“Harima dukayi (very sad)” muttered a senior Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) legislator, almost to himself inside an elevator at the Parliamentary complex two days ago.
The implication could not be clearer.
After months of speculation and back and forth, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had finally clinched the deal by afternoon on Tuesday (23) to ensure the defection of UNP Kurunegala District MP and popular politician Dayasiri Jayasekera to the ruling coalition. It is the worst kept secret in Parliament and political circles that SLFP stalwarts are disgusted by the move.
With Government ranks filled to the brim, SLFP bigwigs are fast losing relevance, with former UNP strongmen stealing their thunder within the administration and in electoral contests. The task of placating the ruling party seniors was assigned to Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa who held consultations with the group at the Parliamentary Complex, later that day.
Just 48 hours earlier, this particular outcome was looking very remote. Jayasekera was pledging he would remain with the UNP and the party’s leadership was convinced they had managed to retain the MP. But with customary aplomb, by afternoon on 23 July, the date Jayasekera was initially tipped to quit the UNP, President Rajapaksa made his move.
By wresting Dayasiri from the UNP’s fast dwindling ranks, the President has virtually decided a provincial electoral contest before it begins. In the North Western Province, the wildly popular Jayasekera was to be an integral cog in the UNP wheel. His defection will completely demoralise UNP activists and the party’s base days before campaigns kick off on a series of provincial polls.
The weekend had ended on a buoyant note for the main opposition United National Party, which believed it had held highly successful discussions with at least three MPs straining at the leash. In Kurunegala on Sunday, UNP seniors, including Ravi Karunanayake, met with recently suspended MPs Palitha Range Bandara and Asoka Abeysinghe for ‘unity’ talks.
Range Bandara and Abeysinghe had both threatened to contest independently at the Wayamba Provincial Council election to splinter the UNP vote in the region. The Wayamba poll being crucial with the Opposition, convinced it could narrow the margins in the province if it mobilises early, senior party officials advocated rapprochement talks with the MPs.
Karunanayake and others returned to Colombo on Sunday, convinced talks could begin between Range Bandara, Abeysinghe and the UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe later in the week. Their suspensions from the party, imposed for attending the Sarath Fonseka led rally against the executive presidency in October last year in violation of a party directive, was to be withdrawn.
UNP seniors believed Dayasiri Jayasekera would remain in the Opposition after efforts to convince the young parliamentarian from Kurunegala that his future within the party was both secure and showed great promise. Several party seniors told Jayasekera that this move of political expediency was unnecessary when he was certain of a prominent place within the UNP irrespective of who was at the helm.
“Whichever party you are in, you will be a minister. The question is if you want it now or whether you will wait for it at a future date. But look beyond that and you should see yourself as a party leader or head of state someday. Look at the succession plans of both parties objectively and decide which party you have the real chance with,” UNP Parliamentarians advised the 44-year-old Jayasekera last week. Unfortunately, Jayasekera held the counter view that a change in the UNP’s political fortunes remained as remote and elusive as ever.
Jayasekera was a prominent politician within the UNP who remained deeply disillusioned with Wickremesinghe’s leadership. He has never minced his words about how he felt about the UNP Leader’s reign. When the Party held its convention in December last year and ratified a six year uncontested term of office for Ranil Wickremesinghe through an amendment to the UNP constitution, Jayasekera was one of a few MPs including Sajith Premadasa and Rosy Senanayake who openly voted against the move. When other frontline UNP reformists left the party to join the Government, giving up the fight against Wickremesinghe, Jayasekera was openly critical of their conduct. Like Premadasa, he was seen as a believer in the need to stay in the party and fight for leadership change and reform.
The last straw
Many party activists believe that the last straw for Jayasekera was the elevation of Wickremesinghe confidant Akila Viraj Kariyawasam as de facto district leader for Kurunegala, sidelining the more popular Jayasekera. He was also excluded from a committee that would coordinate party activity for the Wayamba poll.
Both decisions, several UNP members felt was grossly unfair given Jayasekera’s capacity for organisation and ability to mobilise much needed votes in the Kurunegala district. Kariyawasam’s promotion was seen for what it was, some party sources said, pointing to Wickremesinghe’s tendency to appoint loyalists to key positions instead of basing these decisions on a merit system. They criticised Wickremesinghe’s inability to rise above his personal insecurities and play big picture politics in the interest of the party and its overarching goals to wrest power from the UPFA.
Jayasekera’s defection, these sources believe, is only the beginning of a highly probable mass decampment of UNP members to the ruling administration. Several other UNP MPs are said to be in talks with the Government even as the Opposition tries to cobble together some resistance to the UPFA juggernaut in the Wayamba and Central Provinces ahead of a likely September election.
In Parliament yesterday, Jayasekera consulted with Minister Basil Rajapaksa in the office of Presidential Coordinating Secretary for Parliamentary Affairs Kumarasiri Hettige, before entering the Parliament Chamber in the afternoon. Delivering a crushing statement at a press conference a few hours later, Jayasekera denounced Ranil Wickremesinghe as a dictator and said UNP MPs had no freedom of expression or thought within the party.
