24th September 2000

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The small party factor

By Kumbakarana

General elections spawn their own pundits, forecasters and jokers. We have the statisticians who conjure up the number closest to their hearts' desires. Then there are the prophets of doom. weighing various possible outcomes and assessing their relative demerits.

Now it is possible to have a good laugh over the masochistic bile that constitute some of these "expert opinions" that fill up the column reserved for political commentary in the print media. They are after all for the most part as funny as the preferential wars fought on even much of space that has the slightest chance of catching the voter's eye.

But politics is not always a joke. People get killed during election campaigns, and depending on the particular configuration of forces they get to rub shoulders in parliament, the death toll could admittedly rise. This is why even if we laugh at/with the jokers, we need to take seriously the creative artists, that is, those who are in the business of constructing the numbers by omission and commission. Yes we are talking about political machinations here.

It is pretty elementary that there is no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to elections and campaigns. Two factors dominate: Money and fire-power. The first can buy you the perfect image. Money can make you 'clean', 'educated', 'brave', 'honest' and a number of other things that have been hard to come by in parliament over the last 20 years or so. Take G.L. Peiris, the Minister of Constitutional Affairs blatantly flouting elections laws. He knows where the money comes from, but will he reveal where his sponsors get their money from? Then there are the guns.

You can intimidate your opponents, election officials and pull the right number of strings, shift the right number of boxes, stuff the right number of votes and the neat thing you know, you are a Representative of the People!

Given that neither the PA nor the UNP has the guts to actually canvass votes in the war zones, it is inevitable that these Ronnie De Mel parties will continue to be "counted" loudly, louder than even the squeaks that their collective voices can muster, when the final arithmetic is done. The point is that two things are being ignored in the commentary of the small party factor. One, the non-Tamil racist and non-Muslim racist parties are counted out. Sure, the JVP is getting some space these days, possibly to promote it as a countervailing force for the Sihala Urumaya. However, overall, the small party pundits (could we call them De Melians? Demelians?) have preferred to promote the Tamil and Muslim parties as king-makers. The second absence is the fact that the communalist ideologies of these parties are never talked about.

These absences are revealing. They reveal that it burns the guts of certain self-proclaimed analysts and "intellectuals" to even entertain the thought of non-Tamil and non-Muslim parties being in the position to make or break a government. This is called intellectual dishonesty and partiality to any kind of racism from the minorities. They also reveal a message that they are silently sending the voter "these parties do not count, so don't vote for them!" This is called subtle politicking, or "the playing down of the possible threat".

And finally, they reveal the ostrich mentality of these pundits. This could result in suffocation.

Come October 10 and we will see if the people can triumph over the power of money and guns. We will also see if the people continue to allow themselves to be subjected to the Ronnie de Mel syndrome and be held to ransom by racist minority parties who are "elected" by a handful of votes or if they give themselves half a chance by electing a strong group of principled parliamentarians who are not mentioned in the small talk about small parties.

In our humble opinion, we posit that the one statistic that counts in this election is the number of seats that the Sihala Urumaya and the JVP win.


Running the last lap on polls track

by H. Chanda Dhamma

"With just over a fortnight- 16 days to be precise- to go for the general elections the campaign has now entered a virtual 'last lap' with both major parties jousting with each other to breast the tape first and form the next government.

Despite the torrential rains experienced last week being a damper on campaigning - yes, the Tamil Nadu cricket team was on tour- both parties have promised victory to their cadres and we are in for a photo finish, or so it seems if independent reports are to be believed.

Seven days, someone once said, is a long time in politics and the week that was demonstrated just how true that is. Only a week ago we were discussing what kind of impact M. H. M. Ashraff and his SLMC would have on the poll and now Ashraff is no more, perishing in a mysterious Mi-17 helicopter crash off the hills of Aranayake.

