Trouncing of UPFA in NP raises major new issues for the Rajapaksa regime  UNP and JVP suffer more setbacks; main opposition party must urgently put its house in order It took less than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s 14.4 million voters to send strong messages, both to the Government and the Opposition, at last week’s [...]


Northern verdict: Crucial factor for next presidential poll


  • Trouncing of UPFA in NP raises major new issues for the Rajapaksa regime
  •  UNP and JVP suffer more setbacks; main opposition party must urgently put its house in order

It took less than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s 14.4 million voters to send strong messages, both to the Government and the Opposition, at last week’s Northern, North Western and Central Provincial Council elections. The enormity of such messages, from among the 4.3 million eligible to vote, appeared significant. It foretold the newer manifestations in the political horizon. 
The most important ones were for the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Government. In the North a survey commissioned by it assured 16 seats. It won less than half or a mere seven. If the UPFA wanted to deny the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) a two thirds majority, it secured an overwhelming three fourths or 30 seats including two bonus seats. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was left with just one seat.

The results proved even the soothsayers wrong. It showed that the turbo charged infrastructure development — new roads, restoring train services, fresh employment opportunities, flooding of luxury goods or a ‘northern spring’ (Uthuru Vasanthaya) — has not helped to win hearts and minds. That is more than four and a half years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas. Logically speaking, this would prompt a re-think by the UPFA Government of its approach towards reconciliation and related issues. It is still too early to discern how the UPFA will address them. It has the uneasy task of striking a delicate balance between reconciliation and appeasing hardline Sinhala nationalists. 

Another significant aspect — an en bloc Tamil vote as demonstrated last week, will be a critical issue at a presidential poll. A candidate from the South would probably have to garner that support base to win; particularly so, if the southern vote gets too badly split. In other words, the TNA becomes a key deciding factor. A ban on voting by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the 2005 Presidential elections denied such a block vote to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa by a margin of only 175,786 votes. Last week, the TNA secured twice that number or 353,595 votes.
The UPFA’s poor performance in the North also reflected peculiarities in its polls campaign. Its leaders who made policy pronouncements that any Sri Lankan could live in any part of the country accused the TNA of choosing a southerner to be its Chief Ministerial candidate. In what seemed a political campaign for the North, outside that province’s borders, alliance leaders also charged that a victory for the TNA would lead to separation. Even the renegade Kumaran Pathmanathan, or ‘KP’, who is now backing the UPFA but was once the man credited for raising the Tiger guerrillas to a world-class terror outfit by procuring modern weapons, spoke of the TNA manifesto going beyond the Vaddukoddai resolution of 1976. Soon after guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s death, Pathmanathan in fact claimed in a statement that he was the new leader. Did this strategy, a part of the UPFA’s ad hoc approach, also kindle the emotion charged but seemingly unperturbed voters? The turnout at different polls rallies has shown that the northern voter is fairly literate politically.

President Rajapaksa addressing the UN General Assembly’s 68th sessions on Tuesday.

At a presidential poll, these factors apart, the prospect of a Tamil candidate securing most of the 78.48 per cent votes cast for TNA in the NPC polls sets a serious poser. Together with their counterparts in the south voting in favour, the critical question would be whether it would not become difficult for a formidable Sinhala candidate to win the 50 per cent plus one vote needed to be elected President. 

Although the UPFA won the North Western Provincial Council, where its campaign has been the most intense and even costly, there was still no reason to gloat. Many were the lessons learnt. The number of seats the UPFA held including the two bonuses dropped to 34 seats from 37 in 2009. It had polled 705,188 votes last week as against 668,743 in 2009. Yet, the percentage of votes for the UPFA had decreased by 6.43 per cent. Last week it polled 66.43 per cent of the votes as against 69.43 per cent in 2009. This result reveals the UPFA’s vulnerability. It lays bare the fact that a concerted effort by a vibrant opposition grouping could be a strong challenge during a poll in this largely Sinhala Buddhist province.

