Rows over the poll MoUs
The UNP faced a Herculean task in the past few days in finalising nomination
lists of a broad alliance – the United National Front.
In some cases, the UNP leadership was compelled to sacrifice long-standing
UNPers to accommodate PA defectors, who took a major political gamble to
help the UNP gain the upperhand over the PA. As a result, there is some
heartburn and a sense of grievance building up in UNP quarters against
One senior UNPer told this column, "They should be put in their place.
They had a problem with the President and they crossed over. That's all.
We should not be under obligation to them." But only a minority in the
party echoes such sentiments. Most UNPers subscribe to the view that they
could bring this government to its knees because of the support extended
by the PA defectors.
Defections are normal during any election time. But this time around,
the defections were unprecedented and on large scale. The defections in
a way manifested disaffection towards and dissension within the Chandrika
The latest additions to the UNP are Uva Chief Minister Samaraweera Weeravanni
and Galle Mayor Lionel Premasiri. They defected amidst what they saw as
conspiracies within the PA to oust them. But some analysts say political
opportunism cannot be ruled out as a factor that motivated the crossovers.
For the past seven years, Mr. Weeravanni was comfortable with the PA,
having crossed over from the UNP to the DUNF and thereafter to the PA.
He was a loyal member in the PA fold. His crossover might have been prompted
by the winds of change, which he saw as blowing in favour of the UNP.
But other reports indicate that Mr. Weeravanni had a running battle
with Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva over the Badulla PA vote bank. Mr.
de Silva was parachuted to Badulla, Mr. Weerawanni's power base, to contest
last year's general elections. It is alleged that both these politicians
are trying to undercut each other in wooing the Badulla PA voters.
Close associates of Mr. Weerawanni say Mr. de Silva launched a campaign
against the chief minister to undermine his position in the party.
They say that as part of this campaign, PA members of the Uva Provincial
Council were brought to Colombo and coaxed to sign a letter, calling for
the removal of Mr. Weeravanni from the post of chief minister.
Though certain ministers, including Mahinda Rajapakse, worked relentlessly
to prevent the removal of Mr. Weeravanni, it became futile in the face
of heavy lobbying against him. Mr. Weeravanni had no option but to crossover.
The UNP kept its doors wide open for all defectors in the belief the
more defections would make the PA weaker and thereby its own prospects
of forming a government brighter.
The disillusionment in the PA ranks was clearly visible when on Tuesday
one time Kekirawa PA Parliamentarian Janak Adhikari shouted from a prison
vehicle at the crowds gathered at the Kekirawa Magistrate's Court to witness
him being taken to the remand prison asking them to cast their vote for
the UNP, the crowds most of whom were supporters of the former Parliamentarian,
were taken by surprise. Mr. Adhikari, charged with causing grievous hurt
to one of his relatives, has been languishing in the remand prison for
The crossovers were not totally a one-way traffic. There were a few
who crossed over from the UNP camp as well. The crossovers of Anura Bandaranaike
and Puthra Sigamony must have come as a face-saver for the President and
the PA. The President is firmly and loyally supported by some old party
loyalists such as Mahinda Rajapakse, D. M. Jayaratne and Mangala Samaraweera,
though many in the rank and file feel a UNP victory is inevitable.
In these circumstances, the PA is facing an uphill task at the general
elections. But it all depends on how voters will respond on December 5.
In this regard, statistics and calculations may offer some light. The UNP
believes it can get about 120 seats. But to achieve this target, it needs
at least one million votes more in addition to its traditional vote bank.
If one were to assume that the UNP will emerge victorious, the PA defeat
may not be as severe as one experienced by the SLFP at the 1977 general
elections which returned the J. R. Jayewardene-led UNP into power with
a steamroller majority. The UNP secured 146 seats under the first-past-the-post
system at this elections while the SLFP got eight. An analyst who studied
the 1977 election results points out that if this election was held under
the PR system, the PA would have secured 50 seats and the UNP 85, though
percentagewise, the UNP secured about 51 percent of the total votes cast.
Can the upcoming elections be worse than the 1977 elections for the PA?
Meanwhile, the shuffle over nominations has given rise to problems at
district levels as well. In the Kegalle district, the return of Rukman
Senanayake has created some turbulence among UNP politicians there.
