United National Party deputy general secretary Ruwan Wijewardena has expressed his desire to lead the party after his cousin and Sri Lanka''s former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe decided to resign from the UNP leadership after 26 years at the helm following its crushing defeat in the parliamentary election.
The UNP, the oldest party in the country, suffered a humiliating defeat in the August 5 election won by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka People''s Party (SLPP). The party polled only 2 per cent of the total votes and failed to win a seat in the 225-member Parliament from any of the 22 electoral districts.
UNP chief and former prime minister Wickremesinghe also failed to become a member of parliament for the first time since 1977.
"Following demands from many, I have decided to step in to lead UNP with the blessings of the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe," 45-year-old Wijewardena told reporters in the north central town of Anuradhapura on Saturday.
Wickremesinghe, 71, has been leading UNP since December 1994. During his 26-year tenure, Wickremesinghe was blamed for repeated election losses. He was accused of being aloof with the common man and being too West oriented in his policies.
UNP's political fortunes further nosedived after its deputy leader Sajith Premadasa formed his own party to contest the August parliamentary polls. His Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party won 54 seats in the election and emerged as the largest Opposition party, relegating the UNP to fifth position.
Earlier this month, Wickremesinghe announced his decision to resign from the UNP leadership following his party's crushing defeat.
Following the announcement, party general secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam named himself and three others as possible contenders to the post.
Former Assembly speaker Karu Jayasuriya, a former UNP deputy leader, last week also announced his desire to lead the party.
Wijewardena said though several party members have already staked a claim for UNP leadership, he is ready to take over the party leadership.
"I am confident that we can lead the UNP to victory by restructuring and strengthening the party," he said, adding that UNP's election defeat is an opportunity to identify the loopholes in the party and to restore confidence in party supporters.
Wijewardene said Sri Lanka is likely to face an economic crisis in the coming years, resulting in a need for an alternative force for the people.
"We must be prepared to come forward as an alternative for the people," he said.
Wijewardena is the son of Lankan media mogul Ranjith Wijewardena who owned the English dailies -- Sunday Times, Daily Mirror and Financial Times -- as well as the largest Sinhala language daily ''Lankadeepa''. (PTI)