There were also peculiarities in the polls campaign in the NWP. It has become clear, at least by hindsight that formidable sections of the UPFA were at war with each other over preference votes. Hambantota District parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa strongly campaigned for his classmate, Johan Fernando. He is the son of Johnston Fernando, Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade. Another backer was Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, who is widely known as the astrologer of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Minister Fernando, now a wealthy businessman and liquor dealer, spent lavishly for his son’s campaign. As the polls day neared, there was speculation that Johan would top the preference list. So much so, even Dayasiri Jayasekera, his main rival for these votes, appeared resigned to that possible fate. He spoke of a likely “computer jilmart” or jugglery through computers.

However, when the results of preference votes were announced, Jayasekera had polled 336,327 while Johan Fernando secured only 134,423. The votes for Kurunegala District were counted twice, one at the request of Johan Fernando and the next time when Tikiri Adhikari called for it. It turned out that even some Cabinet ministers in the NWP had encouraged voters to cast their preferences for Jayasekera. Their resentment had been long standing, particularly after the crossover of Johnston Fernando from the UNP to Government ranks. He had been viewed, as one UPFA stalwart in Kurunegala said, as “an outsider” because he vied “for leadership in the district.” The old guard of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) detested him as a ‘Johnny come lately’ who had the backing of what they saw was the ‘new’ SLFP of the Mahinda Rajapaksa clan.
Dayasiri Jayasekera made history by receiving the highest number of preference votes at a PC election. The record was held earlier by former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She polled 298,457 votes from the Gampaha District at the Western Provincial Council elections in 1993. Jayasekera is strongly tipped to become the Chief Minister. The previous incumbent Athula Wijesinghe was placed fifth in the list of preference votes.

In the Central Provincial Council, it was no better for the UPFA. It had to be content with the same number of seats, 36 – which it held in 2009. Of this number, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) secured six and the National Workers Front three seats. The increase in the UPFA vote base is from 59.53 per cent (650,203) in 2009 to 60.16 per cent (716,247). Here again, the vulnerability of the UPFA in the event of a concerted effort by a vibrant opposition during a poll is laid bare. Even if internecine issues were less during the polls campaign here, it has emerged thereafter. 

President Rajapaksa, who was in New York for the UN General Assembly sessions, and learnt of the PC poll results had asked for the re-appointment of Sarath Ekanayake as Chief Minister of the Central Province. This is on the basis that a close blood relative of a Cabinet Minister, in fact, the Prime Minister, cannot be Chief Minister. A newspaper ran the catchy headline; Father – PRIME Minister; Son – CHIEF Minister.

The move was to anger Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne. His son Anuradha Jayaratne polled 107,644 votes while Ekanayaka came second, with 70,171votes. The Prime Minister went public to espouse his son’s case. He said if the argument was that a blood relative of a cabinet minister cannot be Chief Minister, there was a striking example. He said that Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa’s son Shashindra, is Chief Minister of the Uva Province. UPFA sources said the issue has now been put on hold until the President returns to Colombo. According to the same sources, one of the avenues under consideration to resolve the issue was to make Anuradha Jayaratne a Member of Parliament. For this purpose, these sources said, a lady MP on the National List may be called upon to resign. Once before too, she was asked to resign and was later told it was a mistake and to take her oaths again.

Emerging severely battle scarred politically in all three PCs is the main opposition United National Party (UNP). In the Northern Province, the UNP failed to secure a single seat. It campaigned in the North as the only secular party in the fray. So much for secularism in the North. Its most humiliating performances were however in the North Western and Central Provinces. In the NWP, the votes cast for the UNP last week dropped to 24.21 per cent (257,011) from 28.7 per cent (270,347) in 2009. The number of seats it held was reduced to 12 from 14 in 2009. It is clear that Dayasiri Jayasekera’s crossover had a debilitating effect on the UNP. Jayasekera received more preferential votes than did the UNP as a party. The party secured only 4,667 votes or a mere 9.81 per cent in the Panduwasnuwara electorate (earlier represented by Jayasekera). At the 2009 PC polls, however, the UNP polled 12,408 votes or 29.97 per cent of the votes cast. The UNP performance in Panduwasnuwara is clear proof that the party’s grassroots level organisations have crumbled. It was the same message in Kuliyapitiya. A causus belli for Jayasekera leaving the UNP, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam’s Kuliyapitiya electorate polled only 11,171 votes or 18.2 per cent of the votes cast. In 2009 the votes polled were 18,459 or 31.71 per cent. Jayasekera was touted to quit the UNP for more than a year. One of the reasons that caused his exit ahead of the PC polls was his protest over the appointment of Kariyawasam as the UNP Kurunegala District Organiser.

