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Opposition defects secure government hands

world Updated: Sep 14, 2010 14:39 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times
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Between last December and April, I made futile attempts to meet opposition chief Ranil Wickremesinghe for an interview. I managed to meet him only once, briefly and among a group of reporters, in the carpeted corridors of a five-star hotel. Recently, I realised that I had more sulking company; several of his party MPs too, it seems, had miserably failed to make appointments with him.

Wickremesinghe has reasons to avoid them. His party, the United National Party (UNP) – he has been party chief since 1994 – is in tatters. And the tears were on exhibition at a time when the opposition needed to put up a bold show and oppose the passage of the controversial 18 Amendment (18A) in Parliament.

Even as the debate over it was on, six UNP members walked over to the government; the final tally was a crushing 161/17 votes.

"Unfortunately for the country, the main opposition UNP could not put up a fight, only a whimper in protest. In sixes and sevens due to bitter in-fighting, the party has been neutered into such a docile state that it couldn't even organise a rally or challenge the matter before court," the Sunday Times wrote in an editorial.

That was the beginning. Within hours, two dozen MPs threatened to either join the government or go independent if Wickremesinghe didn't relinquish his post.

UNP has 60 MPs. But reports now claim that around 28 UNP lawmakers are ready to resign. It's easily UNP's worst crisis since 2006 when several high-profile MPs crossed over to Mahinda Rajapaksa's side. Wickeremesinghe was party chief then too. And during his tenure, he's also lost some 16 elections.

The amendment didn't cause the crisis; it just brought out the feeling among many UNP members that a party overhaul was needed. But the timing of the dissent could also be questioned as it helped the ruling party to wipe out even a semblance of resistance.

In the end, the opposition failed to put a united front against what critics have said is the slide of Sri Lanka into autocratic rule.

After 18A, Rajapaksa could, if he wins elections, remain President for ever. What many fear is that he will have Wickremesinghe as the opposition chief for ever as well.