Mohommed Hussein Mohommed Ashraff was obviously a troubled man when he died. He had been humiliated by the PA because firstly, his six nominees for the National List were unceremoniously pruned to three without so much as the courtesy of informing him and then, PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne announcing that the National Unity Alliance was not a constituent of the PA and as such could not use President Chandrika Kumara-tunga's picture on its posters.

In his last TV appearance before his dramatic exit from the political arena Ashraff went so far as to say, "No one can take me for a ride; not even the President though I allow some people to believe that I am being taken for a ride.". Those cryptic words may have had much significance if not for the fact that the ride the SLMC leader took on the Sri Lanka Airforce Helicopter a day later was to be his last.

Now however Mr. Ashraff risks being relegated to history while the new leadership of the SLMC in the form of Rauf Hakeem and Mrs. Ferial Ashraff come to terms with the prospect of a Muslim Congress without its strongman and rush to take damage control measures.

Of course, the emergence of the still-in-mourning Ferial Ashraff as co-leader of the Congress instead of Rauf Hakeem as the undisputed head of the party and the subsequent appointment of Mrs. Ashraff as the sole leader of the NUA indicates that all is not well within the SLMC. This is especially so because the support base of the SLMC comes from the Eastern Province- and Mr. Hakeem represents the Central Province. So, no one will be surprised if more dissent emerges from the rank and file of the Congress in the near future.

And that is why Rauf Hakeem must have readily agreed to have Mrs. Ashraff as co-leader and then did an about turn vis-à-vis the considered policies and last wishes of his late, revered, supreme leader: the policy of having nothing to do with the PA until after the elections.

So, off he went to Temple Trees for discussions with President Kumaratunga who then spoke on the phone with Mrs. Ashraff- the latest in a long line of Asian women- Ms. Kumaratunga included- who have come out to join national politics, often after the untimely deaths of their spouses.

All the pronouncements of the late, revered supreme leader of the SLMC were conveniently attributed to "a lack of communication"- despite the 50-page letter from Mr. Ashraff to the President and the hours he spent talking to her- and Rauf Hakeem once again waxed eloquent about how capable a leader President Kumaratunga was. Surely, Mohommed Hussein Mohommed Ashraff must be turning in his grave at the Jawatte cemetery!

But the slip did show in that almost at the same time that Rauf Hakeem was conducting his press conference to announce the "co-leaders" and confidently stating he would be given the ports, shipping and rehabilitation portfolio, the Presidential Secretariat announced that the President had assigned those subjects unto herself under regulations provided for in the constitution.

Thereafter, it took one more round of Hakeem-Kumaratunga discussions to iron these differences out and for the "lack of communication" to be rectified with the portfolios held by Mr. Ashraff eventually being restored to the new "co-leader". But even then, a new controversy erupted when legal experts pointed out on Friday that the Constitution provides only for the appointment of the President or a person who is already a minister- and not an outsider- as the substitute to oversee the portfolios of a Minister who is killed during the period of a caretaker government, thereby displaying the apparent ignorance at the highest levels of government about how the Constitution operates.

But while this side-show was going on the campaign had gathered momentum in the south with daily reports of sporadic violence, some of it 'routine', and other incidents being of a more serious nature, the most notable being the alleged killing of a PA supporter by a body guard of former UNP MP Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake at Wariya-pola.

Of course, the PA and the opposition UNP will undoubtedly share the spoils- so to speak- with the JVP and the Sihala Urumaya making inroads to the floating voters choice, disgusted as they are with the antics of the two major political parties. But in the final analysis, it will be the configuration of the voting in the North and East that will play a major part in the actual formation of the next government.

Already, the TULF has been knocked out of Digamadulla and the NUA, which swore it would defeat the PA in Batticaloa, is on a shaky wicket with a case against it pending in the Court of Appeal. Certainly the TULF's disqualification in Digamadulla is a bonus to the PA and so will be the disqualification of the NUA in Batticaloa- if that occurs.