In the Central Province, the number of seats held by the UNP was down to 16 from 22 in 2009. The party had only polled 27.79 per cent or 330,815 votes. This is in marked contrast to 2009 when it polled 422,203 or 38.65 per cent. Of course, then the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was an ally of the UNP. This time, though a partner of the UPFA, the SLMC contested separately. Other than the Kandy electorate which encompasses the town and its environs, the UNP lost all other electorates in the Central Province. Making gains were former General Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party (DP) securing two seats and the Up Country People’s Front one seat. Since 1999, the UNP has not been able to win a single Provincial Council election. 
The latest debacle for the UNP has once again raised questions over the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. As is expected in such situations, some parliamentarians in his party are spearheading moves for a leadership change. In this backdrop, there is something ghoulish too. Former Deputy Leader, Sajith Premadasa, who did not put his best foot forward during the election campaign and when he did, spoke against the party’s own policies, has publicly declared he was willing to accept the leadership if it was given to him “unconditionally.” It is indeed a marked contrast to his late father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was likened by some to Abraham Lincoln for rising high from ‘log cabin’ to the President’s House.

A senior UNPer who did not wish to be named declared “the late Premadasa, through sweat and toil, earned for himself the leadership. He never made a public demand for it.” Wickremesinghe has said that the party would be re-organised to face the new challenges.

During a meeting when he was campaigning in Jaffna, Wickremesinghe, in-between deciding if to order the Blueberry ice cream or the Rio ice special on offer, mindful no doubt of one’s sugar levels, told the Sunday Times, “We have recently identified some of the main issues related to heavy corruption at high levels of Government and the mounting cost of living. If there is no Government action, we will take to the streets in October.”

Yet, the problems for Wickremesinghe from his own party men, some once trusted are not over. A handful is busy consulting astrologers and even clergy of different denominations for support over high positions in the UNP. The most important message for the UNP in last week’s poll is clear. If it had organised itself into a formidable political force, it could not only have made far greater inroads in the NWP and the CP but proved to the UPFA that it was going to be a force to reckon with during a presidential or parliamentary election. With the party weakening badly at every poll, that was not to be. The margins – 65% to 28% is far too wide. The gap has to be narrowed first, and then overcome. But that seems a constellation away. On the other hand, despite the use of State machinery and lavish spending, voter discontent is the main cause why the UPFA was denied a convincing victories.

The Democratic Party, with five seats to its credit (three in the NWP and two in the CP) has made a footprint in Sri Lanka’s political landscape. In the CP, it is clear it largely garnered the disgruntled UNP vote. However, in the NWP, it was mostly the votes of the soldier families, who still regard DP leader, former General Sarath Fonseka as a hero who won the separatist war. If they are concentrated in the Kurunegala District where the DP won two seats, a third in the Puttalam District again is made up of a segment of disgruntled UNP votes. Fonseka, who led the army to victory against Tiger guerrillas in May 2009, claimed that his party has emerged as a third force. An accomplished General who won accolades as the best army commander in the world for defeating Tiger guerrillas, Fonseka still remains a political novice. It will take more than five seats in two PCs to emerge as a third force. However, his party’s role cannot be underestimated. As long as the conflicts in the UNP continue, one of the biggest beneficiaries will be the Democratic Party. Fonseka’s party also stands to harvest the displeasure over the UPFA, as evident in the voting pattern in the NWP and the CP.

