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'Despite tough posturing by rival factions, UNP is unlikely to split'.

Despite tough posturing by the two rival factions of the ruling United National Party (UNP) over who should be the party candidate in the November-December 2019 Sri Lankan Presidential election, a source close to the two factions said that a compromise will be struck and that the party will not split.

The source, which did not want to be identified, said that behind all the rhetoric, there is a realization on both sides, that they will be defeated if the party is broken into two. The challenge from outside is formidable to both.

'One of them could be the President and the other the Prime Minister,' the source said.

But who is to occupy which post has to be thrashed out at a meeting between the two on September 10. A meeting which was to be held on Sunday had to be postponed.

The Challenges

Both sides will have to face onerous challenges in the run up to the polling. The chances of winning depend heavily on whether the UNP is united or not.

As of now, the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist and the Catholic vote banks appear to be overwhelmingly with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has promised security, both national and communal. The Muslims are neither here nor there with both the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the UNP, unable to guarantee their security against extremist Sinhala- Buddhist elements and a biased law and order machinery. The Tamils are disillusioned with all the mainstream parties, as none of them has met their core demands viz., devolution of power in the form of a new constitution, war-time accountability for alleged war crimes including enforced disappearances, and the release of political prisoners.

Sajith Premadasa insists that he has the support of the Sinhala-Buddhist rural masses and the urban hoi polloi in the same way his father, the Late Ranasinghe Premadasa, had. The bulk of the UNP rank and file appears to believe that this is so. Wickremsinghe pales into insignificance in contrast, even according to his close confidantes like Malik Samarawickrama and Mangala Samaraweera.

But Wickremesinghe disputes this, saying that the rural people have gained by his leadership as he had restored democracy and launched economic programs.

Opposition leader and SLPP chief Mahinda Rajapaksa has a dim view of Sajith. He points out that Sajith could not win even his own Hambantota district in the last local body elections, which only shows his weak hold over the rural and urban grassroots. In the local elections, the UNP as a whole came a poor second and its then governmental partner Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena, came a poorer third.

While Sajith appears to have the party rank and file and the second and third line of leaders with him, experienced UNP hands say that the hardcore UNPers, the opinion leaders in the villages, are still with Wickremesinghe for the simple reason that he represents the old, established order.

'The UNP is basically a conservative party where the hardcore plays a critical role in determining voters' choice,' said P.P.Devaraj, a veteran UNP leader and former Minister of State in the Ranasinghe Premadasa government.

According to Tamil National Alliance (TNA) sources, the Tamils prefer Wickremesinghe to Sajith for the simple reason that Wickremesinghe had gone farther than any other mainstream Sinhalese leader to bring about a new constitution with devolution of power to the Tamils. Wickremesinghe is the only man who truly understands the Tamil problem, the TNA believes. Sajith, on the other hand, has shown no interest in the Tamil question and has not been involved in finding a solution to it ever. He is quintessentially, a Southern Sri Lankan politician.

The Muslims too are more inclined towards Wickremesinghe than Sajith. Being a greenhorn, Sajith could be expected to toe the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian line just to be on the safe side. Muslim leaders have been more comfortable with Wickremesinghe than with Sajith, whose interactions have been mostly with the lower order of Sinhala politicians. He has not cultivated the Muslims and the Tamils as his father President Premadasa had done quite recognizably in his time.

Mud Slinging

Meanwhile, efforts are on by the UNP (collectively) to malign Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family by reporting on the revival of cases against them.

On his part, President Maithripala Sirisena has signed a letter to the Singapore government requesting the extradition of Arjuna Mahendran who is the main accused in the Central Bank scam. This is to corner Wickremesinghe who is allegedly protecting Mahendran.

While hitting out at Wickremesinghe, Sirisena appears to be taking a soft line towards Sajith in the hope that, if Sajith breaks away from Wickremesinghe and fights the election alone, he could have an alliance with him and seek to be Prime Minister in a Sajith Presidency.

Sirisena hopes to be a powerful Prime Minister as per the 19 th.Amendment of the constitution. This is why he told the SLFP convention that the next President will be powerless and all power will be in the hands of the Prime Minister. The next parliament, to be elected in 2020, will give effect to this, he added.

However, even as SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayadskara informed the Election Commission that the party's Presidential candidate is Maithripala Sirisena, the SLFP is continuing talks with the SLPP on forming an electoral alliance.

'Both the SLFP and SLPP need each other in a Presidential election as every vote counts. For the alliance, the SLPP is ready to give in to reasonable demands. The question is how much we can yield without damaging our core interests,' explained SLPP spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella.

It is believed that President Sirisena wants to be Prime Minister or at the least, the portfolios of Mahaweli Development and Environment and a National List seat in parliament. On this, Rambukwella said that given Sirisena's stature, the SLPP will have to give him a fair deal.

Given the SLPP's brighter prospects, the SLFP will have to go in for an alliance with the SLPP, ignoring the belligerent statements being made by SLFP leaders from time to time.
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Geographic Code:9SRIL
Date:Sep 10, 2019
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