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President charting a course for an early election

By Namini Wijedasa

Many were those who expected S B Dissanayake to perform miracles for the UNP after his release from prison. In an interview with the Sunday Island last week, Dissanayake explained why this hasn’t happened and called for a change in the dictatorial constitution of the UNP. He called for firm decisions and speedy action, saying that even party activists at village level were falling silent with despondency at the state of the UNP.

UNP supporters and members are bitter about the truly derelict state of the party. What is happening?

After our defeat at the last presidential election, the vast majority of UNP members be they high-rankers or low-rankers have been calling for a change in party structure, decision-making procedure, official positions and duties. Conversely, there is another group that is afraid of such change. They are terrified of losing their own power. Many members of this second group don’t have a political or public foundation. But they are influential. Consequently, party reform is delayed from day to day. Nevertheless, those who fear change are blocking the process.

How do these individuals have such power if even the wider UNP membership wants restructuring?

The manner in which our party evolved during the recent past resulted in most top posts being occupied by these individuals, despite them not having wide political clout or public support. This made them powerful.

It was widely believed that you would turn the party around after leaving prison but there’s been no sign of that happening. Why?

It’s true that people thought I would revive the party. However, the path towards party reform is difficult and riddled with obstacles because those politically bankrupt individuals have permeated the higher ranks of the party.

I think the party constitution must first be changed. It is not a constitution that allows the majority viewpoint to emerge or prevail. It is a dictatorial constitution. I have said this to the party leader and deputy leader. I have said this at politburo meetings. I am fighting.

President Mahinda Rajapakse is taking members from your party`85

(Interrupting) Not taking. They are going. Our people are going. And they have a right to go. We can’t violate the right of a human being to switch from one political party to another. Similarly, any party has the right to absorb members from other parties. If a parliamentarian from the SLFP comes to us today, wouldn’t we enlist him? We certainly would. The UNP…we must know how to draw people to our party and to prevent our men from leaving us. It can be achieved. We can attract dozens of members from the SLFP and PA if we rebuild our party quickly.

At the same time, there’s no shortcut to party restructuring. Throughout history, every politician that chose shortcuts was defeated. The success stories of J R Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapakse teach us to work patiently. The downfall of people like Anura Bandaranaike, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali tell us not to be hasty. I’m not hasty.

Are people leaving the UNP for money?

I don’t think anyone’s going for money. People like Mahinda Samarasinghe, Susantha Punchinilame and Rohitha Bogollagama had some personal…legal problems and wanted to circumvent those. Others went for high posts. Finally, some members left due to despondency and shattered dreams. They felt they had no future within their party.

Which individuals are blocking party reform?

(Laughs). As someone holding a relatively high position in the party, I don’t think it’s suitable for me to say. Anyhow, the whole country knows there is a group inside the UNP that wants change and a group that doesn’t.

Is it a weakness in party leadership that had led to this mess?

I wouldn’t like to say that. However, the leader and deputy leader must propel this party towards substantial change with more enthusiasm than they are currently showing.

Do M Maharoof and Milinda Moragada have constitutional power within the party?

No, they don’t. But they were given powers by the party leader.

Why can’t other members contravene them?

Because of a fundamental flaw in the party. J R Jayawardene, when he was leader of the party, had the strength at one time to throw out Rukman Senanayake. Rukman was more powerful in those days than he is today.

You say there’s a struggle in the party to bring about reform but there’s no evidence of it. Instead, the UNP seems to be wallowing in self-pity and not really doing much.

When there’s an internal battle happening inside a political party, it would be an impediment to that battle if it’s fought. Secondly, if we publicise it, we would look like individuals who are trying to make ourselves look important. Therefore, I think it’s advisable to fight for change internally, quietly and patiently.

What practical measures are you taking to bring about change because so far it’s been just a lot of gab?

We are discussing the necessity of party restructure at politburo meetings. I am personally pushing to expedite the process. And we actually have been able to manage something. But certainly there is a very unfortunate delay. This delay is causing members to leave the UNP. And remember that these are just members that we can see leaving…with our own eyes. When a parliamentarian leaves, we see him go. But people in the villages, who have been protecting the party for years, are falling silent. The village headman, the village principal, the Grama Niladhari…he is becoming quiet. They may not break away from the party and switch sides but they do lose confidence. We can see this happening all over the country. It is exceedingly unfortunate.

Can this trend be reversed now, at this late stage?

If there’s a shake-up from top to bottom, if there’s a change in the decision-making procedure, party structure and top positions…all these people who are asleep, disconsolate and disgusted will rouse themselves and come forward. These people want a UNP government. They want to have a strong political party in power. The UNP has the strength and the qualifications. The SLFP can never assume power alone. They don’t have the base. The leftist parties are now weak. The JVP emerged as an alternative but it became evident during the local government elections that they can’t successfully contest alone. They performed like giants when contesting in an alliance but they became ants on their own.

Does the leader want substantial change?

He declared even today that we must restructure the party.

