Sri Lanka: A Divided National Party

Now, the group is heading for contesting the polls under the heart symbol. At the moment, it is weighing the pros and cons of such a move

by Kelum Bandara

The United National Party (UNP) is hit by another political storm these days triggering fears whether the grand old party of Sri Lanka is teetering on the brink of another major split on the scale of the debacle that it experienced in 1990 when its stalwarts Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali defected from the party and caused a dent in its traditional vote base.

The present crisis has been exacerbated after the Elections Commission recognized ‘Samagi Jana Balawegaya’ formed by the faction led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa in collaboration with the like-minded parties such as Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The new alliance has adopted Heart as its symbol despite the UNP leadership insisting that the upcoming General Elections should be conducted only under the party’s cherished ‘Elephant’ symbol no matter what.

According to the letter issued by Commissioner General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake, the new alliance had been recognised on February 6, 2020.

However, it was placed in the public domain only on February 13. It compounded the internal squabbling of the UNP.

Mr Premadasa is its leader and MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara its General Secretary.

Now, the group is heading for contesting the polls under the heart symbol. At the moment, it is weighing the pros and cons of such a move. Nevertheless, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his loyalists are adamant that the UNP should have its Parliamentary representation under the elephant symbol.

A policy contrast has emerged accordingly between the two groups, and it is bound to result in the possible breakup of the UNP ahead of the general elections unless sanity prevails among its leaders.
The party had its Working Committee meeting on Monday evening to discuss the issues at hand. There was general agreement for contesting the elections in alliance with the like-minded parties. Also, no resistance came for the appointment of Mr Bandara as its general secretary. The real conflict erupted on the symbol issue.

At the Working Committee meeting, all of a sudden, newly appointed member Sunil Silva raised the matter first and said the elephant symbol should not be compromised no matter what. His remarks, in favour of the elephant symbol, prompted a few other MPs to air similar sentiments

These MPs are Palitha Range Bandara, John Amaratunga, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera and a few others.

Mr Amaratunga said he joined Parliament in the 1970s along with leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
“We have always contested the general elections under the elephant symbol. We contested under different symbols at the time at the presidential elections. This is the symbol known to many in the country. So, we should not deviate from it,” he said.

Also, he said the party constitution provides for contesting the general elections only under the elephant symbol.

The Premadasa faction was in disbelief following the sudden emergence of the symbol issue. Today, they believe it is something stage-managed by the UNP leadership to scuttle the formation of a new alliance under the leadership of Mr Premadasa because of the general elections.

One by one, the Premadasa loyalists such as Harin Fernando, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Kabir Hashim and Thalata Athukorale started confronting the members who insisted on the elephant symbol only.

Mr Hashim countered Mr Amaratunga saying that the elephant symbol would not be an issue in the event of an alliance cobbled together to contest elections.
Besides, MP Fernando said:

“If you are against a common symbol, why did you ask us to form a common alliance? If we drag on the matter, we will become a laughing stock. Now, it has been announced that an alliance will be formed. Its leader and general secretary have been nominated. ”

Mr Fernando was also critical of an orchestrated campaign to slander Mr Premadasa and Mr Bandara in the social media over the defeat of their respective electoral districts – Monaragala and Hambantota.

“These are the most difficult districts for the UNP. If there is anyone who can win them for the party, let them do it. It is unbecoming of anyone to resort to character assassination on anyone over the loss of these districts at the presidential elections,” he said.
Colombo district MP Dr Harsha de Silva also sought clarification from Mr Wickremesinghe about the reasoning behind the insistence on the elephant symbol despite an agreement to form the new alliance. Mr Wickremesinghe is reported to have replied saying that it is an option only.

Mr Premadasa sounded worried about the latest development at the Working Committee. Instead, he asked for authority to handle the affairs of the new alliance as its leader and the opposition leader without any obstacle placed on his way.

“If I am the alliance leader, let me handle it,” he said.

He assumed that deliberations would not lead to anywhere. He turned furious when Mr Wickremesinghe mentioned a few names as members to the nomination boards to select candidates. MP Ravi Karunanayake is also among the members announced by the UNP leader as members of the nomination board.

“I have been appointed the leader of the alliance. I have nominated the general secretary. Then, what is the use if I am not allowed to nominate members to the nomination board,” Mr Premadasa said.
No sooner had he made such remarks than he left the meeting. Seven other members also joined hands with him.

The alliance has now been recognized by the Elections Commission. The two factions of the UNP have two options- to patch up differences and reach the common ground or to part ways.

For the allies of the UNP, it is not a difficult job at all to agree on the heart symbol. Some MPs of the Premadasa group, who believe that the UNP should be rebranded with the injection of fresh outlook and policies. A new symbol is acceptable to all of them. But, there are thoroughbred UNPers who are sentimentally attached to the elephant symbol. Though they are politically loyal to Mr Premadasa, it looks like a Herculean task for them to abandon the elephant symbol.

In the event of the Premadasa faction deciding to break ranks, it won’t be that easy for it to attract an overwhelming majority of the MPs. Against the backdrop, Mr Premadasa has called for a meeting of the UNP MPs tomorrow to seek their views. That is to see who else is willing to team up with him. However, some of his loyalists have already advised him to make decisions after careful calculations of things as otherwise, things would be counterproductive. Every possible attempt is made to keep the party united by these MPs, be their loyalty lies with Mr Premadasa or Mr Wickremesinghe.

MP Mangala Samaraweera, who was a key strategist for Mr Premadasa at the presidential elections, has reportedly said Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) would get two thirds in case the UNP remained divided at the elections.

It suggests apprehensions in some quarters of the UNP about possible implications of a split ahead of the elections. No matter what a few would have or be compelled to leave the party as a consequence of this crisis.

If the Premadasa faction leaves the UNP, the present leadership is mulling the introduction of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as the frontrunner at the elections.

( Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Colombo)

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