Sri Lanka's Opposition Party Crumbles in Public

The ongoing internal conflict within the main opposition United National Party (UNP) is now unfolding in public with party members sending contradictory messages via the media. The independent statements, accusations and denials have highlighted the party's fragmentation and catapulted this internal struggle onto the national stage.

At a press conference on Tuesday, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told journalists, "The media is saying that (some UNP MPs) are acting independently. If they were acting independently, they wouldn't be here," he said pointing to the several party members who participated at the media briefing with him.

Other UNP parliamentarians, however, have issued independent statements stating their frustration with Wickremesinghe's leadership. Several of them issued statements to Maharaja TV, a privately-owned station in Sri Lanka.

"In order to put pressure on the party leadership, I have decided to sit in Parliament as an independent MP from the next Parliamentary sitting," said UNP MP Ashok Abeysinghe. "The reason is because the party leadership has not looked into any of our requests until now."

Another UNP parliamentarian, Buddhika Pathirana, conveyed a sense of helplessness about the party's future, given how many members have crossed over to support the government in recent months.

"At the last parliamentary election, we obtained 60 parliamentary seats," said Pathirana. "Only six months have passed, the 60 has reduced to 43. If the number of parliamentarians reduced to 43 in six months, who knows how much further it will reduce in another six months."

Wickremesinghe continues to deny that any member of his party will take an independent stand in Parliament, but several UNPers expressed that very intention to the media this week.

"At the next meeting, we will express our views, and if we don't get a positive response to those views, a majority of MPs have decided to act independently," UNP MP Thalatha Athukorala.

Parliamentarian Rosy Senanayake took a more neutral stand but also hinted at the same possibility.

"I will fight to bring about party reforms required to defeat this government and come back into power," Senanayake said. "The statement I made is that if party reforms do not take place, then I will be willing to even consider acting independently on behalf of the voters."

The internal struggle within the UNP is now being staged in front of the cameras. Judging by those who are speaking out, Wickremesinghe appears to be unwilling to address concerns that are being brought forward by party members.

"Twenty-eight members have signed (a letter), and asked for a meeting (with Wickremesinghe), but we have not got a meeting up to date," said UNP MP Sujeewa Senasinghe, also speaking to Maharaja TV. "We were very disappointed. It was an urgent matter that we wanted to talk with the leader, and we didn't get a meeting even though we requested one. And we have decided to act independently until these amendments are approved at a proper forum."

The strength of the UNP leadership has been questioned for some time. The last strong showing of the party at an election was during the general election of 2001 when the party secured 45.6 percent of the votes. In 2004, the UNP lost to President Mahinda Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The UPFA obtained 105 seats in Parliament while the UNP obtained 82 seats. In the presidential election a year later, Wickremesinghe lost by a narrow margin of less than two percentage points.

Since that loss, the UNP has witnessed a massive exodus of prominent parliamentarians including G.L Peiris (the current external affairs minister), Keheliya Rambukwella (the current media minister), S.B. Dissanayake (the current higher education minister), Milinda Moragoda and Rohitha Bogollagama, among many others.

The party had hoped this year's presidential election would be the turning point. Wickremesinghe was willing to forgo his long-term elusive presidential aspirations to former army commander Sarath Fonseka, whose entrance into politics was just as sudden and surprising as the ending of the war in which he played a significant role. In May 2009, government forces defeated the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), bringing an unexpected end to a three-decade old conflict. Fonseka, then a close ally of Rajapaksa, had also been instrumental in the final stages of the military operations.

The tiff that arose between the president and Fonseka in late 2009 was the cue opposition forces needed to target Fonseka as a possible presidential candidate, particularly since Fonseka had obtained the admiration of much of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Opposition parties rallied around Fonseka with renewed energy, hoping the war-hero could inspire voters and help topple the Rajapaksa regime. The euphoria leading up to the election favored Fonseka so much that even confident Rajapaksa supporters began to worry. However, at the polls, Rajapaksa won with a sweeping victory obtaining 57 percent of the votes. The opposition loss was so great that the Fonseka candidacy failed to win the usual UNP strongholds, including the populous Colombo and Kandy districts.

The same pattern followed in the general election in April with the UNP recording massive losses. Bolstered by the presidential win, Rajapaksa's UPFA won in a landslide victory, just shy of reaching a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The two losses were a clear indication that the UNP was weaker than most had expected. But the true weakness of the party was revealed when the government on Sept. 8 passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution with more than the required two-thirds majority. It would not have been possible without the defection of UNP members and allies (such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress).

With another significant setback, party supporters have become even more agitated with the failed UNP leadership. The National Lawyers Association (NLA) of the UNP, who claims to have started the fight to remove Wickremesinghe, stepped up its protest this week.

"Today, the best friend of the government and President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not anyone in the Cabinet but UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe," NLA's president, Upul Jayasuriya, said Tuesday at a press conference. "We are respectfully saying, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, you have stayed long enough. We no longer need to discuss in public the harm you have caused to this party. If we are to settle this amicably, we are asking you to respectfully remove yourself."

Gunaratna Wanninayake, the NLA secretary, speaking at the briefing issued a public ultimatum to Wickremesinghe.

"We have allowed a few more days for an honorable departure," Wanninayake said at a press conference. "If it doesn't happen, we will be required to do so by force based on what the party supporters want. He has become politically dead. He killed this party. We are asking him not to put us into a political abyss."

Even if Wickremesinghe steps down or is forcibly removed, there is no obvious choice to replace him. Though several names have been suggested as potentially good leaders, in comparison to former UNP stalwarts, many wonder whether there is any individual who would be able to reinvigorate the disenchanted UNP supporters enough to be able to turn the tables on the increasingly powerful Rajapaksa government.

Originally published on Sri Lanka News Network.