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Reform call conceals UNP tensions

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Sri Lanka’s main opposition United National Party (UNP) is anything but united this week, but rival factions papered over emerging cracks as they prepared to face a party convention next month and key local polls.

Internal tensions over the leadership and future direction of the UNP, Sri Lanka’s oldest party, have erupted in the wake of the defeat of its leader and candidate in last month’s Presidential polls, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Faced with potentially destructive chaos that a change in leadership would precipitate ahead of crucial local government elections, dissidents within the party have given up the challenge to replace Wickremesinghe and are now concentrating on trying to ‘reform’ the party, press reports said.

The main thrust of the reforms are the reduction of the powers of the leader, though it is not clear what alternative distributions are being put forward.

However some analysts suggest that the reduction of the powers of the party leader and the move to place Jayasuriya at the forefront are both part of a strategy to regain the vote of the majority Sinhala population, who resoundingly rejected the UNP and its policies at the Presidential polls last month and, to a great extent, the parliamentary polls in 2004.

A party senior protested to the Gulf Times that virtually all powers are now centred around the leader and his close associates.

“That was one of the reasons for the defeat at the last presidential election, as Wickremesinghe took many vital decisions without consulting others. We want to remove such people who are responsible for the defeat and replace them with capable people who will lead the party to victory,” he said.

“The UNP will continue to face defeats in future elections if the leader is allowed to take decisions with the same crowd,” he said.

Soon after the November 17 Presidential polls, UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya was reportedly encouraged to challenge Wickremesinghe for the leadership of the party.

On November 22, party spokesman Tissa Attanayake was quoted by the Daily Mirror as saying that Wickremesinghe would resign from the party leadership and be replaced by Jayasuriya. Another UNP leader, Rajitha Senaratne, corroborated the story later that week in an interview with the BBC Sinhala service.

However, Jayasuriya, perhaps understandably, was quoted as saying that he was not part of a conspiracy to oust Wickremesinghe. But he admitted he was keeping his options open, declaring his wholehearted support for “a decisive reorganisation initiative” - in the event that “a majority of the party” felt that was needed.

Compromise was achieved with the party hierarchy unanimously appointing Jayasuriya leader of the opposition in parliament and leader of the UNP parliamentary group, while Wickremesinghe remained the party leader, press reports later said.

According to Colombo press reports, Senaratne, G.L. Peiris, Mahinda Wijesekara and M.H. Mohomed—all ministers in former UNP-led government – were seeking to replace Wickremesinghe with Jayasuriya.

Prof. G. L. Peiris was the chief negotiator in the UNP-led government’s peace talks with the Liberation Tigers in 2002-3. Despite speculation that he had fallen out with Wickremesinghe, Prof. Peiris had, in the days before the Nov. 17 election, campaigned on behalf of his leader.

The split within the UNP has placed Peiris on the opposite side from his colleague on the negotiating team, Milinda Morogoda, who is reportedly remaining a staunch supporter of Wickremesinghe’s.

However, there are also those within the party who blame Morogoda, and his acknowledgement in an interview days before the polls that the UNP had worked to undermine the LTTE, for alienating Tamil voters and consequently contributing to Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the Presidential elections.

UNP Assistant General Secretary Tissa Attanayake said this week the party would not let personal interests take precedence when reorganizing the party in time for the UNP Convention next month, the Daily Mirror reported.

Wickremsinghe is undoubtedly under pressure. Apart from this years Presidential elections and last year’s Parliamentary polls, under his leadership, the UNP has suffered over a dozen defeats in the last 11 years. The only electoral win by the UNP was in the 2001 parliamentary polls, and even then the party relied on the minority communities to win by a narrow margin. Then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance coalition won the majority of the Sinhala vote.

Wickremesinghe lost to Mahinda Rajapakse of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) by 48.4 percent to 50.29 percent in the last Presidential campaign, which was charged with communal politics.

The business community backed Wickremesinghe as the better prospect to renew the stalled peace talks with the Liberation Tigers and press ahead with economic restructuring.

But the Sinhala heartland preferred the offering of Rajapakse and his Marxist-nationalist allies, who stirred up chauvinist sentiment against the “peace process”. Rajapakse won 11 rural electoral districts with a Sinhalese majority, including Moneragala, Hambantota, Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Gampaha, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.

The support for Jayasuriya as party leader is viewed as significant in this move to regain the Sinhalese heartland – he is viewed by many in the party as a counterweight to the Sinhala chauvinist campaign waged by Rajapakse’s allies—the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

UNP leader Senaratne told Lakbima: “If we are to dispel the doubts created in the minds of the Sinhala Buddhist masses it is necessary to have a program [and leader] that dresses up, speaks, and behaves in a manner familiar to the masses. If not we will not be able to alter the conception that has been drummed into the masses that we are an outlandish force subservient to the West.”

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