In the North, the government is busy waging war and conducting journalists on conducted tours of Jaffna and Chavakac-hcheri which has been "liberated" recently. Of course, under the censorship which still prevails one did not know that Chavaka-chcheri was ever lost, so one could ask how it was 'liberated' but then those are trivial issues aren't they?

On the heels of this offensive comes the pledge from Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake that Elephant Pass will be re-captured before October 10. Such deadlines- as General Anurudhdha Ratwatte could have told him from his rich experience in the battlefield- are difficult to meet but then, if at least some regions of the Northern sector are brought under military writ, it will boost the PA campaign but more importantly also provide the PA the chance to conduct the kind of sham poll in the region as it happened in 1994 when MPs won representation in Parliament with ten preference votes!

Even so, the PA campaign, spearheaded by the likes of S. B. Dissanayake, Mangala Samaraweera and the Prime Minister, is eerily muted and lacks its usual lustre without the presence of President Kumaratunga who has to be satisfied with addressing assorted youth leaders at the Temple Trees lawn- a far cry from the hustle of the hustings.

But on the other hand the UNP seems to be making a fundamental error in re-playing Ranil Wickreme-singhe's presidential campaign and projecting Ranil Wickreme-singhe's image rather than that of the UNP- an image which the JVP's Wimal Weerawansa succinctly captures when he says that 'Ranil kathaakaranne kate topiyak thiyaagena." ("Ranil appears to be speaking with a toffee in his mouth.")

The bottomline is that it appears crazy to have advisers of the Conservative Party to preside over a propaganda campaign when they failed once before in December last year. It only appears that they are trying to justify their December 1999 campaign- and drive the UNP to defeat again!

The strength of the UNP is as a party with a wide 'hardcore' or 'grassroots' base of about 35 per cent of the vote irrespective of whether it is led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sirisena Cooray, Anura Bandaranaike or well, maybe even Wijeyapala Mendis.

To take that vote from 35 %to 45 % or above that, the UNP has to project the party as the better alternative to a fragmented PA, a coalition of all sorts ranging from Dinesh Gunewardena to Varatharajah Perumal, from Ronnie de Mel to Batty Weerakoon all in it because they like to be on what they think will be the winning side, so they could get a cabinet portfolio to hang on to for another six years.

The SLFP today has lost its identity and its stalwarts have been sidelined to make way for the new set of Chandrika-loyalists that form the political soup that is the PA. Indeed, one shudders to think what would happen to the party when Chandrika Kumaratunga retires from politics. Nevertheless, it seems that Ranil Wickremesinghe is also hell-bent on making the same mistake- that of promoting his own Ranil loyalists instead of UNP loyalists into the decision making 'inner circle'.

As a result, a group of yuppies with very little electoral experience but with mega ambitions and egos are keeping the Senanayakes (Rukman), Bandaranaikes (Anura), Premadasas (Sajith) and Dissanayakes (Naveen) out of the inner-circle. What a great photo-opportunity the UNP would have if all of them were shown rallying around Ranil Wickremesinghe symbolising the vast support base the UNP enjoyed, still enjoys and will enjoy in the future, instead of showing only the leader flashing a 'V' sign.

But none of that has become a reality because of the Jhonny-come-latelys, so we can only wish the best of luck to Ranil Wickremesinghe and his team because he will need a lot of it if he cannot or does not want to-use the gold mine of national recognition which the UNP always enjoys- much in excess of the PA or the SLFP.

And so, the Sri Lankan "Polympics" enters its last lap. Some performers will get cold feet and other will experience butterflies in their stomachs and lumps in their throats. Others will definitely pull a muscle while some may be apprehended for 'performance enhancing' efforts.

But just as much as Susanthika Jayasinghe made a strong point for a free and fair poll by sporting a yellow ribbon while running in Sydney, we must wait and see whether the conclusion of the 'Polympics' will see the flame of democracy being extinguished- or whether the torch will be passed unhindered, until the next "Polympics' six years(?) from now.

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