9th February 1997

This local election is all about UNP

By Rajpal Abeynayake

President's first salvo for the local government election was aimed clearly from a conference table. It wasn't unusual at all, for a President who had based her entire tenure of office on the strategy of maligning the opposition.

So, as things are, the issues for the local government election have been reduced to very simple terms. The President tells the people that a vote for the UNP is a 'vote for a party that killed people.' ('Therefore, your choice is only left with us' is something that necessarily follows.)

As the elections approach, the escalation of this strategy will be visible. The commissions probing the dark deeds of the UNP era are being given maximum coverage, and it is common knowledge that the current leader of the opposition is under constant threat of investigation.

Objectively, the commissions are in most cases necessary cleansing operations. But, also objectively, it is apparent that the government is playing good politics with the commissions. When the economy is down, and the cost of living is at an all time zenith, the government's old strategy of painting the UNP as the dark force of evil is politically understandable.

It is a government that is used to and practised in defeating the massive and monolithic UNP by using just this message.

The playing field for the forthcoming local polls looks quite clear and uncomplicated due to all this. The UNP is emasculated, its leadership almost stunned into submission. The grand old days of the party seem over now, particularly so because the grand old man is dead as well.

Here, is a government that is exposing the opposition almost on a daily basis. There is also an almost deafening silence from the UNP camp on these matters.

Under these circumstances, one would have logically expected an incumbent party landslide. It should be elementary, what? Here is an incumbent government running for the local polls, and Sri Lankans always had a way of going with the incumbent party at local polls.

But, things get curioser and curioser at this point. Why is the UNP acting as if it couldn't care less?

Where is all the venom of the UNP, where are the UNP's big bad boys, the mealy-mouthed crass crude and notoriously loquacious UNP cabal? Where are all the UNP's lawyers, who could always be counted on for a loud mouthed argument whether it was convincing or not?

Here is what a little bird tells me. It may be this: Why should the UNP make a song and dance when the government is doing all the good work for it?

With inflation well over double digits, and the familiar malaise that is associated with SLFP regimes resurfacing in all its glory (there is more petty thefts and prostitution: most people have to find a way to eat) why should the UNP get into a shouting a match?

At this point, there are several reasons the UNP would deliberately go for a policy of disengagement. Replying to the government's constant attacks would carry the risk of adding to the stink that has already been generated by the can of worms the PA has opened.

If it's the weight of the commission findings against the weight of a deteriorating economy, it is possible that the issues in this election are slightly imbalanced.

Take the commissions. Like it or not, their collective credibility is somewhat impugned. It all started with the way evidence was at the Kobbekaduwa Commission. It was not only the Wimalaratne statue that sustained damage as a consequence. The clear case of perjury that was made out against the state's witness had the effect of casting the bona fide's of certain people involved in the commissions in a questionable light.

Several prosecution counsel in these commissions tendered their resignations, and the commissions, to say the least, acquired a measure of taint.

All government appointed commissions necessarily suffer from this degree of negative association with the incumbent regime. To that extent, it is certainly not a phenomenon associated with the current regime alone. If one takes, for instance, the JR. appointed commission that found Ms. Bandaranaike and Nihal Jayewickreme guilty of misdeeds that cost them their civic rights, one would understand why state appointed commissions do not acquire the legitimacy that is carried by the regular courts of law of this land.

JR's 'bindupala' commission was obviously a strategem that was devised to send Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike into the political wilderness for the next six years, and Mrs. Bandaranaike and her daughter, the President, will be the first persons to acknowledge that.

JR's commissions were of course not kangaroo courts. Such commissions were on the other hand, embellished with the names of legal glitterati of that time....

JR. appointed several commissions. But, by following up on the commission findings, J.R. Jayewardene cast a long shadow of doubt over the legitimacy of any of these commissions.

No, commissions don't have to be partisan. JR didn't exactly appoint his Ward Place yes-man to head his commission, but that didn't prevent political analysts from concluding that his commissions were instruments devised to obtain partisan political advantage.

Since JR's time, several other commissions have been appointed by several other governments.

What political analysts will have to say in the future about these commissions are still a matter of conjecture. But, the people tend to see these commissions from different perspectives: their own perspectives.

If people are asked today what kind of respect they have for the commission, for instance, which arrived at the findings that deprived Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights, people will have a lot to say about this body.

In truth, the people have already had their say about such commissions. When a Parliament elected by the people voted last year to negate an earlier move by a predecessor Parliament to deprive Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights, they were in effect expressing some sort of contempt for the whole process that deprived Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights.

Yes, it was a partisan process. Yes, it was a process that elicited unfair political advantage for the incumbent executive.

So, people do know something about commissions. For instance, how sacrosanct is their process, compared with, say, the process of the regular courts of this land?

Only history will judge how the current commissions are seen, but let us just say that the people have an educated knowledge about the institution of the ''commission.''

As time goes on, the President will pull a few more tricks from her bag. She is of the political variety which knows that the game is about the enemy. But for the moment she calculated that the game is only about the enemy. She has in her own way placed the UNP on a pedestal by devoting her entire tenure upto now to the task of placing all the problems of the country at the door of the UNP. This was most apparent during last year's power crisis.

It is interesting.

The Tilan Wijesinghes of the President's development drive are thereby rendered redundant. What can such little boys do anyway? This election is about the UNP, it's not about development. This election is about the UNP, it's not about the economy. This election is about the UNP, it's not about the ethnic crisis or even the package. Or so the President thinks. For the moment.

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