The Political Column
19th December 1999
Political psy war escalates
By our Political Correspondent
|Will Sri Lanka be able to enter the
next millennium with peace and hope? This is the question many ask with
just two days to go for elections because the twilight of the 20th century
has been marked with murder, mayhem, crimes of unimaginable forms and proportions
and other anti-social activities which
sow the seeds for the destruction of society.
Though a majority of people want to live peacefully, a handful of miscreants with parochial political motives are out to wreak havoc once the Presidential election is over.
Post-election violence coupled with mayhem and chaos had been the Sri Lankan style for decades and it is likely to recur in 1999 with political patronage, though it was largely absent following the 1994 elections.
Peace-loving people do not want to see post-poll violence. In the circumstances, the two main contenders in the presidential race should urge their supporters to restrain themselves.
Police and security forces who have been assigned with the task of maintaining law and order should act without fear or favour in these conditions to protect lives and public property, from the marauding mobs.
As we stand at the threshold of the 21st century, what Sri Lankans should bear in mind is that they should act responsibly to create a peaceful environment.
On Tuesday more than 11 million Sri Lankans would go to the polls to elect a new executive president who would shepherd the country to the next millennium.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga is confident of her victory. She apparently believes that she will get a resounding victory and those around her put her miles ahead of UNP Presidential Candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe.
But it is important at this juncture to have a close scrutiny of the political developments that had taken place during the past few weeks.
At the time President Kumaratunga issued a proclamation declaring her intentions to call for a Presidential election ahead of schedule, her standing was high.
The gap between her and the UNP leader had been so much that the government thought it would be an "easy go" for the President at the elections.
But LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran put the government's popularity on the reverse gear with a massive onslaught on the security forces in the Wanni.
The military reversal in the north sent shockwaves in the south. What the military achieved after years of hard work and toil was lost in just two nights. The role of the military and the government's war efforts came under heavy criticism.
The UNP believes that by allowing the LTTE to run the administration of the north, it can prevent the rebels from regrouping themselves for a military thrust. It also believes that they can liberate the east by confining the LTTE to the north.
The military debacle in Wanni came as a blessing in disguise for the UNP which was harping on unconditional talks with the LTTE. For the LTTE, the Wanni success strengthened its claim that it is the only fall back position available for the Tamils. It gave Tamils who had some faith in the government's peace efforts a chance to turn towards the LTTE.
The sympathy of the minorities, especially that of the Tamil's which put Ms. Kumaratunga on the Presidential saddle in 1994, is dwindling fast. Most of them are shifting their loyalty to the UNP as a mark of protest against the People's Alliance which promised much and achieved little for Tamils.
Their shift could be attributed to the PA's failure in coming up with a reasonable solution for the Tamil problem. Their resolve is strengthened by LTTE statements that it would not encourage Tamils to support the PA.
In his heroes' day speech, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran said no other government had brought more misery to the Tamils than the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration.
In this backdrop, President Kumaratunga summoned a meeting of her alliance partners to discuss this issue at length. The meeting was attended by both the Ceylon Workers Congress and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. They discussed about counter measures required to attract the waning Tamil support.
CWC leaders told the President that many Tamils in Colombo were disgruntled with the government because they had to undergo harassment at checkpoints. The President then asked what the anti-harassment committee was doing about this. The CWC leaders, including Minister Arumugam Thondaman, then said they were not represented in the committee. Acting promptly, the President appointed CWC parliamentarian R. Yogaraja as a member of the committee and said she was surprised to hear that the CWC was not represented in this committee.
The discussion then turned to the situation in the plantation sector. The president asked as to whether he was happy to see Upcountry People's Front Leader P. Chandrasekaran leaving the government and joining the UNP.
Mr. Thondaman assured the President that it would not make a dent in the PA vote bank in the plantations.
In addition to the CWC, the PA is also heavily dependent on the the SLMC to woo minority votes. SLMC leader M. H. M. Ashraff is actively campaigning for President Kumaratunga in the East while some other SLMC parliamentarians are campaigning among Muslims in Colombo.
