Columns - Political Column

As E-Day nears, both candidates confident

  • Tour of cities and villages shows the varying pulse of the people
By Our Political Editor

Speeding northwards through the highways of the west coast, veering inland to the central hills and emerging in the deep south ahead of the Presidential polls lay bare an array of new political tides and trends.

If the cutouts of President Mahinda Rajapaksa are ubiquitous in most towns, there are also those, much fewer in number though, of Gen. (retd.) Sarath Fonseka. They stand testimony to the ineffectiveness of the orders issued by the Commissioner of Elections. Police have not been successful in removing them though funds were made available for this task. This, no doubt, is just one of the flaws in an increasingly politically susceptible Police force. However, not to their own liking, they have become more an impediment to the conduct of a democratic poll than a vital instrument to ensure it.

Outside town areas, barring a few large images, posters and decorated election offices of the two main candidates, there is hardly anything visible to alert a passerby that a polls campaign is under way. Some of the streamers are leftovers from an earlier Provincial Council election. Yet, the political heat is gathering momentum as the final week looms. The emerging issues during the polls campaign are the talking point. Though visits to the towns and hinterland are by no means a mechanism to discern conclusively the outcome of the polls, they still offer the opportunity to read what portends.

Opposition common candidate General Sarath Fonseka entering Cinnamon Grand Hotel for a meeting with hundreds of businessmen and women.

Along the western coastal belt, the electorates of Negombo, Chilaw and Puttalam continue to remain, like during the previous Presidential poll of November 2005, the home base for the United National Party (UNP), the principal partner in the United National Front (UNF). If the first two are predominantly Catholic, the latter has a sizeable Muslim concentration. However, there are stronger pockets for the United People's Front Alliance (UPFA) and this is more reflected in the Anamaduwa, Nattandiya and Wennappuwa electorates. There is little showing here by the main Opposition parties and hardly any presence of Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's support base. They were awaiting the arrival of UNP General secretary Tissa Attanayake and UPFA cross-over Arjuna Ranatunga to kick-start their campaign, while the President visited Anamaduwa yesterday (Saturday) where a shooting incident saw the second election related death this week (please see report on Page 1 for details).

In the Kurunegala district, the main towns appear to show a greater presence of support for the Opposition. This, however, is in marked contrast to the rural areas where the farming community is staunchly behind Mahinda Rajapaksa. There are two reasons. They are happy about the subsidised price of fertilizer (Rs 350); it has been enhanced by the rise in rice prices. So they are making money and say Rajapaksa made it possible. The paddy fields are looking green and luscious with a bountiful harvest anticipated. Most farmers entertained apprehensions they would lose such an attractive facility should Gen. Fonseka be voted to office. The fact that the Opposition candidate has pledged to continue the subsidy and provide a higher guaranteed price for their rice has not reached many areas. Nevertheless, a major influencing factor will be the soldiers and their families, a larger number of whom are from this district. A sizeable component is known to back Gen. (retd.) Fonseka.

Just last Tuesday, disabled soldiers who were pasting posters for the one time war hero in the area were attacked with iron rods. Two of those injured had served under Gen.Fonseka. One had lost a leg in a landmine explosion and the other a hand during combat. They are now being treated at the Kurunegala hospital. A colleague of theirs was in a critical condition.

In the politically significant central hills, where king makers have emerged from the plantation sector at one time, there was seeming calm on the surface. However, what went on beneath would become a clear pointer to where the outcome of the polls is headed. Whilst the UNF and the JVP vote base remains relatively intact, there has been a marked erosion in the ranks of the plantation sector parties. This is with the break up of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the largest political party representing plantation workers. The exit of its top rung leaders like Ramiah Yogarajan, Murugan Satchithananthan and Vadivel Puthirasigamoni has seen their loyalists and supporters veering away from the CWC. Such votes will go to Gen. Fonseka. That the development came in the backdrop of the death of Periyasamy Chandrasekeran, leader of the Upcountry People's Front, a supporter of the UPFA, was also cause for some concern.

Yet, it might be useful to recall that the CWC voted en bloc with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at the 2005 Presidential elections; so while the CWC joining Mahinda Rajapaksa may not turn out to be to his ultimate advantage, it also means that the pro-UNP vote of 2005 will not go entirely to Sarath Fonseka this time. Eventually, despite the split in the CWC, the vote bank cannot be treated as a plus factor to the Opposition.

Along the road from Mahiyangana to Badulla, two flags on a pole atop a huge Kapok tree tell a story. At the top is the red flag of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and just below, the green flag of the UNP. In most rural areas, it is the JVP that is heavily involved in the grassroots-level campaigns. In a harmonious blend that was not imaginable just several weeks ago, JVP cadres even do the bidding of the UNP by pasting their posters. But noticeably, the JVP's presence, both visibly and covertly is much less than it was in the 2004 parliamentary election campaign and the 2005 presidential campaign when the party sided with Mahinda Rajapaksa. The JVP's resources, both human and financial, seem depleted, while the UNP's grass-root organizations that had gone to sleep are still to awaken fully. The initial excitement Sarath Fonseka's entry as the common candidate appears to have evaporated, partly on the footing that he had already won the race.

