977 onwards, we were looking at forming branches in the villages and then gradually building up the party. But now, we have to look at whether that was the most effective way to rally our party supporters from the grassroots level.

We might have to look at a different method of organising our electorates. The party itself needs a facelift, where some are talking about constitutional reforms. I think the party needs to be rebranded and reorganised. Those are two key areas that we would have to look at.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s statement on stepping down from the party leadership has been looked at very sceptically by many who feel he was not sincere about it. Will there be a change in the party leadership?

Ranil Wickremesinghe was very direct when he said that it was time for him to step down. When he announced that he was stepping down, there were four members who came forward to say that they were interested in becoming the next leader of the UNP.

There were others who were nominated, among which my name was also nominated; by the time there were six nominated names, Ranil Wickremesinghe said, why don’t you all talk it over and come to a consensus, and then one person come forward.

But unfortunately, none of us could come to a consensus, which then led to an election. Although I must say there was no hostility between any one of us. In the run-up to the party leadership election, there were a lot of discussions, and because that was taking a lot of time, Ranil Wickremesinghe suggested appointing a deputy leader first and once that is done, we can have a transition period and look at handing over the leadership of the party to his successor between December 2020 and January 2021.

Does that mean you will become the party leader before the provincial council elections in 2021?

Me? (Laughing) Well, that also depends. There are others that are thinking of taking over the leadership of the UNP. Hopefully, if it comes to a consensus, the next person can take over the leadership. Otherwise, by December 2020, I guess we will have to go for another vote and appoint the new leader of the UNP.

Do you think you have strong enough charisma to be one of Sri Lanka’s biggest political parties?

I hope so. I guess I cannot answer that question. It is the people that support our party who will have to answer the question.

You come from a family that has produced prime ministers and presidents; do you aspire to be the leader of the country at some point in your life?

I guess all of us aspire to become the president or prime minister of the country when we come into politics. Everyone has their personal ambition. What I say is that we should not let our personal ambitions take precedence over the country’s ambitions.

I mean, it all depends on the people and whether they have confidence in me.

Who are the political or non-political leaders you would like to emulate or admire?

I draw inspiration from two figures. Not trying to sound cheesy, but Abraham Lincoln was one person that I was inspired by after reading his biography. Especially because when he was appointed the Head of the Republican Party, he managed to bring the party together, although the other contestants were archrivals. Eventually, they became his biggest strength and biggest supporters. Moreover, he was able to make decisive decisions when it came to the future of the country.

The other person is Nelson Mandela, who was persecuted by the apartheid regime at the time. But when he was released, he forgave all the people who persecuted him and managed to unite that country.

In the non-political sphere I admire Elon Musk, who has broken barriers. He thinks out of the box; not scared to take on challenges and he is really shaping the future of the world in a way.

I don’t know whether I am emulating them, but I do admire them.

Do you think you are more qualified to lead the UNP than Sajith Premadasa?

That I cannot say. That is up to the people to decide. But I will do my best. All I want is to do good for the country and the UNP.

In the run-up to the election for the post of UNP Deputy Leader, there was criticism that it was UNP Leader Wickremesinghe’s plan to handover the party leadership to you, thereby ensuring the party leadership remains within the family. Is this true?

No, I do not agree with that statement. People who really know him know that he does not favour family. That is one of his known characteristics.

I came forward because there were a lot of requests that were made by our party supporters from across the country, even the Mahanayaka Thera and the Maha Sangha.

I don’t think he at any point intended for the leadership of the UNP to be contained within the family.

The UNP is not like any other party and it is not like the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) or the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), where the leadership is passed down from family member to family member.

Eventually, the decision to appoint the Deputy Leader came in via a vote by the WC. Ranil Wickremesinghe did not use his vote and as the Leader of the party, he remained non-partisan.

What role would Ranil Wickremesinghe play in the future within the UNP?

Whatever criticisms are levelled against him, we, as a country or as a party, do not take advantage of the vast knowledge that he has on various subjects; from economics to the environment to even little things about music, his knowledge is immense.

We never took advantage of that, and in fact, when I was meeting the Mahanayaka Thera and the Chief Prelates, they said that although the leadership change is needed for the party, do not discard Ranil Wickremesinghe, and keep him at least in an advisory role to get his advice and make use of his knowledge.

Will there be any possibility of Wickremesinghe performing the role of a de facto leader under your leadership?

No, he would serve the party on an advisory level.

Has the party managed to settle the internal disputes now that a definitive decision is reached on the party leadership?

We do not have a huge dispute right at the moment. I guess the disputes that we had before the presidential election were far greater than what we are facing right now. The present WC can come to an agreement on many matters after discussions, no matter who becomes the leader.

