Political Column
By our Political Correspondent
28th October 2001
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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 the defectors.

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 Kumaratunga administration.

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 some time.

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 now.

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 any deal.

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 functions.

"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."

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