House-to-house canvassing has become the sole responsibility of the JVP groups. Some have been tasked to visit a house at least five times during irregular intervals and give brief accounts to voters on why they should vote for Gen. Fonseka. Senior UNPers complained that some of their own cadres were not very active at the grassroots level in a few electorates. At least three parliamentarians complained of their activities being constrained by the lack of funds. In Colombo, senior party officials said that the matter was now being sorted out.

In the deep south, which has seen a Provincial Council election barely three months ago, the change in mood and political tide are clearly evident. Areas like Tissamaharama, Hambantota and Tangalla, among others, all areas around the hometown of the Rajapaksas, remained substantial vote bases for the UPFA. The deep south was the under belly of UPFA's support base but there were clear signs of deep divisions there. Whilst most elders spoke enthusiastically about Rajapaksa, the younger were critical over several issues. They seemed to want a change.

The issues ranged from Rajapaksa family's dominance over governance, alleged rise in bribery, corruption to the cost of living. The elders, however, praised Rajapaksa for winning the war and uniting the country once again. They were proud that it was one of their sons who had done it. Some even showered praise on him for modernising the road network in the area, building a very large International Convention Centre and a new harbour, which a guide claimed was to be five times the size of the port of Colombo. However, others in the area were critical that Sri Lankans couldn't find employment since the Chinese aided harbour project employed only Chinese labour.

Claims in the international media that China used prison labour in some of their development projects overseas, a charge denied by Beijing, had even reached the environs of Hambantota. An irate businessman complained, "See this. Our people call these prisoners 'Sir'," he lamented.
Though his anger may be unfounded, the fact that such reports circulated did not do good for the UPFA. The project was nevertheless a boon to fishermen and farmers. Crabs, lobsters, prawns and vegetables fetched a high price. Social life in the area was also changing.

If the living quarters of the Chinese personnel and their exact work areas are out of bounds to unauthorised visitors, Port authorities have established an observation area for the public to view part of the development work. They are allowed free after a permit is obtained from the Southern Port Development Authority office. This has become an attraction for schoolchildren in the Hambantota and adjoining districts. A trained guide lectures on the great achievement of the Government in the construction of the gigantic harbour touted as Asia's best.

After opening a bridge at Bandaragama President Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen crossing it along with other UPFA leaders and a large number of supporters.

The degree of uncertainty over the outcome of the polls is reflected by the confessions of a local businessman in the district. "I have two huge cutouts ready. If Rajapaksa wins, I will immediately place outside my establishment his one. If he loses, I have one of Fonseka also ready," he told the Sunday Times. The remarks from such a businessman underscored the uncertainty that prevailed in the area.
Strange enough, this was not the mood reflected in these areas when Rajapaksa announced a Presidential poll.

He stood leaps and bounds ahead of his rivals. Why the sudden shift? Is it a lack of focus in his campaign? Did issues like the rising cost of living, which has remained even during the height of the separatist war, bring a turning point? Or, has Rajapaksa, whom most hailed as a leader who should continue for 25 years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, become unpopular? The answers to these and other questions will throw light on the changing political trends. Suddenly, the war victory which should have been a plus point to the President may turn out to be a minus one as the focus changes to the cost of living and other issues.

It could be safely said that some of the issues in urban areas - like the alleged deal between Gen. (retd.) Fonseka with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or the string of allegations of malpractice against the Fonseka family - had not had a serious impact in most rural areas. Even Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told friends that the UPFA propaganda machine was barking up the wrong tree. He felt that the alleged TNA-Fonseka deal was not worth the powder. Instead, he told friends how when he met TNA leaders R. Sampanthan, Mavai Senathirajah and Suresh Premachandran recently, the latter two had looked at him, angrily, as if to say "dennan umbata wedak" (we will teach you a lesson), and that it was better for the UPFA strategists to say that the TNA was trying to teach the Rajapaksa government a lesson for defeating the LTTE by backing the Fonseka campaign.

In contrast, the alleged TNA deal and the military tenders afforded to the Fonseka family by the retired General were the talking point in urban areas and had spawned two different views. One was a degree of shock and disbelief, again largely by the Rajapaksa followers. The other was dismissive because it was a campaign of vilification after Fonseka became the presidential candidate. This was reflected even in some military installations.

An unexpected incident was to increase UPFA's woes in the south. A group of supporters of UNP's Hambantota district parliamentarian Sajith Premadasa were travelling from Beliatte to Tissamaharama on Tuesday. At Netolpitiya in the Hungama Police area men on a motorcycle ambushed them. One of them opened fire killing 65 year old Kusumawathie Kuruppuaratchchi of Beliatte. The next day, Police arrested the son of a former Chairman of then UPFA dominated Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha and another person. Behind-the-scene manoeuvres continued over the funeral. Persons purported to be supporters of UPFA offered cash donations and urged the next of kin to finish the funeral ceremonies in Beliatte as early as possible. Those in the opposition parties, however, succeeded in getting them to have the funeral in Matara. The funeral was eventually held under tight security with jeeps with unmarked number-plates ensuring the event was not turned into a political funeral. The occasion is being used to highlight the mounting levels of violence.

