Rajpal's Column

19th December 1999

Covering the angst of the contender political theatre in Muffet land

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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The Chandrika Kumaratunga strategy of 1999 was to transparently do another JR, which was to win an easy second term on the strength of an emasculated opposition.

In the immediate afterglow of the announcement of elections, the Richard the 2nd strategy seemed to be so smart that Ms. Kumaratunga was almost falling asleep.

A tardy challenge seemed to have made her bored and arrogantly complacent. ("Ranil is so childish'', she announced with little Miss Muffet glee. "I really have no fight on my hands.'')

Within a few days, what seemed to be a historic no-show transmogrified to one of the most tense and closely watched elections in post independence history.

With both parties being relatively mediocre, compared to the electoral battles witnessed in the Jayewardene era and prior to that, there is an unprecedented feeling of apathy which may have a few repercussions. (There could be less violence, for instance, if party activists on both sides are essentially uninspired.)

This election has not engendered any great expectations unlike the last one.

During the last election Ms. Kumaratunga, a fresh untested face, was an exciting quantity. In 1994, the 17 year old UNP hold on power was threatened with the crossing of an innocuous looking ballot.

By contrast, this year offers banality. The choice to be exercised is relatively so uninspiring that observers and recorders of the scene are left limp in the face of a completely unmomentous event.

But, it is still a poll that can be turned into an opportunity for those who know that there is a latent power source in the jaded voters.

A jaded electorate is an unhappy one. Such an electorate, albeit unhappy with both parties, would still be by pervasive human instinct, looking for some way out of its weariness.

The only way out of ennui ( boredom /dissatisfaction?) would be to vote for the opposition. But the "opposition'' had to be something more than a born loser and an effeminate soft-sell trying hard to outdo a hyper confident female.

The opposition candidate seemed to be exactly that: his campaign was seen to be managed by men who couldn't make this political worm turn.

(A metaphor, however unkind, which is thrown around liberally in this jaded environment. )

In a TV speech that seemed to be the defining moment in this election campaign, Ranil Wickremesinghe seemed to obtain that vital reality check that he badly needed. His political transformation seemed to take place right there on the tube in front of more than a million viewers.

He began by talking of Lee Kwan Yew visiting Ravi Jayewardene's house in Mirissa. Mr. Yew was visiting the Fox there, and the conversation turned to the subject that is familiarly talked about when Mr. Yew is around. (Which is Lee Kwon Yew of course.) "I am not the most popular man in Singapore,'' Lee had said. " But, I am the politician in that country who most enjoys the people's confidence.''

Mr. Wickremesinghe, barely keeping the momentum of the sentence alive, managed to say that that's what he wants. ("Not to be the most popular person in Sri Lanka, but the one that can get the job done.") The speech was good .

A tepid one, but fantastic and focused by Mr. Wickremesinghe's usual standards.

But it was not so much the speech that did the trick. An almost devastating follow up surfaced, which seemed to have been anything but accidental and unplanned.

Mr. Wickremesinghe unveiled a manifesto which cried out that he will work, be practical and jaded though the people may be offer something more than slogans, bromides and generalizations.

The best way to do that was to be strong on the details.

The GST was to be slashed and the diesel tax was to be reduced. Word spread that the minorities were being goaded to opt for change over continuity even if the bona fide's of the motivator may have been in question.

Though the move to appease the minorities looked audacious, it catalyzed a reaction among an apathetic electorate. At least this candidate was not offering sameness and vagueness.

In contrast to promises of a package that had been hanging fire for six years and was now looking like an old bag more than a pottaniya, there was at least here, something intrinsically more distinct as a mere different approach.

It was a very human reaction that nobody was talking about the package or constitutional changes. Most human beings don't keep talking about the same things for over five years.

The hiccups such as the Tamil Net furor (Ranil's ostensible offer to give the Northeast administration for two years to the LTTE) were played down, which enabled the candidate to get out of that potential minefield without committing any damaging gaffes.

It was also perhaps a rumour that was floated first that Mr. Wickremesinghe was gaining ground. But among a jaded electorate that acts as a latent powder keg, and the thought seemed to ignite.

***********

The preceding collection of factoids are essentially a dramatization for what still is a relatively boring scenario. Mr. Wickremesinghe is no Che Guevera, and Mr. Guevera aside, he is not even a close carbon copy of Gamini Dissanayake or Lalith Athulathmudali.

Not being a large charismatic political animal, the preceding scenario doesn't by any means assure Mr. Wickremesinghe victory at the forthcoming elections. But it has given the complacent Ms. Kumaratunga a fight she will dread. The dispiritedness of the PA is palpable. The state media has pressed the panic buttons and is now in the seventh stage of hysteria. The PA, which was famously prepared for the election that was suddenly sprung upon the rest of the country, was very clearly not prepared for these turn of events.

The PA seemed to have implicit faith in the raison d' etre of Ms. Kumaratunga for having early elections. If she called elections early, surely she must be knowing her onions. The accepted rationale was that she must be sure of winning this election.With that mindset, an upset of well laid out plans was something visibly difficult for the PA to handle. According to some newspapers, mass rigging is being contemplated as a "means to justify the end.'' If that happens, the real strength of the UNP will be seen on how it counters aggression. Any countering of vote rigging will be easier at a national election than at a provincial one, in which power is most often concentrated in one electorate. Can the gentlemen of the UNP, who seem to have a penchant and a mastery for political image-making take the fight from the advertising office to the arena? The answer is not yet clear. The UNP has so far seen to be a good marketing operation, and this has served to conceal its strengths or weaknesses at the grass-roots level. But, having fought a fight, its difficult to think that the UNP cannot anticipate the possibilities.

Ranil's victory, if it happens, will still be an upset of considerable proportions. For a President who branded the opposition leader childish, a nursery rhyme could be prescribed in her post Presidential period if the upset somehow does take place.

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,

Eating her curds and whey,

There came a spider

And sat down beside her

And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Having said that, the word upset still seems to connote that CBK seems to enjoy maybe a millimetre of an edge over her rival in this race. Any hundred metres runner will tell you that with such a lead, it's just angst, angst and more angst until the deciding moment of breasting that tape.

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