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FeaturesHow the UNP Came to Adopt Maithripala Sirisena

How the UNP Came to Adopt Maithripala Sirisena

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January 8 is remembered for change. First there was the brutal killing in broad daylight of Journalist and Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga who stood out exposing the excesses of the Rajapaksa regime. Lasantha was killed in a high -security environment near an armed forces installation. He died brave and unbowed.

By the Aluth Avurudda in April 2014, the authoritarianism of the MR regime had reached its zenith. After serving on the Committee of Public Enterprises (COPE) for four years, rather naively, I went to inspect the progress or lack thereof on the Mattala Airport and Magampura Harbour in Hambantota along with a group of UNP backbenchers.  We were confronted by a gun-toting Mayor of Hambantota, who had assembled a mob who reminded one of the thinking of the defeated LTTE — ‘this is our land and you are not welcome here’. The picture of the gun-wielding Mayor threatening the MPs galvanized the country. It strengthened the resolve of the UNP backbench that the regime had to go.

We went around the country speaking to our rank and file and also to many disillusioned floating voters who wanted a change but did not believe that it was really possible. Our message was clear and simple. We all have a common problem – the increasing authoritarianism, accompanied by its colossal corruption, the collapse of the Rule of Law, a slow- growing real economy with lack of opportunities particularly for the youth. President Rajapaksa had to go at the end of his legal two terms. The problem had no colour – it was not blue, green or red. It was a common problem. We needed a common solution.

The UNP had been through much internal turmoil in the preceding period, which led to much soul searching. There were many divergent views as to how the problem should be addressed. Some advocated a change of leadership, but most believed that the problems that had engulfed the country were far greater than the issue of getting the UNP back in power. There was a recognition that we had to align ourselves with all the socio-political movements to confront the regime.

The movement for Social Justice led by the highly-respected late Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Thera and the UNP came together in their common quest to make a change. Civil Society, professionals and religious leaders were increasingly drawn into the movement. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader, skilfully held together the UNP, while bringing smaller parties into the coalition and merged them with the Civil Society movements. It was Wickremesinghe’s political experience that stood out while he had to face differing views from within the UNP. The ground was being prepared countrywide.

The Uva Provincial Council election was announced. It was a decisive moment for the Party. Wickremesinghe was of the clear view that Harin Fernando must be convinced to take on the leadership of the election campaign for the Uva Provincial Council. The Party overwhelmingly welcomed the move. Harin was taking the biggest risk of his political career and the UNP backbench backed him to the hilt by relocating to Uva during this time.

Harin beat Sashindra Rajapakse overwhelmingly on the Preference Count. There was a marked shift of votes of government employees and service personnel to the Opposition and the impregnable UPFA had begun to look weak for the first time.
It was now clear that the momentum had to be maintained. The UNP went through many discussions as to who should be its Presidential Candidate. A consensus was emerging that the dissident voices from the UPFA should be accommodated in the movement for change. This was the biggest mental and emotional barrier the party had to cross. Many SLFP front -benchers had been in discussion with UNP functionaries. It was clear that MR and his close group, containing family and key officials, were resented by the long-standing SLFP politician. The space for discussion, dissent and political ascension had been shut on these SLFP stalwarts.

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga became a rallying point for these forces. She also became the bridge between them and the UNP. The UNP leader was confident of her judgement.  Most MPs in the UNP had now come to terms with the fact that change was needed, that the country had to be prioritized over party, and therefore, a common candidate should be inducted. Ranil Wickremesinghe was willing but was also rightly concerned that the Party should be kept united.

Maithripala Sirisena’s name was proposed by CBK. To most in the UNP it was ‘Maithri who?’ or ‘Why Maithri?’ As has been said before, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena, both Members of Parliament for over three decades, had never previously interacted with each other in a meaningful sense. So there were many doubts and questions.

