Much hangs in the balance over hung council in East
= ITAK also woos SLMC as provincial polls underscore the political power of Sinhala nationalism
The results of Last Saturday’s polls for three Provincial Councils were on a predictable note enabling the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to capture the majority of seats.
Victory was most convincing in the Sinhala-majority Sabaragamuwa and North Central Provinces. The UPFA garnered about 60 per cent of the votes compared to more than 50 in the 2008 PC polls. For the main opposition United National Party (UNP), votes dropped from 38 to 33 per cent and 40 to 30 per cent respectively in these two provinces when compared to the 2008 polls. A silver lining for the crisis-ridden party nevertheless was a rare vote increase in the Polonnaruwa District by more than 6,000 or just four per cent. Compared to the 2010 parliamentary elections, where it gained 26.67 per cent of the votes, it was no doubt an increase to 39.04 per cent. A body representing the farming community, made up of UPFA backers, chose this time to keep away blaming the government for not providing assistance during the devastating drought in the district. They even dissuaded some of their friends and relatives from going to polling booths.
In the multi-ethnic Eastern Province, though the UPFA won 14 seats, the highest, as forecast last week, the outcome is a hung council. The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the name by which the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), yet to be officially recognised as a political party, fielded candidates, won an impressive 11 seats. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which came third, also performed impressively winning seven and the UNP four seats. The UNP’s vote slide has been from 40 per cent (in 2008 PC polls) to 35 per cent. Thus, the UPFA alone could, with the two bonus seats, form a minority administration but face the prospect of defeat in the 37 member Council. That is if the would be opposition the ITAK, the SLMC and the UNP come togehter. Needless to say behind-the-scene political horse trading has begun with some key UPFA stalwarts offering handsome rewards to those willing to join their ranks. Some approaches have been made even to ITAK councillors to cross over. Adding to the anxiety is the delay by the Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya in gazetting the list of elected members. The reason attributed is that the elected candidates have not submitted their declaration of assets. The UPFA’s own legal advisors conceded a delay on those grounds was not legally possible.
In the light of these developments, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader, Rauff Hakeem has become the most sought-after politician since last week’s elections. During the polls campaign, though an Alliance partner, Hakeem was the object of strong criticism by his ministerial colleagues. Minister Dullas Allahapperuma said Hakeem would have to decide his future in the UPFA after the polls. Strange are the ways in politics. Now, the UPFA’s future in the Eastern Provincial Council, it seems, is resting in Hakeem’s hands.
Barely 24 hours after the results were released; ITAK President R. Sampanthan and General Secretary Mavai Senathirajah issued a statement staking a claim to form the Eastern Provincial Council administration, together with the SLMC and the UNP.
The statement said: “We wish to state that the member of the Provincial Council with the best ability to command the support of a majority of the members of the Provincial Council and thereby become Chief Minister should be chosen” by the said three parties.
“The choice of such a member,” the statement said, “will be communicated to the Governor shortly. We wish to point out to the Governor that the UPFA and the National Freedom Front (NFF) together do not and cannot command the support of the majority of the members of the Council.”
As the sequence of events since last Monday showed, Hakeem has not given a categorical assurance to the ITAK that his party would be a partner in the EPC administration. Similarly, he is yet to give the UPFA leadership an assurance that the SLMC would help the ruling Alliance form an administration in the Eastern Province. A lot will depend on how many of the demands placed before UPFA leaders by Hakeem would be conceded. Hakeem was due to have a late night meeting yesterday with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to resolve the issues.
Another proposal by an Alliance partner, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka to call for a coalition of all parties to run the EPC under an agreed programme has brought forth mixed results. The main backer of the move is Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera. Sections of the senior UPFA leadership do not favour the proposal in view of the ITAK (or more pointedly the TNA) refusing to participate in the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee to evolve a ‘political package’ to address Tamil grievances. However, ITAK (TNA) leader, Sampanthan told a news conference yesterday, “so far the government has not approached us. If there is an invitation, we will consider the proposal.”
Last Sunday, immediately after the results of the provincial polls were announced, Hakeem asked all his elected members to come to Colombo the next day. Also summoned for the meeting, held on Monday at the Galle Face Hotel, were Ulemas (or Muslim theologians) in the Eastern Province. Hakeem said the SLMC had to keep an open mind whilst it engaged in a dialogue with the UPFA leadership. He said it was necessary for those elected as well as those key party supporters in the province to maintain secrecy and not make any comments that would compromise the party. Towards this end, those who took part were called upon to sign a written oath of allegiance to the leadership and make a pledge to maintain secrecy. Participants empowered Hakeem to negotiate with the UPFA on “what is best for the party and the Muslim community.” A similar mandate had also been given during meetings of the SLMC high command that followed in the past few days.