But no one expressed his sentiments openly against Mr. Senanayake who
represented the Dedigama electorate in the district from 1973 to 1977,
after he won the by-election to fill the vacancy created by his paternal
uncle Dudley Senanayake. However, Mr. Senanayake had to leave UNP politics
by 1976 because of differences with the then UNP leader J. R. Jayewardene,
who consulted many party seniors to take this bold decision.
Mr. Jayewardene had to consult others because he had doubts over whether
the UNP could win elections without the Senanayake charisma. But the old
fox of the Sri Lankan politics was firm that the UNP had to get over the
dependency on the Senanayake clan. The landslide election victory was achieved
without a Senanayake in the UNP team.
In the meantime, Mr. Senanayake formed the Eksath Lanka Janatha Party,
which failed to make much impact in the Sri Lankan political scene. Mr.
Senanayake is now back in his old saddle in Kegalle to face the December
5 election as the leader of the Kegalle district.
There is another dispute brewing in the district over the Ruwanwella
organizer post. Kabir Hashim has replaced one-time deputy minister U.L.M.
Farook. The UNP leadership believes it would be difficult for two UNP Muslim
candidates to return to Parliament in the district.
The UNP hierarchy favoured Mr. Hashim, because he is young and holds
a masters degree. Moreover, he had conducted himself diligently as a parliamentarian.
In addition to this, Hashim won the Mawanella electorate for the UNP at
last year's election though he failed to secure enough preference votes
to enter parliament.
Mr. Farook on the other hand is a popular figure in Ruwanwella and in
the Kegalle district. He can muster the support of the Sinhalese and Muslims
as well. He is a dejected man today since the UNP refused to include him
on the nominations list. At one stage, he pleaded with Rukman Senanayake
to take his matter before the UNP leadership. Mr. Senanayake obliged but
the party hierarchy stood by its decision not to field two Muslims on grounds
that neither of them would be able to make it if both contested.
The UNP's decision may have been reasonable when the party is taken
as one entity, but given Mr. Farook's ability, popularity and dedication,
the decision may seem slightly askew.
Mr. Farook may consider his options because the UNP hierarchy had bluntly
said, 'let him contest from the PA.'
The problems that cropped up in the Ampara district are larger in magnitude
for the UNP because nobody knew what was going on for nearly one month
SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem had frequent meetings with UNP leader Mr. Wickremesinghe
to strike a political deal favourable to both parties. But the problem
was both the parties had reservations about the others' sincerity.
Firstly, the SLMC agreed to contest the Ampara district under the UNP
or UNF (United National Front) banner if the UNP conceded three slots for
the SLMC and refrained from fielding any UNP Muslim candidate. The Eastern
Province Muslim members of the UNP rejected this deal as unacceptable.
They pointed out the SLMC had failed to take into consideration a sizeable
Muslim vote for the UNP in the East.
Either the SLMC had failed to understand the realities or it was deliberately
trying to compel UNP Muslims to vote for its candidates. So the UNPers
urged the party hierarchy not to allow the SLMC to gain the upperhand in
They argued that in Ampara alone, the UNP could count a 102,000 votes
with the Muslim contribution being about 40,000 whereas the SLMC could
get about 72,000 votes and the PA 42,000.
In the face of opposition from the Eastern UNP Muslims, the SLMC had
thought it fit to go it alone in the Ampara district, but it stuck to its
guns that no Muslim should be fielded by the UNP in the Ampara district.
This has, however, prompted Myown Musthapha who crossed over to the
UNP after having differences with former SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashraff to
take a decision contrary to the UNP's stand and detrimental to the SLMC.
He planned to field a list of independent candidates.
However the UNP moved fast to stop Mr. Musthapha. Highly ambitious to
get into Parliament, Mr. Musthapha had to fall in line with the UNP's offer
to accommodate him in the National List.
But a fresh problem emerged with Mr. Musthapha's withdrawal from the
fray. Now it is a problem over M. Naushad, son-in-law of former Deputy
Minister Abdul Majeed. He vowed to field a list of independent candidates
after the UNP had virtually conceded the Ampara district to the SLMC without
fielding a Muslim candidate.
