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Sri Lanka's main opposition faces leadership question as it attempts to regroup

As the United National Party casts about for new path, the calls intensify for its leader for the past 16 years to resign.

COLOMBO // Sri Lanka's main opposition party is facing a leadership crisis after losing a number of elections over the past six years to President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance. Yesterday, the United National Party's highest policy-making body, the Working Committee, met to discuss the party's direction and how to revive it, underscoring the growing calls for the party leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe to step down.

Though UNP politicians are not openly canvassing for Mr Wickremasinghe, 61, to step down, pressure is mounting for him to quit after a dismal 16 years at the top in which he has lost two presidential polls and his party a string of parliamentary and local government elections. "Ranil has lost many elections and there is a strong case for him to step down and consider a role as a non-executive, elder statesman in the party," said Harim Peiris, a political analyst and columnist for the local Daily Mirror newspaper.

On Sunday, the pro-UNP Sunday Leader newspaper blamed much of the crisis in the party on Mr Wickremasinghe appointing newcomers to top party positions at the expense of seniors members. It said: "These internal manipulations no doubt made dents in provincial party politics. They made district organisations weak and de-motivated. "UNP politics have therefore come to be schemed and manoeuvred at Colombo's elite dinner parties."

Calls for Mr Wickremasinghe to step down have been growing for at least the past three years, in which local government, parliamentary and presidential polls have all been won by the ruling party. Last week, the National Lawyers Association, a UNP affiliate, at its annual convention, called for serious reforms to revive the party. Some lawyers urged Mr Wickremasinghe to quit. Mahen Gunasekara, a former deputy justice minister, was quoted in newspapers as saying that proposals for reforms made at the meeting will be presented to the party. He said the association was only trying to push for reforms in the party in order to help the UNP become a winning force again.

Mr Wickremasinghe has refused to step down, saying that only the party hierarchy can make such a decision. When demands for him to resign have been made at top party meetings in the past, his supporters have suggested that the party needs to be reformed, rather than the leader. At the same meeting, a veteran lawyer and supporter, Daya Pelpola, said there had been a number of reasons for the UNP's defeats, and that one person should not be held responsible for them.

In the running to take over is Sajith Premadasa, 43, a London School of Economics graduate and the son of the former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who is the party's sole parliamentarian in southern Hambantota, the home base of the Rajapaksa family. The younger Mr Premadasa has said party positions should taken through election and not appointment, according to media reports. The former diplomatic and political commentator Dayan Jayatillake said Mr Premadasa is "certainly far more popular, both among the party members and voters and in the country" than Mr Wickremasinghe.

The UNP, founded in 1946, is among Sri Lanka's oldest political parties. It and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main constituent of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UNPA), have alternately ruled Sri Lanka since the 1950s. The SLFP was nearly wiped out during parliamentary polls in 1977 by the UNP, clinching just a few seats in parliament after ruling for six years. In 1994, the SLFP won back power and, except for three years (2001-2004), the party has been in absolute control.

At the last parliamentary poll, held in April, Mr Rajapaksa's party won more than 60 per cent of the vote, securing 144 seats in the 225-seat legislature against the UNP's 60 seats and 29 per cent of the vote. "Nothing is permanent," Mr Peiris said, referring to the ruling party's domination. "Historically this is not the worst balance of power as the opposition has been able to bounce back from worse situations."