Like the predator that got entangled in a trap laid for the prey, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) became victims of their own propaganda at last week’s Southern Provincial Council Elections.
Their leaders boasted of polling 80 per cent of the votes in the South, the underbelly of the Sinhala polity. It was for decades the ancestral stronghold of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now venerated much like King Dutugemunu for militarily defeating Tiger guerrillas.
The resounding 72.39 % votes they won at the Uva Provincial Council elections in August no doubt inebriated them. Yet, there was a drop of five per cent. That gave a clear message – there is a slow but sure slide in the Government’s popularity. That is despite a high-pitched campaign theme about winning the war. It had not won hearts and minds commensurately in the South.
“We could have done better in the Galle district,” declared Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. His cabinet colleague, Janaka Bandara Tennekoon warned that several shortcomings had to be rectified before the upcoming Presidential and Parliamentary elections. “The outcome is a “red signal” for the Government,” said Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF), now a constituent partner of the UPFA.
That these concerns are voiced at the end of a campaign that was on high gear is significant. UPFA leaders including Ministers were allocated specific areas to campaign. The resources of the state were used. Cash flow was never a problem. Promises were made in abundance. Fleets of vehicles were deployed to move crowds from one rally to another.
Yet, it was unquestionably a victory for the UPFA. They gained a two-thirds majority of the votes. Nevertheless, the total polled was less by 25,491 votes that UPFA candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa won at the November 2005 Presidential elections. There will no doubt be plenty of soul searching to do by UPFA leaders.
On the opposition side, though the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was reduced to holding only three from 14 seats, there was still cause for joy. They had gained 6.11% in votes, a clear indication that its base is growing. The breakaway National Freedom Front (NFF) of Wimal Weerawansa failed to chip that base away. Moreover, NFF candidates including Weerawansa’s own brother lost. The NFF was able to secure two slots in the previous Uva Provincial Council elections where the JVP recorded as low as 2.53% of the votes
SPC polls was JVP’s biggest victory since the Eastern Provincial Council elections in March 2008. The bounce back by the JVP has its value. Their support will become vital for both the UPFA and the UNP in a nationwide election. It would be more particularly in a presidential election where a candidate has to gain more than 50% of the total votes polled.
For the UNP, which has been suffering a string of defeats, the SPC polls are perhaps a refresher course to identify lessons learnt. The UPFA performance below expectations was in no way the result of a vibrant campaign by the UNP. It was their inability to secure votes they had projected. Yet, it was much needed oxygen for the UNP’s future.
The Uva Provincial Council elections came at a time when internal rivalry within the UNP was at its peak. At the SPC polls, however, there was more unity. Yet, they were beset with a string of problems, some their own and others beyond their control.
There were no national level candidates. Almost all of them were from provincial or local level. Only two of them gained media attention throughout the campaign. They were Buddhika Pathirana and Manusha Nanayakkara, thanks to their earlier involvement with the electronic media. Others were hardly seen or heard in the media.
This was in marked contrast to the UPFA candidates. It was made worse by the state run media denying the UNP candidates any exposure. Worse enough, state television channels even refrained from telecasting images of elephants during the campaign. They felt it would come as indirect support for the UNP.
Another serious flaw was the inability of the UNP leadership to have a cohesive strategy for their campaign. Each leader said what he thought was important. UNP leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, spent more time taking part in events outside the Southern Province. Yet, in the past many weeks he has become aggressive and is hitting hard at the Government.
Minister Dallas Allahaperuma, a UPFA front liner in the polls campaign declared that there was “no UNP campaign at all” and charged that they could not even muster supporters to distribute leaflets. Those remarks, no doubt, underscored the over confidence of the UPFA. The UNP garnered 25 % of the votes at the SPC.
There was a degree of post polls over confidence on the part of the UNP too. They claimed that a sizeable number had kept away. The argument seemed hollow. The SPC turnout was 70.18%.One cannot expect much difference in a nationwide election. Total votes cast would not usually exceed 80% in a general election. Of course there are a few exceptions like Digamadulla 81.42%, Ratnapura 80.42, Nuwara Eliya 80.70%, Trincomalee 85.44%, Batticaloa 83.58 at the 2004 General Election. All island turnout at the last presidential election was 73.73%.
The UNP leaders say the trend would change in a nationwide election. The argument may be correct to some extent. However, the question is whether the UNP will be able to overcome the huge margin set by the UPFA in such an election. Even if the UPFA loses half of their votes, they still have a great potential to win if the UNP is not able to bag them all.
The UPFA will also have its own concerns going to an early Presidential election. It would be difficult to secure 50% of the required vote from the total polled. This is particularly after the JVP bouncing back at the SPC polls.
In a parliamentary election, however, it would be somewhat different. The UPFA has so many internal issues to deal with concerning nominations. There may be some crossovers from the Government ranks to the Opposition. Naming a Prime Minister designate would be a hard task for the UPFA. Neither party may obtain the required majority leaving a hung Parliament. In such an event, they have to depend on the JVP and the Tamil political parties.
UPFA have put in their maximum effort and performed at provincial elections so far. They used state resources and the state media. It would be no different in a nationwide election to muster every vote they could to weaken the opposition. The disadvantages they have to face in a nationwide poll are to maintain the same momentum they had in the provincial polls. Logistically their resources, both human and material, will be distributed among the districts. They cannot muster all the resources to focus on a limited geographical region. That was one of their tactics used in provincial council elections.
The UPFA began conducting elections since March last year, beginning with the Eastern Provincial Council elections. Southern Provincial Council elections was the last. The main objective of these elections from time to time was to weaken the opposition’s capacity and capability.
This is to bag an early mandate for President Mahinda Rajapaksa and secure a single majority parliament. If the Uva PC polls could be identified as the climax of the overall plan, then the SPC polls comes as the first indication of the downward trend for the UPFA though they comfortably secured the victory.