Mr. Naushad is a UNP activist in the East. He told party leader Mr.
Wickremesinghe that as far as he was concerned, his community came first
and the party next.
Some SLMC insiders say the party will stand to lose because of the decision
taken by the leadership to go it alone in the Ampara district. They say
the SLMC will get only one seat because the independent group will split
the Muslim votes.
SLMC inner circle is baffled as to why the party leadership conceded
the Colombo slot to the UNP. However, the SLMC secured one slot in the
Kandy district under the UNF banner, which was allocated to party leader
Rauf Hakeem, who came in for some criticism over decisions. He was also
criticized for not discussing in detail the agreement between the SLMC
and the UNP.
In another related development former UNP, parliamentarian, S. Sathasivam
joined the PA for the forthcoming general elections.
Mr. Sathasivam was unhappy over the UNP's alliance with the CWC and
its leader Arumugam Thondaman. He told the UNP leader to choose between
him and Mr. Thondaman.
Though Mr. Wickremesinghe preferred Mr. Thondaman, he was also keen
to accommodate Mr. Sathasivam. On the day of the dissolution of Parliament,
there were rumours that Mr. Sathasivam had met President Kumaratunga and
had joined the PA.
The UNP laid a dragnet to catch Mr. Sathasivam and Mahinda Samarasinghe
and Rohitha Bogollagama were assigned with the task of handling him.
They tracked him down at a Colombo hotel but by that time he had communicated
with Mr. Wickremesinghe.
Mr. Sathasivam made a final bid to be with the UNP if he was offered
a national list position, but when he did not receive a positive response,
he decided to quit the UNP and join the PA.
Along with Mr. Sathasivam, several others such as M. Rajan Seva and
A. Rajaratnam, also joined the PA ranks to contest as an independent group
backing the PA.
They first held talks with PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne and
thereafter with President Kumaratunga who offered him a cabinet position
if the PA was returned to office.
The UNP also received another blow, though it was not so significant,
when the Sinhalaye Mahasammatha Bhoomiputhra Party left the UNP-led alliance,
saying that the UNP had failed to give an assurance that the country would
be a unitary state.
Even in the PA camp too, there were nomination-related problems. For
instance, in Galle, Ministers Richard Pathirana and Amarasiri Dodangoda
clashed, over nominees. Mr. Pathirana refused to place his signature on
the list without knowing the names of other contestants. He was apparently
protesting against a nominee recommended by Mr. Dodangoda. By Thursday,
the President had to intervene and summon both ministers to the President's
House to resolve the problem.
Besides these problems, the PA was faced with another headache in deputy
minister Mervyn Silva. He is alleged to have stormed into the Divaina editorial
office and threatened journalists, using abusive language.
Mr. Silva, who has earned an unenviable reputation as a political clown,
is however no political novice. He has joined the PA after he had problems
in the UNP. He entered a newspaper office with armed guards. It was on
the whole a contentious and difficult week and the prospects are that it
will be even more so in the days to come..
It is now learnt that SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena is
contemplating action against the errant politician who was arrested and
released on police bail.
Upali Newspapers Ltd. has written to the Inspector General of Police
explaining what happened on that day. The letter written by the newspaper
group's CEO says:
"We write to bring to your notice of a serious incident which took place
at our above premises this afternoon. Mr. Mervyn Silva former Member of
Parliament accompanied by seven unruly persons entered these premises,
intimidated members of the "Divaina" staff and made threatening inquiries
regarding the whereabouts of Mr Janitha Seneviratne, a journalist who Mr
Silva alleged had written an article to which Mr. Silva took exception.
"He used the most foul and vituperative language, caused panic amongst
members of the staff and eventually had to be restrained by our editor
Mr. Upali Tennekoon.
"The most disturbing aspect of this incident is that it constitutes
a calculated and deplorable attempt to interfere with the freedom of the
press and to intimidate journalists in the exercise of their professional
"We trust that you will take immediate deterrent action against those
who were responsible for this incident and that you would take all necessary
steps to ensure that there is no repetition of any such occurrence in the
future. We also request from you armed police protection at our above office
premises as a precautionary measure."