It was CBK who underwrote the acceptance of Maithripala Sirisena to the UNP. Once when I questioned her about the suitability of Maithripala Sirisena, she said ‘I am surprised at his resolve to come out and stand for change’. After a couple of days of dilly dallying and internal consultation amongst UNP MPs, the decision was taken by Wickremesinghe that this is the way to go. Maitripala Sirisena was proposed by Wickremesinghe and the UNP’s Working Committee resolved to back his candidacy. He publicly announced his decision to contest the very same day.

The Party was upbeat. A Campaign Committee was appointed. The overall strategy was co-ordinated by the Campaign Committee, while each party and Civil Society Organization took responsibility for their constituencies. Naturally, the major responsibility fell on the UNP.
Tissa Attanayake who was involved at the beginning began to pull in a different direction and suddenly announced that he was supporting the MR candidacy. At the outset, it came as a shock to those who did not follow the campaign closely. However to others, it came as relief.

Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe were due to address a Press Conference a few hours after Tissa made his decision public. A few minutes prior to that, Ranil Wickremesinghe walked into a room in the office of the Leader of the Opposition. Malik Samarawickreme, Kabir Hashim who was the Chairman and myself as the Treasurer of the party were in discussion on minimizing the impact of Tissa’s departure. Wickremesinghe was on his way to address the regular campaign press conference, when he asked “What shall we do?”  Both Malik and I were of the view that a new General Secretary be appointed immediately so that the campaign could proceed uninterrupted. We suggested that Kabir should be the new General Secretary, even though Kabir appeared initially reluctant.

Ranil sent a word from the Press Conference that he wanted us to join him.   A short while later he announced the departure of Tissa and that Kabir Hashim was the new General Secretary of the UNP. This was the fastest decision on a weighty matter that I had seen the UNP leader took and it proved to be the best decision too. Kabir with his management background gave leadership to organizing and energizing the party with the ‘Jana Jaya’ programme. The party was galvanized bottom up.

The UNP’s countrywide branch network was delivering leaflets, canvassing door-to-door and conducting tens of thousands of small propaganda meetings. It was the UNP’s branch and polling booth organization that protected the vote against malpractices. We owe it to the UNP’s die hard supporters. But most of all, it is Maithripala Sirisena who owes it to the UNP’s rank and file. He always gratefully acknowledges the fact.

The new President and the Prime Minister set priorities for the first 100 days, most of which were achieved. Amongst them were the reduction in presidential power through the 19th Amendment. This was something that had been unthinkable a few months before.  In fact MR had made himself all powerful through abolishing the presidential term limit. The 19A went further by de-politicizing the elections process, the Police Department, the public sector and other spheres. This was achieved through the appointment of a Constitutional Council which included members of the Civil Society and it was essentially a reform agenda.

We had a new President but a minority government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe with about 60 MP’s in a Parliament of 225. The achievements in the first 100 days were significant given this context. Sri Lanka moved from international isolation to taking its due place on the world stage through skilful handling of its foreign policies by Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera.

The Parliamentary Election on August 17 gave the United National Front led by the UNP 107 seats. The UNF and the SLFP coalition gave the government an overwhelming majority. The reason for the two major parties coming together in government for a period of time could only be justified on the basis of a Reform Agenda. Democracy is best defended by a multi-party system. So the experiment of the present coalition government will be justified on the basis of a resolution of the national question, a macro economic stabilization programme, reform of the educational system where an increasing percentage of GDP is invested in this sector while welcoming the participation of non-governmental players, and finally economic reform including labour markets, competition and land ownership. With a consensus on the resolution of the national question and the adoption of economic reforms, the investment that would be unleashed will no doubt multiply. The present FDI which is about US$ 1 billion per annum will grow 3 or 4 fold within a few years.

President Mahinda Rajapakse will be remembered for the leadership he gave in eradicating terrorism. His place in history is assured, but that legacy could be diminished by meddling in the on-going political battles. Similarly, President Sirisena will be remembered as the person who restored democracy and reconciled a nation. The unfinished work must be completed during his term. The challenge before the country now is for economic growth and inclusive development. Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe is laying the foundation for that future. It is everyone’s responsibility to keep faith as it is the beginning of a long journey.