The party which Fonseka claims to have replaced to emerge as third force, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) no doubt, has continued its downward trend at polls. In the NWP it has retained its solitary seat. Last week, it polled only 1.85 per cent or 19,624 votes. In 2009, it secured 20,428 or 2.12 per cent of the votes. In the CP, the JVP failed to win a single seat and recorded a lower poll – 13,887 or 1.17 per cent of the votes polled. In 2009, it won 15,416 or 1.41 per cent of the votes but was still unable to win a single seat. Undoubtedly, the division in the JVP, firstly with Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF) and where almost half its membership remaining left to form the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), was one of the primary causes for its current dilemma. The question that emerges is whether the JVP would become amenable, sooner or later, to a common front of opposition parties. 

The results of both the NWP and the CP show that the recently emerged nationalistic sentiments or the accusations against minority communities had little or no impact. Candidates fielded by the National Freedom Front (NFF) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in the two provinces failed to secure even a single seat. For the UPFA Government, the biggest task would be to retain its existing vote base. It would have to ensure there is no erosion when it comes to Southern, Uva and Western Provincial Council elections. In that respect, the polls for Western Provincial Council (WPC), billed for early next year, would be a sure pointer to later presidential and parliamentary elections. For the UNP, the country’s major opposition, putting its own house in order becomes a priority if it is to emerge as a viable opposition, leave alone being a vibrant one. That no doubt has to begin from the grassroots in most electorates.

Among the many observations the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) made in its final report on the polls was that, “The influence of the military forces stationed in the North had a significant impact on the Northern Provincial elections. New found voter-buying strategies in the Central and Northwestern Provinces were also prominent during the pre-election time. Distribution of liquor, clothes, cellular phones and even three-wheelers took place, mostly through the black-money pumped into election campaigning. In the six years of election monitoring CaFFE has not seen candidates making such significant investments in a Provincial Council election and we believe that one candidate, in the Northwestern Province, definitely established a new record for election-spending.” 

It was a jet lagged President Rajapaksa who learnt of results for the three Provincial Councils. He had arrived in New York after a 13 hour 45 minutes in an Emirates Airbus A 380 flight from Dubai. After checking into Waldorf Astoria where most heads of state or government attending UN sessions stay, he and the first lady Shiranthi walked a block away to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Waiting for them were External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris, Minister Dullas Allahapperuma and External Affairs Monitoring MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena. The subject of discussion was the speech Rajapaksa was to deliver on Tuesday.

Thereafter, over the Chinese meal Rajapaksa asked Allahapperuma how many hours of sleep would an average person require? “Some six to seven hours would be enough,” he replied. How come then that some sleep for ten and twelve hours, asked Rajapaksa in what seemed a reference to two members of his official entourage — Sajin de Vass Gunawardena and Lohan Ratwatte MP. The question was posed whilst Rajapaksa looked at the duo. They had rested longer due to jet lag. 
President Rajapaksa appeared relatively more confident when he addressed the UN General Assembly’s 68th sessions last Tuesday. His delivery was smooth and his articulation to drive points home was timely. Pointing out that Sri Lanka has “eradicated separatist terrorism,” Rajapaksa said his Government was “at all times responsive to the priorities reflected in domestic public opinion, is engaged in all measures required for meaningful progress in these fields.”

He said, “A significant event in this regard is the opportunity which the people of the Northern Province enjoyed at the elections, held three days ago, to elect their representatives to the Provincial Council. It is a matter of legitimate satisfaction to me that this was made possible after the lapse of almost a quarter of a century. There can be no doubt regarding the crucial importance of this measure in the context of political empowerment and reconciliation. It is clearly the responsibility of the international community to assist with these efforts and to ensure their success for the benefit of all the people of Sri Lanka….”

The call by Rajapaksa for “the international community” to assist in the context of “political empowerment and reconciliation” seemed significant. However, the contours of such an exercise, even by international standards, would become a monolithic.

