Time is running out for our Grand Old Party
Ambitious to a fault, Ranil Wickremesinghe possesses one of the brightest minds in politics. A qualified attorney and an avid bilingual reader, Wickremesinghe coveted the leadership of the United National Party (UNP) from the age of 29, when he took oaths as the youngest-ever cabinet minister under President J.R. Jayewardene.
Ahead in line were party heavyweights Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, and Gamini Dissanayake, each of them a force of nature in his own right. Wickremesinghe wisely took a backseat and watched the fireworks. President Jayewardene anointed Premadasa as his successor, pre-empting a leadership crisis. Premadasa’s victory at the 1988 presidential election would mark the last time the UNP has ever won the presidency. Then, in the 1989 general election, our party secured its last-ever parliamentary majority, winning 125 seats.
In March 1991, UNP General Secretary Ranjan Wijeratne was assassinated by the LTTE. He was replaced by Sirisena Cooray. Athulathmudali and Dissanayake led an abortive attempt to impeach President Premadasa, resulting in them being sacked from the UNP and Parliament in 1992, along with seven MPs who openly supported them, including G.M. Premachandra and Lakshman Seneviratne. A few months later, in April 1993, Athulathmudali was shot dead.
On May Day in 1993, President Premadasa fell victim to an LTTE suicide bombing. His Prime Minister, D.B. Wijetunga, succeeded him to complete Premadasa’s term. Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister.
He began consolidating his position by moving his political base from the Bandaranaike stronghold of Gampaha to the greener pastures of Colombo Central. UNP General Secretary Sirisena Cooray sacrificed his electorate for Wickremesinghe.
Morale was near rock-bottom among the UNP’s 125 parliamentarians. Many MPs lobbied to bring Gamini Dissanayake back into Parliament through the national list to inject some of his signature political electricity into the party. Over staunch opposition from Wickremesinghe, Dissanayake eventually re-entered Parliament and the Wijetunge Cabinet.
The bellwether to the future
With an opposing force re-entering the party, Wickremesinghe tightened his grip. The same Sirisena Cooray who sacrificed his electorate was sacked from the post of General Secretary. With Ranil Wickremesinghe as the party’s presumptive prime ministerial candidate, the UNP geared up to face the August 1994 parliamentary elections. We were routed. The UNP lost 31 seats to Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance (PA), falling from a Parliamentary strength of 125 to just 94.
Our party’s history books highlight that Ranil Wickremesinghe himself polled over 291,000 votes, or 75% of all votes cast for the UNP in Colombo. Little did we realise that this resounding personal victory was the bellwether to what our party could expect of the next 25 years.
Despite Wickremesinghe’s personal performance, the UNP lost the Colombo District for the first time in generations. It was not even close. The PA trounced the UNP in Colombo by nearly 85,000 votes. In the Gampaha District, Wickremesinghe had wisely fled, and the PA demolished the UNP by over 125,000 votes.
The UNP was defeated islandwide, barring a handful of districts. In Kandy, Gamini Dissanayake led a team, including Tissa Attanayake and Sarath Amunugama, to victory. Petikirige Dayaratne, M.E.H. Maharoof, W.J.M. Lokubandara, and Lakshman Seneviratne did much the same in Digamadulla, Trincomalee, and Badulla. Every one of these MPs has since either left our party or been assassinated.
In the aftermath of his first catastrophic electoral defeat, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the former Prime Minister and de-facto Parliamentary Group Leader, laid claim to the title of Leader of the Opposition. Gamini Dissanayake rebelled and openly challenged Wickremesinghe to a contest for this position.
At J.R. Jayawardene’s insistence, President D.B. Wijetunga presided over a secret ballot to settle the question. When votes were counted, Wickremesinghe insisted that several ballots containing just the word “Gamini” be excluded from the final count. It was futile. Gamini Dissanayake won the vote anyway, and became Leader of the Opposition and Deputy Leader of the UNP.
Wijetunga, who had been goaded into contesting the imminent presidential election by Wickremesinghe, gladly gave way to Dissanayake, who united the party and moved swiftly to expand our tent, inviting smaller parties into our ranks. An electrified UNP took the Kumaratunga juggernaut head on.