The Party was upbeat. A Campaign Committee was appointed. The overall strategy was co-ordinated by the Campaign Committee, while each party and Civil Society Organization took responsibility for their constituencies. Naturally, the major responsibility fell on the UNP. Tissa Attanayake who was involved at the beginning began to pull in a different direction and suddenly announced that he was supporting the MR candidacy.

At the outset, it came as a shock to those who did not follow the campaign closely. However to others, it came as relief. Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe were due to address a Press Conference a few hours after Tissa made his decision public.

A few minutes prior to that, Ranil Wickremesinghe walked into a room in the office of the Leader of the Opposition. Malik Samarawickreme, Kabir Hashim who was the Chairman and myself as the Treasurer of the party were in discussion on minimizing the impact of Tissa’s departure. Wickremesinghe was on his way to address the regular campaign press conference, when he asked “What shall we do?” Both Malik and I were of the view that a new General Secretary be appointed immediately so that the campaign could proceed uninterrupted. We suggested that Kabir should be the new General Secretary, even though Kabir appeared initially reluctant. Ranil sent a word from the Press Conference that he wanted us to join him.

A short while later he announced the departure of Tissa and that Kabir Hashim was the new General Secretary of the UNP. This was the fastest decision on a weighty matter that I had seen the UNP leader took and it proved to be the best decision too. Kabir with his management background gave leadership to organizing and energizing the party with the ‘Jana Jaya’ programme. The party was galvanized bottom up.

The UNP’s countrywide branch network was delivering leaflets, canvassing door-to-door and conducting tens of thousands of small propaganda meetings. It was the UNP’s branch and polling booth organization that protected the vote against malpractices. We owe it to the UNP’s die hard supporters. But most of all, it is Maithripala Sirisena who owes it to the UNP’s rank and file. He always gratefully acknowledges the fact.

The new President and the Prime Minister set priorities for the first 100 days, most of which were achieved. Amongst them were the reduction in presidential power through the 19th Amendment. This was something that had been unthinkable a few months before. In fact MR had made himself all powerful through abolishing the presidential term limit.

The 19A went further by de-politicizing the elections process, the Police Department, the public sector and other spheres. This was achieved through the appointment of a Constitutional Council which included members of the Civil Society and it was essentially a reform agenda. We had a new President but a minority government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe with about 60 MP’s in a Parliament of 225. The achievements in the first 100 days were significant given this context. Sri Lanka moved from international isolation to taking its due place on the world stage through skilful handling of its foreign policies by Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera.

The Parliamentary Election on August 17 gave the United National Front led by the UNP 107 seats. The UNF and the SLFP coalition gave the government an overwhelming majority. The reason for the two major parties coming together in government for a period of time could only be justified on the basis of a Reform Agenda. Democracy is best defended by a multi-party system.

So the experiment of the present coalition government will be justified on the basis of a resolution of the national question, a macro economic stabilization programme, reform of the educational system where an increasing percentage of GDP is invested in this sector while welcoming the participation of non-governmental players, and finally economic reform including labour markets, competition and land ownership. With a consensus on the resolution of the national question and the adoption of economic reforms, the investment that would be unleashed will no doubt multiply. The present FDI which is about US$ 1 billion per annum will grow 3 or 4 fold within a few years.

President Mahinda Rajapakse will be remembered for the leadership he gave in eradicating terrorism. His place in history is assured, but that legacy could be diminished by meddling in the on-going political battles. Similarly, President Sirisena will be remembered as the person who restored democracy and reconciled a nation. The unfinished work must be completed during his term. The challenge before the country now is for economic growth and inclusive development. Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe is laying the foundation for that future. It is everyone’s responsibility to keep faith as it is the beginning of a long journey.

DM

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