Hakeem was at Barefoot Gallery in Bambalapitiya last Sunday afternoon to purchase souvenirs for some foreign friends. They were delegates to the 58th annual sessions of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). His mobile phone rang. It was ITAK parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran. After congratulating him, the Jaffna District parliamentarian handed over the phone to his leader, Sampanthan. “We would like to work with you. I will go to any length to accommodate your requests,” Sampanthan told Hakeem. The latter said that he would first wish to travel to the East to thank all those who voted for the SLMC. Thereafter, he said, he would meet senior leaders from the party and then get in touch with Sampanthan. Within minutes, Hakeem’s mobile phone rang again. It was Sajin de Vass Gunawardena monitoring MP for the Ministry of External Affairs and Co-ordinating Secretary to the President. “Can I come and see you,” asked Gunawardena and Hakeem replied “you are most welcome.”
The next morning, (Monday) the two were engaged in a conversation at Hakeem’s private residence at Alfred House Gardens. The first question Gunawardena raised was “have you called the President?” He then told Hakeem, Minister of Justice in the UPFA government, that he had come with a special message from Rajapaksa. “Do you have any intention not to join the government,” Sajin who serves as a member in official External Affairs Ministry delegations for talks with foreign dignitaries, asked. Replied Hakeem, “I will call the President this evening. We are keeping an open mind. I first want to go to the East to thank the voters. Thereafter, I will talk to our senior members in the Congress.”
String of personal callers interrupted by periodic phone calls kept Hakeem busy on Monday. On Tuesday morning, after he finalised plans to fly to the East, he telephoned President Rajapaksa. The conversation seemed an exercise in mutual political ego boosting. Hakeem congratulated Rajapaksa for the “magnificent victory” and lauded him for travelling to every “nook and corner” in the districts. “We will have a discussion with you after my return from the East,” added Hakeem. The President in turn congratulated Hakeem on the SLMC victory in the East. He then asked the SLMC leader whether he would not like to attend the Government Parliamentary Group meeting that morning before departure to the East. Hakeem agreed.
Ruling party parliamentarians had gathered for the group meeting at the conference hall of the Presidential Secretariat overlooking the Galle Face Green. There was loud applause as Rajapaksa entered. He greeted his MPs clasping his hands in an Ayubowan. He thanked all his ministers and parliamentarians who made the UPFA victory possible. “I have won all districts,” he noted, then paused for a while, looked at Hakeem and added “not outright.” He said “yet, as a coalition we have captured the district.” A matter of some concern for Rajapaksa at the meeting was a move by some CPA delegates, at this week’s 58th annual sessions in Colombo, to revive an issue that had been rejected at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia in October last year.
It had been proposed by a Group of Eminent Persons. The main backer then was Justice Michael Kirby, a well-known Jurist from Australlia. That was the appointment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Human Rights. External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris was to add that it was South Africa that had frowned on the move when it came up for discussion in Perth. He described it as a “mischievous exercise” which was “colonial over lording.” Rajapaksa wanted all his parliamentarians to be present at the CPA sessions and strongly oppose any such move. The issue did come up. It was to reveal a sorry spectacle — government ministers locked in acrimonious verbal duels with foreign delegates and Sri Lankan opposition leaders, who supported the move, whilst other CPA members looked on.
Taking the floor to speak to government MPs then was Public Relations Minister, Mervyn Silva. “I am not here just to praise you,” declared Silva looking at Rajapaksa. In a speech in Sinhala, however, he did just that. “Sayma kumburukatama behela, govintath katha karaa. Mey jayagrahanaya obathumaage, (You went to every ploughed field and spoke to the cultivators. This victory is yours),” said Silva. That was to draw a light hearted response from President Rajapaksa. He said he was not wearing a collar with a shirt but a tunic with no collar. The remarks meant he would otherwise have raised his collar in humorous appreciation at what Silva said.
Then Mervyn Silva turned serious. He looked at Hakeem and declared, “for whatever reasons you wanted to go it alone. You must not act like a character in the Merchant of Venice who demanded a pound of flesh. We have been able to strengthen the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and we will continue to do so.” The remarks were a reference to the fictional character in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Shylock who lends money to Bassiano seeks a pound of his flesh as security if the loan is not repaid. Hakeem, was not to speak at the meeting.