Our final election rally was held on 24 October 1994 in Maradana, attended by UNP heavyweights including G.M. Premachandra, Dr. Gamini Wijesekera, and Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi, as well as leftist icons Ossie Abeygunasekara and Rajitha Senaratne. On that night, for the second time in two years, it was the LTTE and not the electorate that chose our President.
A suicide bomber struck, instantly killed Dissanayake, Premachandra, Wijesekara, Mallimarachchi, Abeygunasekara, and scores more. Rajitha Senaratne and Karunasena Kodituwakku, also on the stage, escaped the blast by the skin of their teeth.
The LTTE had now wiped out the leadership of the UNP. The October 1994 victims widened the leadership void left by Ranjan Wijeratne, Lalith Athulathmudali, and Ranasinghe Premadasa before them. In the resulting vacuum, Ranil Wickremesinghe wasted no time in making two things clear to UNP Leader D.B. Wijetunga.
The first was that Wickremesinghe would not contest the upcoming presidential election under any circumstances. The slain candidate’s widow, Srima Dissanayake, would serve as the sacrificial lamb. The second was that Wickremesinghe would be guaranteed our party leadership after the election. On 9 November 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was elected President. On 12 November 1994, Wickremesinghe assumed the leadership of the UNP by default.
Wickremesinghe’s leadership style has not changed in the 25 years since. Today, we are led by the same man who fled the Gampaha electorate, won Colombo for himself while his party suffered islandwide defeat, fragmented the party with “divide-and-rule” tactics, and cowered from a presidential election he knew he could not win, all while accumulating power for himself.
He revamped the party constitution to give himself powers that, if the UNP were a country, would make it a dictatorship. Serious debate on the policy or direction of the party always ends in an exodus of talent and leadership from the UNP. The first was in 1999, when Wickremesinghe insisted on contesting the presidential election to be held in December of that year. It was clear that he could not connect with the electorate, but he would not budge. With the writing on the wall, five senior MPs, led by Sarath Amunugama and Nanda Mathew, crossed over to join Kumaratunga.
On 16 December 1999, Kumaratunga trounced Wickremesinghe by a margin of over 700,000 votes. Wickremesinghe became the first-ever UNP leader to cling to power after such a defeat. With no way to oust him, four more MPs including Ronnie de Mel, abandoned our party. In the 2000 general election, the UNP was reduced from the 94 seats they held in 1994 to just 89.
In mid-2001, a group of strategists led by Ravi Karunanayake aided Wickremesinghe to engineer the defection of several PA parliamentarians including S.B. Dissanayake and Mahinda Wijesekara, to opposition ranks, forcing Kumaratunga to dissolve Parliament and call a general election.
The UNP won 109 seats at the December 2001 general election, which was the most of any party, but still short of a majority. Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister, and the UNP formed a minority government with Kumaratunga’s executive power hanging over our heads.
Winds of change? Perhaps not
Under Wickremesinghe’s premiership, the country thrived even if our party did not. He raised a $ 4.3 billion aid package, revitalised the economy, took criminal defamation off the statute books, passed a law to prevent the IGP and Attorney General from being politically sacked, and engineered the split between Velupillai Prabhakaran and Karuna Amman, which was ultimately crucial to defeating the LTTE.
To the UNP’s detriment, he refused to challenge the President despite immense pressure from party stalwarts. Kumaratunga got the better of him, seizing three key ministries in November 2003, and calling a general election in April 2004. The UNP, in the wake of Wickremesinghe’s performing but monumentally unpopular Government, set a new low. We were reduced to just 82 seats in Parliament. Still, he refused to step down, and alienated more senior leaders like Rukman Senanayake with backbiting and unfulfilled promises.
More MPs, including Anura Bandaranaike, Rohitha Bogollagama, and Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara, fled our ranks. At the November 2005 presidential elections too, Wickremesinghe was outfoxed and defeated by Mahinda Rajapaksa. In 2007, 21 more UNP MPs left. They were joined by A.H.M. Azwer in 2008 and Johnston Fernando, S.B. Dissanayake, and Thilanga Sumathipala in 2009.