“Even if he loses in 2014, he will remain leader of the party. If the lampposts within the Working Committee give him another term, he can remain in office for the rest of his life. His leadership is a blessing to the Government. We fought our battles within the party. I am no longer interested in staying in the party, fighting him and being harassed by him. We don’t know how long more we will have to fight him. The years I have left I want to spend serving the people. We will not be popular forever. I believe the people would endorse my move to step out. The defeatists within the UNP are defeating the people.
“After defeat at the 2014 poll, the Opposition will attempt to attain power again only 2022. I am not willing to wait till then. For 20 years, the people of this country have suffered because of this UNP leadership. It is not the UNP that is making them suffer, but the party’s leadership. When compared with the UNP leadership, I don’t see the President’s leadership as being dictatorial,” he said in a parting shot, pledging to put all his efforts into getting Rajapaksa re-elected in 2014.
All set for Wayamba
Jayasekera announced his resignation as a Member of Parliament and said he would be rejoining the SLFP to contest the Wayamba provincial elections. It is speculated that Jayasekera will be the UPFA’s Chief Ministerial candidate for Wayamba even though the Kurunegala District MP vowed he would contest and win the position fair and square.
It was an assurance about this nomination from the President that Jayasekera was not able to obtain until now in order to cement his decision to quit the UNP. An angry President Rajapaksa had refused to even make eye contact with Jayasekera because the latter was not budging on the issue, when most of the Parliament was in attendance at the wedding of Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne’s daughter at the Hilton Colombo on Friday (19).
According to informed reports, despite staunch opposition to the move from the SLFP membership, the UPFA’s Wayamba organisers and activists were warning the President that the race in the North Western Province was not going to be as easy as anticipated. There was concern in some quarters of the ruling coalition that Rajapaksa administration’s treatment of Sarath Fonseka could prove disadvantageous for the UPFA in Kurunegala in particular, because the district is home to several thousand military families.
The district and the province are also perceived as being less supportive of the Government than might be expected as the crisis of incumbency gradually sets in. Dayasiri Jayasekera’s popularity in the region could be the answer to all these problems, the Wayamba politicos and activists told the President. Until the pressure mounted from that quarter, President Rajapaksa was insistent that he would not nominate a chief ministerial candidate for the province because it would cause friction within the coalition and jeopardise the chances of a cohesive and united UPFA campaign.
When Jayasekera continued to stand his ground on the issue, the President finally agreed to his terms. President Rajapaksa has more at stake than just the election. He believes that it will be necessary to effect more defections from the UNP to ensure that when the time comes to repeal the 13th Amendment to the constitution, the Government will possess its two thirds majority with or without the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress votes. Political observers remarked that it was the first time a UNP crossover had not taken place on the President’s terms alones. It spoke to the fact that when the winnings of his side were at stake, President Rajapaksa could and would eat humble pie and back down.
The Ranil factor
Ranil Wickremesinghe is the diametrical opposite of this. Wickremesinghe has proven that he will place self and ego before party and country, a formula that has kept the UNP in opposition for 19 years, barring the two brief years in office between 2002 and 2004. Schooled in unfailing loyalty to the party leader since the inception of his political career, Wickremesinghe, in his post-2005 avatar, has brazenly refused to brook dissent within his party or face up to challenges to his leadership.
Vexed with demands that he step down from office and burdened with serious issues of trust, Wickremesinghe has surrounded himself only with loyalists, most of whom are the feeblest and least charismatic within the UNP. Their lack of political vision notwithstanding, the Jayasekeras and Premadasas of the UNP with their popular appeal and vibrant personalities pose a threat to Wickremesinghe’s reign by virtue of their mere existence.
They are the embodiment of everything he is not. Not even all the political theories and intellectual acumen in the world can make Ranil Wickremesinghe likeable once again as a politician. It is this fatal realisation that convinces him he must cling to leadership of the one party that will one day be swept to power purely on the grotesque unpopularity of the incumbency and make him Sri Lanka’s leader.
And so he will stand by and watch as the UNP’s brightest stars desert ship, until perhaps only he and his most ancient acolytes are left standing. That the country loses its right of a democratic opposition by the intransigence of the UNP leadership is not something that keeps Wickremesinghe awake at night. He is content to leave the sacred duty of alternative leadership to nobler souls. His sole preoccupation remains the eventual occupation of the presidential chair.
And yet, despite the conviction amongst the country’s political elite that the UNP Leader would do well in the executive chair, there are fundamental and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to his ever reaching that position.
Wickremesinghe looks less and less presidential every day. He is aggressive and reactionary, egotistical and despotic. Never magnanimous, never conciliatory, as the leader of the UNP, Wickremesinghe has played his hand dictatorially at every turn. And Sri Lankans are no longer interested in replacing one autocrat with another.