He told that to his parliamentary colleagues. He was to rise to his feet to answer Silva. He described him as magey kalyana mithraya” (or my close friend) who has accused me of being like Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. Hakeem looked at Rajapaksa and said “I am a member of your cabinet. Throughout the campaign, though I have spoken from different platforms, I have continued to maintain close contact. You are aware I made an attempt to stay in the coalition. There were disagreements. It should not be construed as breaking ranks. I have apprised you throughout my campaign. I have taken an informed decision. I must also respect aspirations of the people who voted for us. There is no cause for unnecessary alarm. I have no intention of breaking ranks. You don’t have to make a hue and cry”
At that point, President Rajapaksa was to address Minister Silva. This time, he said “I have another matter to discuss with you personally.” UPFA sources said it was over a Police report President Rajapaksa had received about the conduct of Silva’s controversial son Malaka. Together with Rehan Wijeratne, the son of one time Kegalle District parliamentarian late Mano Wijeratne and a group of bodyguards, they had assaulted an officer of the Army’s Military Intelligence Corps. The officer was in a five star residential hotel. Though Police spokesperson, Ajith Rohana SSP said he would be arrested, both Malaka and Rehan moved freely at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare where the Kapilavastu relics exposition took place. Making matters worse was when a person described as a driver in Silva’s staff turned up at a City police station to return the service issue revolver and the mobile phone of the Army officer. He walked away free after the handover.
The episode drew strong criticism among government ranks with some MPs complaining that it was bad for the government to have “one law for Silva” and another for “all others.” There were also concerns at the highest levels of the security establishment and police hierarchy. In an unrelated event on Friday, Police chief, N.K. Illangakoon ordered the immediate transfer of DIG in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Jayantha Kulatilleke and the Director in charge, Mahesh Perera SSP. No reasons were given. Later in the day, more Police transfers were announced in a move officially described as routine. However, it was known in Police circles that the DIG (CID) and the Director did not see eye to eye and power caucuses had built between the two sides. Police officials, however, declined comment on the matter and were unable to confirm whether there were other compelling reasons for the sudden transfer.
Responding to President Rajapaksa’s remarks, Minister Silva said both he and President Rajapaksa were true Buddhists. He said one feature among the two were that both have gone to jail. He continued to speak about his role and the contributions he made. There was widespread laughter among government MPs.
Hakeem was still in the East when Minister Susil Premajayantha, who is the General Secretary of the UPFA, telephoned him on Wednesday. He said it was now time for a meeting. Moments later, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who was in charge of the election campaign in the East, telephoned Hakeem. He had just arrived in Colombo after having gone abroad before the polls. His departure came amidst reports from the highest levels of the UPFA that allowing SLMC and even Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s smaller NFF to field their own candidates was a mistake. The responsibility seemed to rest on Basil Rajapaksa. “Are you now happy,” Basil Rajapaksa asked Hakeem. The latter was to respond “if we can join and achieve something, we will be very happy.” It was agreed that Hakeem would meet the UPFA leaders.
When Hakeem turned up at Temple Trees on Thursday afternoon, UPFA stalwarts from Sabaragamuwa and North Central Province were in discussion with a team of government ministers. So he sat in an ante-room waiting to be called. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga who spotted him, walked up and escorted him straight to President Rajapaksa. The conversation began with the previous night’s dinner Rajapaksa hosted at Temple Trees for CPA delegates, an event that was commended by most foreign participants. Rajpakasa noted that the event was well received and Hakeem concurred. Hakeem was to briefly set out the SLMC position. He said he was maintaining a “cordial relationship” with the ITAK (or the TNA). He was also to refer to the proposal made by Minister Gunasekera though Rajapaksa did not show much enthusiasm. Yet, he did not oppose it. However, he declared “we can discuss issues. First discuss with the team of ministers. Thereafter, we can talk things over.” Then, Rajapaksa summoned Minister Dullas Allahapperuma and asked that Hakeem be escorted to where the ministers were. Soon he was face to face with Ministers Basil Rajapaksa, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Maithripala Sirisena, Susil Premajayantha and Dullas Allahapperuma.
Hakeem opened the discourse with the remarks that “there is a variety of political issues with regard to SLMC support for the UPFA. This I will resolve one by one with President Rajapaksa. Some are sensitive issues.
He said Muslims continue a sustained long term relationship with the government. We are not going to put the President into inconvenience. On the issue of forming an administration in the Eastern Provincial Council, we have been given a resounding mandate by Muslims. We have won two thirds of their votes. This has to be reckoned with”
Then he placed his first demand. He said “there is no question of the UPFA refusing the appointment of an SLMC Chief Minister.” In fact, one of the main reasons why the SLMC chose to contest on its own was because the UPFA did not heed its demand for the Chief Minister portfolio. That was one of the conditions the Congress placed during talks before nominations were held.