At the 2010 presidential election, the UNP failed to field a candidate for the first time in history. Wickremesinghe found a new scapegoat like he did in 1994.
Sarath Fonseka, “our” candidate, was not allowed to contest under the UNP ticket or with the “Elephant” symbol. Why? Because the UNP constitution states that if a UNP candidate is elected president, he would become party leader, and displace Wickremesinghe. Our leader’s political survival came before the party.
Sarath Fonseka lost to Rajapaksa by almost two million votes. Wickremesinghe had his scapegoat and retained his stranglehold on the party. He then led us through the party’s most historic defeat in the April 2010 general election, where we were reduced to just 60 seats in Parliament. In 2010, another 10 MPs gave up on our leadership and left the party, leaving us with less than a quarter of the seats in Parliament.
In 2011, UNP Co-deputy Leaders Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya had had enough. Premadasa called on Jayasuriya to contest the party leadership, and Jayasuriya issued an open challenge to Wickremesinghe. President Rajapaksa immediately sprang to Wickremsinghe’s defence and the state media began attacking Jayasuriya relentlessly. It was clear that Wickremesinghe’s leadership of the UNP was crucial to the survival of the Rajapaksa Government.
Unlike the secret ballot held by the neutral D.B. Wijetunge in 1994, the Wickremesinghe-Jayasuriya poll was conducted by Wickremesinghe’s officials. After several MPs and even the leader’s own hand-picked working committee members pledged support to Premadasa and Jayasuriya, the “secret” ballots were suddenly serial numbered into an “open” secret ballot – whatever that meant. The Government shut down the road to Sirikotha to prevent rebellion.
Jayasuriya was defeated, and Rajapaksa’s Government made it a point to immediately arrest and jail several UNP stalwarts who supported him including Maithri Gunaratne, Shiral Lakthilaka, and Ravi Jayawardena, on charges that were later dropped. Jayasuriya was exiled from the party.
In 2013, after years of fierce lobbying for party reforms, Dayasiri Jayasekara resigned from the party. Wickremesinghe flouted his unchecked power by stripping Sajith Premadasa of his deputy leadership. Politicians who could appeal to the rural Sri Lankan electorate were being systematically purged from our ranks, as Wickremesinghe’s UNP was stacked full of elitist, Colombo-minded cosmopolitans.
The beginning of the Sirisena era
As another presidential election loomed in 2014, party seniors desperately sought a path to victory. With no way to dislodge the unelectable Wickremesinghe from leadership, secret discussions got underway with SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena to abandon Rajapaksa and become a “common candidate” to energise the rural electorate.
At one point, Sirisena mooted a defection to the UNP even without becoming our candidate, suggesting that Karu Jayasuriya contest in his place. This, Wickremesinghe would not hear of. A UNP member winning the presidency would doom his party leadership. Maithripala Sirisena became the “common candidate” backed by the UNP.
Sirisena’s 2015 victory over Rajapaksa was legendary. He appointed Wickremesinghe Prime Minister but remained deferential to the UNP Leader. Then, in February 2015, there came the infamous “Bond Scam”.
Wickremesinghe had appointed his old friend, Arjuna Mahendran as Governor of the Central Bank. Because of the conflict of interest, many suggested a less controversial candidate such as Dinesh Weerakody. Wickremesinghe insisted on Mahendran. The rest is history.
The Bond Scam cost us the 2015 parliamentary elections and will be a noose around the party’s neck for years to come. Just as in 2001, we again found ourselves in a minority government at the mercy of an SLFP President. This time, we had even fewer MPs, and formed a government with a faction of the President’s party.
Without an outright majority in Parliament, Wickremesinghe sought again to consolidate power by doing what he does best: divide and rule. His target this time was the UPFA. Police investigations involving loyalists of the Rajapaksa faction were stymied. Some of them were even given VIP security.
The political calculus was that by strengthening the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP, the Sirisena faction would be weakened.