Crisis of faith
With Jayasekera’s defection therefore, the UNP finds itself facing once more a serious crisis of faith in its leadership. The Party’s troubles are multiplied by the fact that the latest erosion comes ahead of three crucial elections and the very real prospect now, analysts say of an early presidential poll in 2014. Serious, introspective decisions will need to be made to prevent further erosion into Government ranks.
Within the party, the onus lies heavy on the Wickremesinghe appointed Working Committee, the UNP’s apex decision making body. With the party facing one of the worst crises of its history, the UNP Working Committee also faces a historic challenge. Will it continue to allow Wickremesinghe a free hand to lead the UNP towards certain destruction?
UNP stalwarts believe the time has come for the Working Committee to show its mettle, proving to the party’s rank and file that it is capable of putting the interests of the party first and being less sycophantic towards the personal agendas of its party leader. Every blow the UNP takes from within strengthens the hand of the incumbent regime. A decimated opposition has grave repercussions for the future of democracy in Sri Lanka, democracy that is already proving dangerously fragile in the present context.
The collective opposition was hoping not so long ago to join forces at a future decisive election on a common platform to abolish the executive presidential system. The Opposition is convinced that President Rajapaksa will opt for early elections, none more so than the UNP. Under the circumstances, the party’s decision makers will have to do some profound thinking as to whether it is going to rest the fate of the combined opposition at another election, perhaps the most crucial one yet, on the shoulders of its current leader.
With the country facing a precarious situation on multiple fronts, under ordinary circumstances, this would have been a time for the Opposition to experience a groundswell of popular support. Instead, despite all the economic and international political problems plaguing the incumbency, even high profile UNP members view their future as being brighter under the Rajapaksa administration. If today’s political culture is one of expediency and street smarts, Wickremesinghe is dangerously out of his league.
Analysts observe that if the UNP Leader cannot retain the handful of parliamentarians he has left, his ability to lead and foster a common opposition against the Rajapaksa regime is negligible at best. In the aftermath of the Dayasiri exodus, the party and the collective opposition will begin a search for a new face of resistance to the Rajapaksa juggernaut.
Disillusioned opposition activists will return to the drawing board to make the case for an elder statesman with the capacity to unite all political parties and civil society movements taking arms against the Rajapaksa presidency. Karu Jayasuriya, sidelined by Wickremesinghe and unceremoniously sacked from the party’s Working Committee after he contested and lost leadership elections in 2011, is being bandied about once more as a stop-gap option to lead the common opposition platform against the executive presidency in the event of a presidential poll next year.
Whether Wickremesinghe will make way for another opposition common candidate other than himself at the next election remains to be seen. But for better or worse, some UNP members believe that Jayasuriya remains the party’s best possible option to ensure that the presidential system is abolished once the office is attained, with the party’s former deputy leader being considered an honourable man and therefore, a trustworthy candidate for the job.
The crucial north
Meanwhile, with the Opposition sufficiently demoralised ahead of the North Western and Central Provincial polls, the Rajapaksa administration can focus all its energies on the most important September election of all. While speculation continues to mount about the possibility of the Northern Provincial Council elections being challenged in Supreme Court with the aim of delaying the poll, the Northern Election is also garnering significant interest, with the TNA’s pick for Chief Minister, former Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran already at the receiving end of many bouquets and brickbats.
Interestingly, regime mouthpiece and Minister of Housing Wimal Weerawansa expressed solidarity with TNA Jaffna District MP Mavai Senathirajah, saying the international community, led by New Delhi and Washington, had forced him to step back from the race for the Chief Ministerial candidacy of the party. Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa echoed those sentiments when he told The Hindu in a widely publicised interview last week that Justice Wigneswaran was the candidate of “external forces”, referring to the Tamil Diaspora.
In an ironic twist, the Tamil Diaspora lobby group Tamils for Obama this week condemned Wigneswaran’s selection and called him an outsider who had no feeling for the Tamil people of the north and east because he had lived all his life in Colombo. The group also slammed the former Justice for referring to Sri Lanka’s armed forces as “our army” and “our navy”.
“Mr. Wigneswaran in this Hindustan Times interview referred to ‘our army’ and ‘our navy’. These references are to the Singhalese-controlled national Sri Lankan armed forces. They are not ‘our’ forces and calling it ‘our army’ insults the Tamils. This is the genocidal army that killed over 70,000 Tamil civilians and raped numerous Tamil women, and whose officers may eventually be facing war crimes tribunals for these murders.
“Mr. Wigneswaran makes clear (he says it many times and in many ways) that he favours a united Sri Lanka. He asks the leaders in Tamil Nadu to ‘allow us to work out our own solutions to our own problems within a united Sri Lanka’. These are the same ideas and even the same phrases that Mahinda Rajapaksa used when misleading the international community,” a statement from the group said.
With nationalist elements on both sides of the ethnic divide rallying against him, no further proof is necessary of the fact that the Wigneswaran candidacy is the best and most conciliatory choice at this crucial election in a province bruised, battered and embittered by the rigours of civil strife. (Courtesy Daily FT)