Hustings in the hills

By Leon Berenger from Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

The faces of beaming candidates have once again cropped up in the Central Province, with Provincial Council elections on February 14.

The government side is confident of crossing the finishing line ahead of others, banking heavily on the string of victories in the north. The Opposition is screaming itself hoarse on state corruption, wastage, increasing cost of living and other hardships forced on the masses. The electorate on the other hand, is forced to look on as the usual circus continues.

A huge cut-out on the road to the Kandy municipal limits announces the entry of Lohan Ratwatte into the campaign for the ruling UPFA.
A CWC campaign worker stretches out to a tea plucker at an estate on the Nanu Oya Talawakelle road.
The Black Guards: UNP Chief Ministerial candidate S.B. Dissanayake surrounded by private body guards at a pocket meeting in the outskirts of Kandy.

“The ruling party has nothing new to offer the people except take credit for the military successes in a bid to bolster its vote bank, while cunningly avoiding other domestic issues that have been placed in limbo,” says S. B. Dissanayake, the Chief Ministerial candidate for the main opposition UNP in the Central Province.

The credit must rightfully go to the brave police and security forces personnel who have laid down their lives to protect the unitary status of the country. But instead, the government has made it a political issue in a desperate bid to prop up their candidates at the forthcoming polls, Mr. Dissanayake, a former heavy weight in the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration further said.

“The government must turn the search light elsewhere as well and deliver what was promised to the people without delay or else they will have to face the wrath of the masses who have been forced to suffer in silence as the ruling politicians and their side kicks live it up in style with little regard for the electorate that voted them into power in the first place,” he said.

The ruling side is boasting of massive crowds at their meetings, but the real picture is different, he said.
Mr. Dissanayake alleged that at a recent government rally held at Norwood in the Nuwara Eliya district some 400 state buses were used to bring in crowds from outside.

The participants were provided with food, drink and Rs. 500 each he alleged. Meanwhile UPFA’s Chief Ministerial candidate Sarath Ekanayake has accused Mr. Dissanayake of coordinating attacks on pro-government supporters.

Mr. Ekanayake has alleged that his chief rival was even harbouring a small ‘army’ of about 100, of whom many have criminal records. In the Nuwara Eliya district the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) which is supporting the government is having its own share of problems in the form of dissent from the old guard.

CWC leader A. Thondaman (Junior) was this week likened to a dictator by veteran trade unionist S. Sathasivam who has already broken ranks with the government and is contesting the elections on the UNP ticket.

Mr. Sathasivam told The Sunday Times that the CWC leader who is also the Minister for Youth Empowerment and Socio Economic Development was ignoring the welfare of the workers while enjoying various perks.

“The estate line abodes are in total neglect and the people are struggling to even find food. The poor workers can no longer be fooled with empty promises since they are now more educated and aware of their rights.

“For many years the estate workers have been forced to depend on their employers while being denied of the rights enjoyed by the citizenry in other parts of the country.

“For example when a birth takes place in a line room, the parents would approach the estate superintendent for an allowance. It is the same in the case of a death when the next of kin would seek money from the Superintendent for funeral expenses.

“This is a sorry case of dependence from ‘birth to death’ and this position must change allowing the workers to live and die in dignity. But the people who were elected to serve them have let them down,” Mr. Sasthasivam further said.

He said this time around the people can no longer be fooled and they will not blindly follow the cockerel as was the case in the past. Mr. Thondaman will realise this on the 14th.

“In short, the CWC has lost its trade union clout largely owing to the ad hoc behaviour of the present leadership,” Mr. Sathasivam said.

But as CWC area organiser, Thamiil Selvi says the party has to go with the ruling side to get better benefits for the people whom they represent.

What the candidates say

JVP has a development plan for the province - Samansiri Fernando

The JVP’s Central Province Chief Ministerial Candidate, Samansiri Fernando, has charged that the ruling UPFA is using public property and state power in its campaign for the February 14 polls in blatant violation of election laws.

“When campaigning started the government said that winning the election was going to be a cakewalk. Now state power and public property are shamelessly being used with a senior minister providing ministry vehicles for campaign work,” Mr. Fernando told The Sunday Times yesterday.

He said he believed his party was better qualified to administer the province as it had a dedicated team and a well set out development plan.

Mr. Fernando said that both the UPFA and the UNP had caused much harm to the province when they controlled the province.

“The education level in the province is at a low level. The JVP will address this issue by eliminating discrimination in the appointment of principals, teachers and officials in the education sector,” he said.
Apart from education, the JVP would formulate a plan to develop roads and hospitals, especially those at the village level, while improving agriculture and industries as well, Mr. Fernando said.

Asked whether he felt his party’s strength had been dealt a blow by the defection of members to the National Freedom Front led by Wimal Weerawansa, the JVP’s chief candidate said: “Just because a monk de-robes it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the Buddha Sasana. Likewise, just because certain people had left the party, it doesn’t mean anything has changed. Our policies are still the same,” he said.

War victories alone are not enough for victory - Shanthini Kongahage

“I am on the winning team,” is how Shanthini Kongahage described her chances at the forthcoming Provincial Council elections.

Contesting on the UNP ticket in the Kandy District this former councillor is confident of a UNP victory in the elections and pooh-poohs government claims that it could win because of the war success.

“While we praise the efforts of our brave soldiers and others who have made supreme sacrifices and their determination to eliminate the LTTE, we deplore attempts at burying democracy under the shadows of battle-front successes,” Ms. Kongahage said.

She also hit out at the recent attacks on the free media saying democracy was in serious jeopardy.

“If one is to serve the electorate properly then one has to integrate with the people and this cannot be done with defender jeeps loaded with men armed to the teeth. By this you only scare away the people,” Ms. Kongahage, further added, in an apparent reference to some UPFA candidates.

We are not playing up war victories - Lohan Ratwatte

Taking on the opposition in the Kandy District is the UPFA’s youthful new comer Lohan Ratwatte who entered the fray at the last minute on a request made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“The President informed me of his intention just two days prior to the day of nominations. Prior to that I had no political ambition what so ever”, Mr. Ratwatte said.

He told The Sunday Times that if elected his first task would be to uplift the party which has lost some clout in the district and also look into the welfare of the youth like providing them with jobs, training and other facilities.

Mr. Ratwatte was convinced that he would end up a winner at the up coming hustings simply because his father had done a lot for the people in the area when he held political office and he too would do the same if elected.

He vehemently denied opposition charges that the government was playing up the war victories in to gain more votes. “No doubt the government must take the credit for the success story in the north and east but we are not depending on it entirely to bolster the vote bank,” he said.

He added that the government side would win because the people had faith in the strong leadership of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and added that the cost of living would also come down as the war nears its end.

“In the past large amounts of money had to be spent from the state coffers towards the war effort. This will all change now as there will be less expenditure on defence and these monies can be utilized in areas that would benefit the people,” Mr. Ratwatte further said.

The state has also provided extra security for Mr. Ratwatte since he is the son of the former Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte and could be a target.

Mr. Ratwatte also rejected opposition charges that his supporters were behind recent attacks on UNP offices and supporters saying the charges were baseless.

One campaign office of the UNP was torched and a second badly damaged in the Kandy District at the beginning of the campaign. Police are yet to make any arrests in this connection.
However apart from these incidents there has been little or no violence in the Province.

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