Like many of his previous schemes, this one too backfired. The President’s Bond Commission felled Ravi Karunanayake from the Cabinet and marred the UNP in scandal, all to protect our leader’s personal friends. In the resulting backlash, our party was humiliated in last year’s local government elections. The UPFA had the last laugh, scuttling the Government and joining the Rajapaksas, leaving the Government hanging by a thread.
Last year’s constitutional crisis cost the UNP several more MPs. During the crisis, as we were holed up at Temple Trees, we saw fear on Wickremesinghe’s face for the first time. He called every UNP MP daily, and for the first time, at least pretended to listen to us. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited him at Temple Trees and guaranteed his safety, his mood improved. What “deal” was struck in exchange we may never know.
During the crisis, the President revealed what many had long suspected, saying that he had implored both Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya to displace the Prime Minister and take up the premiership. Both had too much integrity to betray the Constitution. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President’s last resort.
Jayasuriya and Premadasa were at the front lines of the struggle to restore Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Today, they are both being undermined by the same man they saved, because their skyrocketing stature is perceived as a threat to his leadership.
He must go
At Temple Trees today, it is business as usual and Wickremesinghe is back on cloud nine. His ineffectual Chief of Staff scored a top ministry after the coup, but most MPs and ministers find Wickremesinghe will once again, not give us time of day. Even Mangala Samaraweera and Malik Samarawickrama have had their wings clipped. Mahinda Rajapaksa continues to fiercely protect Wickremesinghe’s UNP leadership and encourage his presidential candidacy. Wickremesinghe was the candidate they wanted in 2014 and it is him they want now.
The Pohottuwa machinery mercilessly targets perceived threats to Wickremesinghe such as Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya, who enjoy a groundswell of support in rural communities that have become electoral strongholds of the SLFP. As divided as the SLPP is on who their candidate will be, they are united in wanting ours to be Ranil Wickremesinghe.
For Wickremesinghe, this is just another election. Mahinda Rajapaksa will keep the Leader of the Opposition seat warm for him until his deals with the Mahendrans and Gotabayas of this earth blow up in his face. The UNP has no such insurance. For us, this is an existential crisis. Unless we unite to rebuild our grassroots infrastructure and bridge the widening deficit of trust between our party and its voters, the UNP will be reduced to a footnote in the tale of how Asia’s oldest democracy led a regionwide backslide into authoritarianism.
Our fellow MPs and elected officials speak of this desperation and potential in whispers and hushed tones. Some who spoke out have been suspended from the UNP for “violating the party constitution”. This party constitution is selectively applied. MPs who crossed over during the coup, brought the party into disgrace, or were charged with corruption have not been suspended. Today, our party treats dissent against Ranil Wickremesinghe as a more serious crime than corruption or supporting a coup. Had we put our names on this article, we would be thrown out of Parliament.
But the heart of the UNP is its parliamentary group. We have faith in the judgment of our MPs to elect the right successor. We owe our motherland more than a leader who has never won a presidential or parliamentary election and has driven over 70 MPs from the party in 25 years. In the same 25 years, the SLFP has had three leaders. All three have been elected president. Twenty-five years is longer than the tenures of Dudley Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake, and John Kotelawala combined. All three headed the government at least once and stepped aside with honour when the time was right.
An attempt is already underway to forestall a leadership crisis by diverting the party’s attention with talk of another common candidate. No doubt the next step will be to appoint another committee to stall for time. Wickremesinghe learnt from J.R. Jayewardene that “if you want to kill an idea, appoint a committee”. Our party does not have time for more committees. Our party does not have time for more “divide and rule”. Our party needs a leader in tune with the plight and the potential of the party and the national electorate.
While most of the party is united behind the obvious and most popular successor, we are all in agreement that anyone stands a better chance of rescuing our party than the incumbent. He must go. And he must do so before it is too late to save our party, and our country.
We wrote this essay to show others in our party that they are not alone, and that it is time that we united with the courage to stand together and insist on a democratic process for selecting a new leader. There is still hope.
(The authors are members of the United National Party)