Nevertheless, there are different levels of structuring. What sort of reform does the leader want?

They (leader and deputy leader) must have some idea of what level of change they want…but I think the majority wants decisive change in party structure and policy.

Are there any written proposals for change?

There are several sets of proposals. The leader also has his set of proposals. There are other proposals that have been put forward by committees that were set up for the purpose.

Rajitha Senaratne has been speaking out about the state of the party`85

Senaratne is a clever man. He has a following and is popular among people. He wishes to make a substantial change. In the J R Jayewardene or Dudley era, the UNP had great leaders outside of those who held the party’s main posts. They were men from various ethnic minorities, religious minorities and depressed castes. A party needs this.

Don’t you have any now?

Not that we don’t…they must be brought forward and developed. We have good Tamil and Muslim leaders… people who can be promoted to the likes of Chelvanayakam, Ponnabalam or Hameed. People like (M H) Mohamed are still giants but they must be given a place in the party. This hasn’t been done. That’s why there’s shortfall in the party of that calibre of person.

Party restructuring aside, why hasn’t the UNP performed effectively as an opposition either in parliament or within the country?

I admit there are weaknesses in our performance as an opposition. It’s true.

Is it enough to admit this? Party supporters are dejected.

I am also dejected. I feel the same. But I personally believe we can rebuild the party and take if forward

If the leadership had taken firm disciplinary over the altering of the name list before the Colombo Municipal Council election, do you think the party situation would have been different?

What happened before the Colombo election is not a small incident. T M Sangadasa is a man who had built a people’s following for himself from the time of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

His name was struck off from the list…inside the party, by the party. This was ruled as a wrongdoing after a disciplinary inquiry. But that fact was suppressed. What was emphasised was that there had been no conspiracy in including the name of a candidate under 18. Even I can see that. But the crime of striking off Sangadasa’s name was buried while the other incident was played up.

There are other areas of weakness. During the last presidential election, there were organisers who did not work hard for the party. They didn’t even make a minimum effort while others worked with utmost dedication. There was also a weakness in the management of the campaign. Shouldn’t the party take firm decisions about these people? This never happens and that’s unfortunate. When decisions aren’t taken, people become disappointed.

What do you think about President Mahinda Rajapakse’ invitation to the UNP?

Well and good, if it’s a genuine invitation…but I don’t think so. Forget the words of the president and study his actions. For instance, he has not installed the independent commissions. He took over the powers of the Constitutional Council and appointed members to the commissions. As a result, officers in charge of all police stations are now people whom SLFP organisers in each area want. Senior inspectors of police and chief inspectors are cooling their heels in various locations while sub inspectors are officers in charge.

The president has politicised administration to an unimaginable extent. This situation could have been different. We must help him only if he is moving firmly towards a power-sharing agreement to solve the ethnic problem and producing a solid economic plan.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has better public relations skills than anybody else in politics today. He is clever at that. He also has the necessary boldness. But those qualities must be used to rebuild the country’s economy, to solve the ethnic problem, to strengthen law and order. If he is ready to transform the country positively, we must help him unconditionally.

Personally, though, I believe that he wants to fool India for a few months, to fool the IMF and World Bank for a few months, to fool the co-chairs and donor nations for a few months, to scare the JVP, to break off another chunk of the UNP and, in March or April, call an election. I think his overture to the UNP is part of this strategy.

Essentially, he wants to take an expensive loan on the open market, get humanitarian aid by selling the UNP-SLFP talks and also extract money from IMF. He can obtain as much money as is necessary for the government’s expenditure. He will then increase salaries, pay cost of living allowances, make the public sector happy and call an election.

This is what I think. It may not be so…and if he doesn’t proceed in this manner, all the better. But the UNP must be aware of the dangers while also assisting any programme the president has.

Nevertheless, isn’t President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government performing effectively in their military efforts against the LTTE?

When the LTTE withholds water from us, we do need to get it by force. It is also good that Sampur was captured because, had the area remained in the hands of the LTTE, it would been a great threat to the Trincomalee harbour. The LTTE had strengthened the Sampur base after the signing of the ceasefire agreement.

However, if the government continues the war…and encourages the position that only war will help, there will be no solution.

Why aren’t you on the streets in protest so that people know the UNP is awake?

I admit that it isn’t healthy for this situation to continue. We did start a seminar series to educate people about the precarious state of the country. But one of the political parties have more than a handful of people who can address events like seminars…take young people out, debate and speak. We need to use whom we have. Unfortunately, the seminar series didn’t happen the way I expected it to. A few speakers were casually deployed here and there. Some didn’t turn up since they were not well-known personalities. There wasn’t a good public attendance either. Those who did attend didn’t take anything away with them.

What do you think of the all-party conference?

Nothing happens at those all-party conferences. There has to be some basis for talks, a time-table and a deadline. Even the LSSP has said that. What is happening now is a joke.

[via… The Sunday Island]

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September 10, 2006 - Posted by | Media Journalism, News and politics, South Asia, World News

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