“The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”
– Woodrow Wilson
It’s the election season again. Nominations have been called for North Central (NC), Eastern and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council elections. Needless to say, these elections have now been scheduled well before the due dates. Last time elections for all these three provinces were held in 2008. Their period of office would have ended in 2013. Yet, the President has exercised his executive option to dissolve the above-mentioned three provincial councils and test the people’s pulse at an election. A bold and a democratic move, but it is also a very expedient one, one that is immensely favourable to the party that has the sole power to exercise that option. It is bold because presently the NCP and the East are gripped by an unprecedented drought that is causing untold hardships to the farmers and their dependants, and the crops are not going to be bountiful; it is democratic since the President has chosen to leave in the hands of the voter, the power of electing those who would govern these provinces hereafter.
Electoral advantage in dissolution of PCs
Nevertheless, the sudden dissolution of these three Provincial Councils will enable the government, which holds power in all three provinces, to gain an electoral advantage purely on the hypothesis that ‘the party that controls the agenda wins.’ In any contest it is true, more often than not, that he who exercises control over events has a distinct advantage over the rival party. The United National Party (UNP) has been defeated in election after election since 1994 and the governing party, whether it was the PA or the UPFA, has exercised power over all its other rivals to a distinct and decisive end. Consequently, all these elections were won by them.
If one studies closely the results of the last PC elections held in the three provinces, one could come to a very illuminating conclusion that this time it is indeed quite possible that the UNP might stand a chance to win at least one province. Let us look at the results and then see what that province could be.
In 2008, when the elections were held for the Eastern Provincial Council, the TNA did not contest resulting in an election boycott. The Northern War – Eelam War IV – was in progress and the LTTE was in retreat. The Tamils either voted with the UNP or they kept away from the polling stations. The strong showing of the UNP in the Trincomalee District, where the Tamils constitute a majority, is a clear signal of that trend.
Today the situation is quite different. The TNA is in full swing and if the local government elections held in 2011 in the Northern Province were any indication, the Tamil vote would be going to the TNA candidates almost en masse. It seems that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress this time will go with the UPFA and if so, the UNP would be deprived of the Muslim vote in the Batticaloa District where they make up almost 40% of the voting population and the Ampara District with a corresponding figure of more than 50%. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the UNP has got any chance at all in the forthcoming PC Elections in the Eastern Province. This situation is further confirmed by the absence of any UNP organization in the Districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa at grass-root levels.
Muscle and money power
Furthermore, the muscle and money power exercised by Cabinet Minister Karuna Amman and the outgoing Chief Minister Pillayan, both of whom dominate Tamil politics in the Eastern Province to some extent, cannot be matched by the UNP to any degree of consideration.
However, the Ampara District story is different. The UNP District leader is Daya Gamage, its newly-elected National Organizer. He has enough money to spend, not on one election, but on many. Nevertheless, his showing at the last parliamentary elections, in which the SLMC candidates contested under the UNP umbrella and only two MPs were elected from the UNP was quite poor. Daya Gamage was number four. By any standard, this was a dismal failure. Those who were elected from the UNP ticket hailed from the Muslim community. Whereas, of the four MPs elected from the UPFA, three were Sinhalese, making it quite obvious that the UNP’s performance among the Sinhalese in the district was abjectly poor.
In addition to the above, in the PC elections held in 2008, the Digamadulla electorate where one finds most of the Sinhalese-Buddhists and the majority of whom hail from the Mahaweli settlers in the Dehiattakandiya, ‘System C’ area, the UNP’s performance was dismal – a mere 37% against UPFA’s 57%. In the Parliamentary Elections this trend was even more strengthened with the UNP vote bank falling to 35% against the UPFA’s 61%. So the writing is on the wall: in the absence of an inexplicable last -minute switch of minds on the part of the voters, the prospect of the UNP coming third or fourth is inevitable in the Eastern Province. Not a very happy situation for a Party, which was once called the party of the minorities, to be abandoned by an overwhelming majority including the so-called minorities.
Grand old party
Secondly, let us examine the Sabaragamuwa Province. Past election results are not too encouraging for the UNP in this province too. The unofficial District Leader in Ratnapura, by virtue of the fact that she secured the highest number of preferential votes in the 2010 Parliamentary Elections and her kinship to the late Gamini Athukorale, former General Secretary of the UNP, is Thalatha Athukorale. Unfortunately for Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is currently engaged in consolidating his position in the Party, Thalatha Athukorale also happens to be one of the diehard supporters of the Karu-Sajith alliance. She is one of the most outspoken members in the UNP Working Committee, always coming to the defence of the policies and principles enunciated by Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa. She is backed by her colleague in the same district, Dunesh Gankanda, the son of former Pelmadulla MP, Chandra Gankanda. Both Chandra and his son Dunesh are well-known rivals of Ranil in the Ratnapura District. In such a context of UNP disunity pervading the entire district, it is very unlikely that the UNP voters would be all that keen to cast their votes in favour of the ‘Grand Old Party. ‘They would vote for a winning coalition or stay at home. In either of the cases, the loser will be the UNP. Thus again in Ratnapura, it is not a very promising prospect.