Soon after its victory, TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told a news conference, “Within the framework of a united, undivided country, Tamils want to live in security, safeguarding their self-respect and dignity with adequate self-rule, to be able to fulfil their legitimate political, economic, social and cultural aspirations.” He added that the TNA “is committed to the achievement of the above objective and expects that the Government would also extend its fullest cooperation to the achievement of the same. The results of this election offer everyone an opportunity which should be fully utilizsed in a positive manner.” 

Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran added, “If the Government is to talk to us and make it more meaningful, we will consider attending the Parliamentary Select Committee.”

Both the UPFA and the TNA have signalled that there was room for “cohabitation.” During the news conference Chief Minister designate C.V. Vigneswaran said, “We are willing to work with the Government.” Similar sentiments were expressed in Colombo by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

In this backdrop, an official statement issued in New Delhi by the Government of India welcoming the conclusion of the NPC polls noted, “The Government of Sri Lanka has honoured its commitment to the international community to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council. We look forward to the implementation by the Government of Sri Lanka of other important commitments made to the international community, including the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and going beyond it.”

Herein lies a knotty issue. Though progress is slow, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) where only UPFA MPs are serving is tasked to formulate proposals which may partly or altogether replace the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has already pulled out of the PSC. “We had thought that the proposals to exclude police and land powers would be excluded from the 13th Amendment before the PC polls on September 21,” Minister Champika Ranawaka, who is also the General Secretary of the JHU, told the Sunday Times. He said, “We received assurances of such exclusion during a meeting of party leaders.” 

India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid arrives in Colombo on October 6 for meetings with President Rajapaksa and his counterpart G.L. Peiris. His mission is to determine the UPFA Government’s present policy towards the 13th Amendment and issues related to it. It is a precursor to the participation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the November Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo.

This week, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CIMAG) gave the final green light for arrangements that have been made for the Colombo event.

In his speech, Rajapaksa also made a veiled reference to events playing out at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. He said, “In spite of the visible progress made, and consistent engagement with UN mechanisms, many countries are surprised at the disproportionate emphasis on Sri Lanka, and the unequal treatment through the multilateral framework. The basis for this relentless pursuit is also questioned. It is my conviction that the UN system should be astute to ensure the consistency of standards applied so that there is no room for suspicion of manipulation of the UN System by interested parties to fulfil their agendas.”

Just 24 hours after the President’s speech, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay made her oral presentation to the sessions in Geneva. A key element in her 27-point speech was a reference to the UNHRC decision to “conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable.” She noted, “Regrettably, the High Commissioner detected no new or comprehensive effort to independently or credibly investigate the allegations which have been of concern to the Human Rights Council. She received little new information of the Courts of Inquiry appointed by the army and navy to further investigate the allegations of civilian casualties and summary executions raised in the LLRC report and Channel Four documentaries, and urges these reports be made public to allow them to be evaluated……”

Pillay declared that she encourages the “Government to use the time between now and March 2014 to show a credible national process with tangible results, including the successful prosecution of individual perpetrators, in the absence of which she believes the international community will have a duty to establish its own inquiry.” Pillay said she “will be making recommendations in March (next year) on appropriate ways it could continue that engagement….”

Her remarks drew a response from Ravinatha Ariyasinha, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva. In a much publicised statement in Sri Lanka, he took exception to what he called the UN Human Rights High Commission placing a deadline of March 2014 for Sri Lanka. To any discerning observer, such a contention appeared an exercise in futility. Firstly, Pillay has no mandate to set any deadline but is acting on a US backed resolution. Secondly, through her remarks she is only delivering a message to Sri Lanka — to respond to the main issues raised in the resolutions. In no way does she say what such a response should be. Thirdly, no member country of the UNHRC or for that matter the UN itself would concur with the argument that Pillay has simply imposed a deadline and Sri Lanka should fire all its diplomatic guns at her. The response thus becomes part of the “blow hot, blow cold” theory followed by those executing UPFA’s foreign policy. 

The coming weeks no doubt would be crucial for President Rajapaksa. If he did well at the UN through his address, and a photo-op with President Barrack Obama and his wife, the local and international issues he now has to address are even more than what he had when he left for New York.

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