He argued that “I have the majority. Our independent identity and strength have helped capture the anti-government vote. We can market it.” Then he placed the SLMC’s second demand. The SLMC wanted another ministerial portfolio in the central government. “This is one way of reducing the polarisation in the East. This has to be acceptable and the government should be broadminded,” he noted. Among the other demands was one where a bonus seat should be given to an SLMC member who had served the North Central Provincial Council from 1991. He had, however, lost at the polls last week. Ministers Rajapaksa, Premjayantha, Allahapperuma, de Silva were among those who voiced their dissent strongly on the demands placed by Hakeem. Basil Rajapaksa was to counter Hakeem’s arguments by saying “we have got equal number of members” at the EPC. The meeting turned out to be rough with a lot of cross talk between Hakeem and the ministers. It had to be adjourned.
Hakeem told the Sunday Times “I have placed my cards on the table. This EPC is going to be credible in the eyes of the international community with ITAK participation. We will have to give meaning to the mandate we have received. It will have to be in a way to convince my people. There was disillusionment that we were sidelined.
That is all I can say now.”Whilst waiting to meet UPFA leaders, pressure on the SLMC mounted from those in the ITAK. India’s genial High Commissioner Ashok Kantha hosted a dinner on Wednesday night for a 76-member Indian delegation that attended the CPA sessions. It was led by Meira Kumar, Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Just after Kantha introduced Hakeem to Ms Kumar, Sampanthan walked towards the SLMC leader and a conversation ensued. Sampanthan suggested that they meet on Thursday evening. Parliamentarian Sumanthiran who joined in later said he would attend. Suresh Premachandran who was to leave for Jaffna cancelled his departure. ITAK General Secretary Mavai Senathirajah, who was in Jaffna, was told to return. There, Hakeem was to brief the ITAK (or TNA) leaders. The meeting, however, did not take place. Sampanthan told yesterday’s news conference “we were informed that Mr. Hakeem was at Temple Trees at a discussion and hence a meeting on Friday night was not possible.” He said during the polls campaign Hakeem had assured that the SLMC would protect “the Muslim identity” and the “interests of the Tamil speaking people.” He said he hoped he would fulfil those assurances.
In fact, on Friday night Hakeem was with all SLMC parliamentarians with the exception of Basheer Segu Dawood. They were discussing the outlines of the briefing Hakeem was to give the ITAK/TNA delegation.
Just then Hakeem received a telephone call on his mobile phone. It was Minister Basil Rajapaksa seeking an urgent meeting that night. During a late night discussion, some of the outstanding issues were discussed. One SLMC source said some “of the issues were resolved whilst others remain to be discussed with President Rajapaksa.” Hakeem telephoned the President last night. It was agreed that the two should meet late last morning. Earlier yesterday, Rajapaksa was busy in Gampaha opening a Ranaviru Housing project.
There were some embarrassing moments too for Hakeem at the Indian High Commissioner’s dinner. He was in the company of Minister Navin Dissanayake, UNP parliamentarians Rosy Senanayake and Eran Wickremeratne. Rosy asked Hakeem, “Which way are you going?” He replied “It’s a moral dilemma for me.” Sumanthiran was to soon point out that “you said the same thing when the 18th Amendment was passed in Parliament. You supported it then.”
All major players at the three provincial polls articulated their own positions over victory or defeat in comments to the Sunday Times. Here are a few of them:
Minister Dullas Allahapperuma: “Compared to the provincial elections in 2008, the UNP and the JVP have suffered setbacks. The JVP has almost been wiped out. The UPFA has suffered a setback in the Eastern province. About 70 per cent of the population in the province are minorities. Considering that fact, we are satisfied with the votes we have gained in the East’.
“It is our party that has gained the highest number of votes in the East and therefore we have the right to form the Provincial Council. We will be forming one with the support of the SLMC. There are no major issues with the SLMC which cannot be resolved. Even before the elections there was agreement with the SLMC and therefore we do not see an issue in getting the support of the SLMC.”
Tissa Attanayake, General Secretary of the United National Party (UNP): “Compared to the last parliamentary elections in 2010 we have received an additional 126,000 votes. The UPFA votes have reduced by 60,000. This is an indication that the government is becoming unpopular. Our party’s re-organisation programmes have brought us success. In the Eastern Province the situation was different. Last time the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) contested along with the UNP. However in Ampara we have been able to increase our votes. Overall we have an increase of about seven per cent compared to the Parliamentary elections. We are confident that we could keep improving by the next parliamentary elections.”