Kegalle District is quite different. The UNP Leader of the district is the ever-so-popular Kabir Hashim. His first loyalties are towards the Party, as he often points out and not to a particular leader. Kabir showed his displeasure at what he thought was Ranil’s unimaginative approach to politics by throwing his weight with Karu/Sajith wing at the beginning, yet when push came to shove, he folded and seemingly embraced the ‘party line’ which led him to align himself with Ranil and the rest. Kabir enjoys a lot of popularity among all voters in the Kegalle District; his down-to-earth approach to electoral politics reminds us of his mentor, Gamini Dissanayake. Kabir Hashim speaks sense in Parliament and the opposing government MPs do not engage in vituperative slanders which is the normal course that they follow in the case of Ranil and his supporting cast.
Can Kabir tilt the balance in the Kegalle District? In the last Parliamentary Elections in 2010, the sole Muslim candidate fielded by the UPFA was placed last in the list with a mere 2,496 votes, whereas the UNP returned the sole UNP Muslim candidate, Kabir Hashim as its number one MP with 48,822 votes, indicating that the Muslim community in the district which is quite sizeable in numbers, had voted en bloc for the UNP. This time if the SLMC which in any case doesn’t have a sizeable following in the district, would not field any candidate and back them with any impressive campaign, again the Muslim vote would be heading towards the UNP. Would that be sufficient for an upset in the Kegalle District? The caste factor is so significant in this district; Rambukkana, Mawanella, Aranayake and some sizeable area of Dedigama are dominated by this caste phenomenon and those people, who hail from this caste and who deserted the UNP with the demise of R. Premadasa do not see the present UNP leadership as one embracing the aspirations of those so-called low-caste voters. The cavalier and careless manner in which the Party hierarchy is treating Sajith Premadasa is regarded as ample testimony to this, despite the fact that they are fully aware of the ‘Premadasa Exceptionalism’ factor and how it is capable of drawing all disparate communities towards the UNP. Therein lies the real tragedy.
Now let us consider the North Central Province.
It is said that the NCP contains the highest number of recruits into the security forces in the last two decades, resulting in the highest numbers of widows too. The brutal war against LTTE and its after effects are still fresh in their minds and I am sure the battle scars in the cruel shape of physical disability and handicaps must be reminiscent of the untold miseries the soldiers had to endure that exist along with the undiluted joy of ultimate victory on the battlefields in the North and the East.
Without any doubt the UPFA led by the amiable Mahinda Rajapaksa will play the ‘patriotic’ card yet again in the campaign and the state-controlled electronic medium would be inundated with advertisements glorifying the victory won by Mahinda and the regime. Added to this, UPFA advantage would be the tragic character of the unofficial Anuradhapura District UNP group-leader who is closely identified with the Ranil Wickremesinghe clique and also with some dubious allegations regarding General Janaka Perera’s killing during the last PC Elections in the province.
Indication of average voters’ mindset
Moreover, if the Presidential and Parliamentary Election results are any indication as to the mindset of the average voter in these two districts, which are overwhelmingly saturated with Sinhalese-Buddhists, making any headway by the UNP is near-impossible. In the Presidential Elections of 2010, when Mahinda received 66% in Anuradhapura, Sarath Fonseka got only 32%. In the same district, in the Parliamentary Elections held three months later, the UPFA got 67% and the UNP’s share fell to a dismal 24%. Fonseka taken out of the contest, the UNP voters stayed at home.
It was the same story in the Polonnaruwa District: In the Presidential Elections the results were Mahinda – 65% and SF – 34%, and three months later in the Parliamentary Elections, Mahinda – 69% and the UNP – 27%. In both districts, the UNP vote suffered a drop of massive 7% – 10%. It is massive, especially in the context of district-wise held elections to elect MPs.
Golden era of the 80s and 90s are gone for good
The conclusion might be very unpalatable for UNP supporters. Yet, remember, the country’s economic conditions have deteriorated considerably, the democratic rights of the people are in danger of being taken away methodically and systematically by the regime; a cruel drought of unprecedented scale has gripped the NCP and the East. The Mahaweli settlers in the North Central Province are in the unkind process of getting to know that the golden era of the eighties and nineties are gone for good; the soldier community is slowly adapting to hardships of their civilian family life; the war is over, but has peace and prosperity arrived?
Against such a harsh backdrop of political, economical and social uncertainty, is the voter offered a viable alternative-not a mere opposition-but a tangible, credible and bold alternative?
The most powerful opposition political force in the country, the UNP, is in tatters, embroiled in a leadership battle which does not seem to lead to any early reconciliation; the government is using this inner-conflict of the UNP to the hilt, timing and scheduling these PC Elections, making the window that was open for the ‘reformists’ of the UNP very narrow and leaving no option for them, but to wait and see, for they simply do not want to be branded as traitors to the cause of the Party. It is apparent that the Eastern, NCP and Sabaragamuwa voters would not see Fonseka campaigning on their platforms and villages.
The UNP is yet to offer a clear set of alternative proposals for the country’s ailing economy. Everywhere one looks one beholds an unrelenting lawlessnes; leaders’ apathy towards corruption and nepotism, people’s unbelievable satisfaction with dwelling in a comfort zone and their unwillingness to think outside the box; their tolerance of utter mediocrity in every field, be it transport, education, human rights or good governance. Good governance is always accompanied with good opposition for a democracy to thrive. In the absence of good and effective opposition people become the final victim of bad governance which we have been unfortunate enough to witness, especially in the last couple of years.