The Government said in a statement that it "is appalled at this tragedy, vehemently condemns it, and will not tolerate any such acts of violence, in the midst of this democratic electoral process." The statement added, "All steps are being taken to bring those responsible to justice. Instructions have been given to the authorities to bolster security at political events up to and on polling day to ensure that all Sri Lankans can participate safely in the electoral process."

Despite the official assurances, violence continued to be on the increase, culminating in the shootings by Fonseka supporters at Anamaduwa yesterday. Clashes erupted between supporters of the two main contenders in Polonnaruwa. This was after UPFA supporters allegedly attacked an office where Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's supporters were preparing to distribute leaflets. A group of UNP and JVP members had thereafter retaliated by attacking their rivals, overturning a car and marching towards their offices. On Friday, supporters of Gen. Fonseka were fired upon in Galgamuwa when they were returning home after attending his rally. Two were admitted to hospital.

Incidents of armed gangs attacking the homes of Opposition politicians have been reported to Police. One such attack took place at dawn on Friday when a gang caused injuries to Janaka Naulla, a UNP Urban Council member for Kolonnawa. Also damaged were the homes of another Urban Councillor, Chitra Dias and Provincial Councillor K.A. Sunil. They alleged they were targeted because they arranged a Kolonnawa rally addressed by Gen. Fonseka. They said some of the suspects were armed with T-56 assault rifles. Kolonnawa Police said they had arrested nine suspects and inquiries were proceeding.
The UPFA's campaign focus in the past weeks targeting Gen. Fonseka and his family over alleged corrupt military deals has intensified. A former Army Captain Upul Ilangamage emerged on television networks to accuse Gen. Fonseka's son-in-law of forging documents to supply military hardware to the Government. Ilangamage, who lives in Oklahoma, United States, where Gen. Fonseka has a residence, alleged that the deals had been carried out "with the full knowledge" of the then Commander of the Army (then Lt. Gen. Fonseka).

At public rallies Gen. Fonseka dismissed the allegations and branded Ilangamage as a Kalavedda (wild cat). He said when he won, Ilangamage "would creep through drains" to come to him to apologise for his wrong accusations. The latter, however, in a televised response declared "I will never go to him (Sarath Aiya). I would rather die than do that."

Gen. Fonseka's co-spokesperson Mangala Samaraweera told a news conference on Thursday that Ilangamage had been flown to Sri Lanka from the United States at Government expense. He displayed the copy of an Invoice to claim that US $ 2,800 (about Rs 316,000) had been spent for a Business Class ticket. He alleged that the ticket had been purchased by the Sri Lanka Embassy in the US through a California based travel agency run by a Sri Lankan. Samaraweera claimed there were more than 110 Hi-Corp companies around the world.

He showed what he called an Invoice to confirm that payments for the ticket had been made by the Sri Lanka mission in Washington D.C. and charged that the episode was nothing more than a conspiracy to sling mud at Gen. Fonseka. Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Washington D.C. Jaliya Wickramasuriya, who is now in Colombo assisting his relative's (President Rajapaksa's) election campaign vehemently denied the charge saying that providing what he called a forged memo from a travel agency did not amount to proof of payment for the air tickets by the embassy.

Samaraweera said that upon arrival in Colombo, a convoy of Police Special Task Force (STF) commandos had escorted Illangamage from the Colombo Airport and were continuing to afford him protection." Parliamentarian and lawyer Wijedasa Rajapaksa, who was also at the news conference, said Ilangamage was the President of the US-based company Hi-Corp. Allegations were being levelled against a local Hi-Corp company. Samaraweera claimed there were more than 110 Hi-Corp companies around the world. As the saga continued, CID detectives were pouring over piles of files at the Ministry of Defence in a bid to unearth more information related to the case.

A non-Cabinet rank Minister crossed over to the opposition to support Gen. Sarath Fonseka on Friday. It was Cegu Issadeen, Minister of Export Development and International Trade. He will now join the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) of which he was earlier a founder member. M.M. (My Own) Mustapha, a candidate at the January 26 polls, also declared on Friday that he would "withdraw" from the campaign and support Gen. Fonseka.

With just nine more days to go for the polls, the two main contenders appear, in private, hesitantly confident of victory. In public, they put up a braver face. President Rajapaksa told a breakfast meeting with foreign correspondents on Wednesday, he would secure a comfortable victory. He projected it could be even around 60 per cent of the votes.

Though not talking of percentages, Gen. Fonseka said there was overwhelming support for him. He said he was sure of a victory and vowed to fulfil the ten pledges he had made. A nation awaits the outcome.

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