In a separate statement, former deputy UNP leader, Karu Jayasuriya said: “It is not possible to change the Government through a Provincial Council election, but we could have used it as a first step towards the establishment of a UNP rule. It is obvious from the election results that on this occasion too, party loyalists did not go to the polling station to vote. I wish to state in good faith that we all should draw our attention to this fact. At least in this instance we must realise the reality.”
Notably, Attanayake’s comparison is with the 2010 parliamentary polls and not the 2008 provincial elections. Nevertheless, the party’s Chief Ministerial candidate, Anuruddha Kasthurinayake, a staunch loyalist of leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, failed to get elected to the Council. He was tenth receiving only 11,484 votes. However, in Sabaragamuwa, Hasitha Samantha topped the UNP list. Samantha is one who openly challenged deputy leader Sajith Premadasa at the inauguration of the UNP polls campaign in Ratnapura. The UNP Chief Ministerial candidate for Sabaragamuwa was returned second in the preferential list. Even if all registered voters who did not cast their votes polled for the UNP, it would not overcome the gap with the UPFA. It could have been narrowed by winning over UPFA votes, a factor that has not worked effectively. Parliamentarian Jayasuriya’s claim, on the other hand, reflects the dilemma of a divided UNP.
Tilvin Silva, General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP): “The government distributed water pumps and other goods to win votes. State power was misused heavily to buy over votes. The Commissioner of Elections made an attempt to stop some of the illegal activities. He was not successful in most of the instances. This too affected the results. The outcome of the elections is not going to benefit the average man. Even in the past we have seen this happen. From this weekend we will be having a series of seminars to explain to the public how the party will carry on its activities following last week’s elections. We will also focus on other issues that concern the public”.
Notwithstanding Silva’s claims, the political future of the JVP does remain an important question. It held four seats after the 2008 PC polls, two in Sabaragamuwa and one each in North Central and Eastern Provincial Councils. It was able to retain only one seat in the North Central PC this time. There is little doubt that contributory factors include the exit of one time strongman Wimal Weerawansa and the split in the party with the Kumar Gunaratnam faction going its way. This is the first elections the JVP contested since the party broke in two.
Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF) won one seat in Trincomalee obtaining 9,522 votes. The success is largely due to its candidate, Jayantha Wijesekera, who is a popular figure. He received 7,303 preference votes whilst the next in line received 1,072. Other than that, not one candidate received more than 400 votes. On the other hand, if the NFF were to contest with the UPFA, there was a certain chance that the ITAK would have been defeated in the Trincomalee District. The gap between the votes received by the ITA and the UPFA was a mere 1072.
The only Tamil candidate elected from the entire Eastern Province on the UPFA ticket was Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan, the former Chief Minister. He and his bodyguards were in one of Colombo’s leading hotels yesterday as UPFA leaders held talks to resolve the question of a Chief Minister. The rest were Muslims. Even the sister of former LTTE Eastern Commander and now Minister, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna was defeated. Thus, a UPFA nominee for the post of Chief Minister, if it has its way during talks, is Najeeb Abdul Majeed from the Trincomalee district, a one-time non Cabinet rank Minister.
Another clear message that emerged from elections to the the three PCs is the lack of any concern by voters over some burning issues in the country. The question of rising cost of living, scandals involving the distribution of sub-standard fuel, galloping rate of crime, dengue reaching epidemic proportions, the saga over “Z” score, the strike by university academics, rise in corruption and malpractices, to mention a few, had little or no effect. If these issues affect the middle class society, it seems increasingly irrelevant to the peripheral areas.
The provincial polls last week show a significant trend. Despite no serious threats of the resurgence of a Tamil militancy, Sinhala nationalism continues to play a greater role. Examples are how UPFA is the single largest party to win multi-ethnic Ampara and the NFF’s one seat in the Trincomalee District. Both in Sabaragamuwa and North Central provinces, Sinhala votes between UPFA and the UNP continue to remain in 60-30 gap since 2005 presidential polls. It brings to fore the question on how the government’s proposals for reconciliation and implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) will take effect. Now, the SLMC’s debut with a strong footprint in the east adds a new dynamic. It has all the conditions for a polarisation between the SLMC and the ITAK. Will political parties dust off older proposals for “asymmetrical devolution” or seek different enclaves on ethnic grounds? The UPFA leadership would have a lot to ponder over as it discussed the SLMC demands late last night.
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