The SLMC believes that its vote base in the east is intact despite LTTE threats. Early this month Deputy Minister M. L. M. Hisbullah was warned by the LTTE not to campaign for President Kumaratunga in the east. However, Mr. Hisbullah has written to the LTTE saying the campaign was a move to check the SLMC's popularity in the east. But so far the LTTE has not responded to his letter and he is continuing his campaign in the Batticaloa district.
Though the SLMC is actively supporting the PA candidate, it had made it conditional that the election should be free and fair. In Mr Ashraff's view it would be better for the President to have a free and fair election and sit in the opposition for a while if she loses, because he believes that there is a greater chance of the PA getting re-elected in time to come. Minister Ashraff also admits that the present political climate is not conducive for the PA to have a clear majority. But he had told friends that President Kumaratunga has a fair chance.
In any case, Mr. Ashraff believes that the SLMC should strengthen the President's hand by committing itself. He thinks that it would be grossly unfair to desert the ship at this crucial moment since President Kumaratunga has been sincere and has done no wrong to them.
Though Minister Ashraff had expressed these sentiments he is keeping a low profile especially after he published a book containing a controversial poem on a dialogue with Lord Buddha.
This brought the wrath of the Sinhala Buddhist hardliners, but the matter fizzled out after Mr. Ashraff tendered an apology.
However, Mr. Ashraff's decision to keep a low profile in the campaign had baffled many party stalwarts. During the past few days many of them were trying hard to get media coverage for the Minister in the state and private electronic media to prove a point that Mr. Ashraff is active in his campaign for Chandrika.
Besides the minority factor, the President is also said to be upset over the lukewarm response by the Business Community to her invitation. Though over a thousand invitations went out only about 500 responded.
"The business community is a disgusted lot," one participant told this column. "Last week's meeting was nothing compared to the meeting held in 1994 just before she was elected to office."
The business community also expressed surprise over the change of attitude of Lalith Kotelawala, a business magnate who has worked closely with the President especially on the Business Community's peace initiative. Referring to an interview given by Mr. Kotelawala, many top businessmen expressed surprise.
These reported shifts in attitudes apart, many people believe that the elections would not be 100 percent free and fair. This belief has gathered momentum due to statements made by PA politicos from time to time that they would ensure her victory under any circumstances. Thus, getting rid of this perception is yet another problem the president is facing.
So what is more important at this juncture is to give an assurance to the people that the elections would be held in a peaceful environment where no room would be left open for mass scale rigging. At the same time the President should direct the rank and file to de-escalate violence.
But now there is some confusion in government quarters. Many statistical surveys undertaken by various agencies of the government are said to be showing an upward mobility for the UNP.
In view of this, the government with the help of several university dons has started a psychological campaign against Mr. Wickremesinghe. Not to be undone or outwitted, the UNP supporters are also spreading a rumour that the majority of the government servants who used their postal votes had voted for the UNP. There were rumours to the effect that of the 28 who used postal votes in the Prime Minister's office, 22 had voted with the UNP.
This prompted many important personalities in the government to telephone Prime Minister's Secretary Hemasiri Fernando to check the veracity of the story.
However, these rumours and Anura Bandaranaike's move to erect a cut-out of Ranil Wickremesinghe and his (Mr. Bandarnaike) outside the Bandaranaike ancestral home in Horagolla had compelled the PA to obtain a statement from the ailing Prime Minister, pledging her support for the candidature of President Kumaratunga.
If not for the November Military debacle, the President could have gone before the people even with a zero economic progress, and asked for a vote on the basis of her military achievement, but today President Kumaratunga has to repeat the old promises which her government failed to fulfil.
On the other hand there are people, who could give an opportunity to Mr. Wickremesinghe to solve the country's burning problems, analysts say. He has gained experience over the years as a parliamentarian, Prime Minister and opposition leader. His proposal to set up an interim council for the north and east would most probably be welcomed by those in the south since they want to see a vibrant economy. Other analysts say that the UNP candidate's pact with the people has gone to the grassroots of this country more effectively than the PA's campaign for the peace-package.
But everything depends on the mood of the electorate, it is now time for them to ponder for a while, weighing plus and negative points of both sides.
Should it be Chandrika Kumaratunga once again or Ranil Wickremesinghe? The matter has gone before the people's court. Let's wait for their verdict.
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