Will there be a change in the WC of the UNP?

We have not discussed that at the moment. Right now, we have 40 members in the WC; the party Constitution says that we can have up to 90 members, and this is another thing that we have to talk about.

Some changes will be needed. Right now, change in the composition of the WC has not been talked about or addressed.

Along with a change in the UNP leadership, would the UNP change their manifesto to match the present times?

Yes, definitely. We do have to consider some changes. We have been quite consistent with our party manifesto. It is just that we haven’t been able to communicate to the people as to what we plan to do. One huge issue that we have is communication; we lack proper communication between the citizen and the party.

Even when we were in government, we just could not communicate our vision to the people and inform them as to what we were doing, let alone communicate what benefits the people reaped as a result of the work that we did.

Instead, only the negative aspects were constantly getting highlighted and we were busy trying to defend ourselves from all these allegations, rather than actually communicating to the people what we had achieved and delivered as a government.

Our manifesto has always been quite current, but there should have been some form of reform done from time to time.

What is going to be the UNP’s main target voter base?

It is surprising to say that we have lost all the types of our voter bases at the moment; we’ve lost the confidence of the Buddhist vote, the monitory vote, and the business community vote as well as the middleclass and every other subcategory.

We need to really sit down and reflect on how to win back the support we enjoyed all these years.

I think what really knocked us out over the years was that we were fast losing the party’s Buddhist voter base. But that said, I don’t think we should solely concentrate on winning only the Buddhist votes. We had such a strong minority support base as well, which we have lost now.

The UNP has always been a party that didn’t look into one ethnicity or one religion, and it has always been a party that brought everyone together. We have to keep that basic principle and go forward in trying to win the confidence of the people.

Will the UNP contest as a separate party at the coming provincial council elections or will you be looking at forming alliances with friendly parties?

Right now, what we need to concentrate on is building the party, and that is why we are thinking of getting in the reforms and winning the confidence of the party support base. But when it comes to the first election, which will probably be the provincial council elections, we would have to be realistic, and I don’t think we can make a big impact at the provincial council elections looking at where the party is right now.

Then the local government elections will follow, and that is one thing we are talking about.

But I think the way the country is heading right now, where we saw the 20th Amendment to the Constitution being tabled in Parliament on 22 September, there seems to be a huge barrier for democracy to flourish in this country.

Then, you have the environmental issues that are constantly being reported, and environmentalists are pointing out that since this Government was elected, on average at least, seven acres of forest are being destroyed per day.

Then, you have convicted murderers coming into Parliament, which has turned Sri Lanka into the laughing stock of the world.

The way the country is going, not only the SJB but all Opposition parties will have to find common ground if we are to have some kind of an impact against this Government. But of course, we have to consider this Government’s popularity and they have quite a lot of power over the populous, so alliances among many of these Opposition parties need to be considered.

Do you see a possible alliance between the UNP and SJB? Will the members that left the UNP for the SJB be allowed to rejoin the UNP? And in such an instance, will Sajith Premadasa be eligible for the leadership of the UNP?

Sajith Premadasa formed the SJB and proved to be a successful political leader and managed to get elected to Parliament during the recent general election. Since he has established his own party, I don’t see why we need to take him back and make him the leader of the UNP.

But in the future, we will consider forming an alliance with the SJB and working together. Because 90% of the members that are in the SJB were former UNPers and there are people that I have worked with during the local government elections and provincial council elections. When I gained entry to Parliament, some of them supported demonstrations at the chambers during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government.

We have history together and it will be easier to work with them. I do not see any obstacle in working with them or forming an alliance with the SJB and working together with them in the future.

Would you consider running for the presidency at the 2024 elections? Is that something the UNP is looking at with the leadership change?

We will have to, at some point, talk about that. Right now, our concentration is on how to revamp, reorganise, and restructure. So, the next presidential election is about four years away, and a lot can happen during that time. Maybe we might have to go for a common candidate; maybe the UNP will field our own candidate.

Since you mentioned considering a common candidate for the next presidential election, do you think the UNP took a wise decision in supporting a common candidate during the previous Government?

With regards to the common candidate; yes, we made a huge mistake, no doubt. We hardly knew the person we were fielding and only once he was appointed President, we saw what he was capable of. I agree that it was the wrong person we decided to back, which led the Yahapalana Government into a tug-o-war.

So, it’s not the common candidacy we have to worry about but rather it is the person we decide to field as the common candidate that we should be concerned about.

Are you considering forming a coalition government after 2024 then?

The way politics works in this country, we have to think about coalition governments; it is very hard for one party to win a majority and establish a government or enter Parliament. We have to therefore think about coalitions.