Columns - Political Column

Political setbacks for UPFA Govt in North

  • Rejection of 35 nomination lists causes stir in UPFA; Ministers blame Devananda for fiasco
  • UNP also hit by rejections while leadership battle continues behind the stage
By Our Political Editor

As nominations ended Thursday for the local polls on March 17, there were shocks equally for the two main contenders, the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the main opposition United National Party (UNP).

The UPFA was unable to field candidates for as many as 35 local councils -- the largest number -- in twelve districts. The District Secretaries rejected the UPFA's nominations on various grounds. Compounding the situation was the rejection in 16 local bodies in the Jaffna district alone, the 'crown jewels' in the upcoming polls -- three of them to Urban Councils (Velvettiturai, Point Pedro and Chavakachcheri) and 13 Pradeshiya Sabhas. In addition, declared invalid were UPFA nominations to the only three Pradeshiya Sabhas in the Kilinochchi district. The rejections were over a simple error, which had complex political ramifications -- the translation of the English word 'Alliance erroneously as 'Front' in Tamil.

With the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009, the UPFA had wanted to place a stronger footprint in grassroots level politics in the north. This was by ousting the existing political player and once branded guerrilla proxy, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is contesting under an old label Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) or the Ceylon Federal Party. The Federal Party was, for decades in earlier years, one of the mainstream Tamil political parties together with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC). They merged in 1976 to become the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

UNP candidate for Homagama in the Colombo district Niroshan Padukka proceeds to the Elections Secretariat to hand over nominations for the LG elections, on Thursday. Pic by Nilan Madigaspe

The front split with a more militant faction forming the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and a smaller moderate group retaining the original party. The TNA is now headed by Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, veteran Trincomalee district MP. The TULF has been literally reduced to the solitary figure of the seasoned politician, Veerasingham Anandasangari, a former Sama Samajist. The latter, a one-time MP for Kilinochchi which later became the headquarters of the LTTE, was a known opponent of the LTTE during the darkest days of the northern insurgency. He is now relegated to issuing a news release or the occasional protest letters directed to the government with no representation in an elected body.

Meanwhile, President Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka on Thursday morning after a visit to Houston, United States. The visit included a medical checkup. The President's office has maintained a total silence on the reasons for his visit to Houston other than to say it was a 'private' one. This has given rise to various theories about the state of his health. This could have been nullified by a formal statement from his office. The health of their President is a legitimate concern of the people of any country and even the briefest of bulletins was only to be expected.

Rejection of UPFA nominations

The fiasco of the rejection of UPFA nomination papers was bad news for the Rajapaksa when he came home. Up and about, he summoned UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha to 'Temple Trees,' from where he usually directs operations, to ascertain how things went wrong. He also went into consultation with other senior ministers and aides. It was just a day before his departure to the US that Rajapaksa had returned from a two-day visit to Jaffna to set the stage for the LG polls in the north. The visit was to mark Thai Pongal, the harvest festival, significant to Hindus.

The Jaffna area was festooned with banners and buntings and posters carrying the images of the Presdient and his comrade-in-arms in the peninsula, Minister Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP).

Minister Premajayantha's office at Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha (former Flower road), the building that once housed the former Joint Operations Command (JOC), was crowded with UPFA supporters yesterday. Social Welfare Minister, Sumedha Jayasena walked into his room yesterday and remarked "aney balanna ko apita vela thiyana veday. Apey pakshayey okkama upset. (See what has happened. All in our party are upset). Premajayantha, who has borne the brunt of the criticism as UPFA General Secretary replied, "Amathi thumiya poddak inna. Sumanayak thula me tika visandala dennam. Api berumak kera gamu." (Madam Minister please wait a while. Within a week I will resolve the matter. We will find a solution).

Premajayantha told the Sunday Times the UPFA was not in agreement with the rejections of nominations in the north and would seek legal remedy. "Though there are claims that the word 'Alliance' had been referred to as 'front' at the top of the nomination paper, the seal of the UPFA below bore the correct name. Therefore, it is a mere technicality and no grounds for rejection. We will argue this in court. We are confident that our objections would be upheld," he said.

However, he conceded that in some instances there would have been mistakes like the insertion of the wrong age of a candidate in nomination papers.

That such a disappointment should come when Rajapaksa's government had embarked on many an ambitious programme to develop the north was even more worrying. China is building a new road network and some extents of the railway. It is also working on plans to develop inland fisheries and other infrastructure facilities. India, whilst building another stretch of railways, is also upgrading the Palaly airport for regional flights and the Kankesanthurai Port as a principal hub. The private sector is pouring millions into the hospitality industry, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula. A boutique hotel or two are in the pipe-line as there is a dearth of decent hotel rooms. All these were transforming the once war-ravaged north into modern townships.

In this midst, the voters would now decide whether the ITAK or the United National Party (UNP) should govern the local authorities in the north. If one is to be guided by the UNP's failing at the April 2010 parliamentary elections, it is almost certain the ITAK would emerge winner. However, there was considerable scepticism amongst ITAK members over several issues. One of its leaders and Jaffna district parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran told the Sunday Times, "We found it difficult to pick young people as our candidates. If we have pocket meetings, the Army intelligence will question them later. Hence, they are reluctant to come forward," he said. The recent surge in violence, he said, also had an impact. "The candidates are asking us whether we can guarantee their safety. What answer do we give them?" he asked.

Security concerns in north

The security concerns in the north assume a new dimension in the light of repeated accusations that the Sri Lanka Navy patrols had fired at Indian fishermen killing two in the past weeks. The newly-appointed Navy Commander D.W.A.S. Dissanayake strongly denied the accusations against his men. After these accusations, there were attacks on the Maha Bodhi Society premises in Chennai. The move prompted the External Affairs Ministry in Colombo to direct Sri Lanka's New-Delhi based High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam, to fly to Chennai and tell both leaders and officials in Tamil Nadu that the government emphatically denied any involvement by the Navy. Kariyawasam was to charge that a "third party" was responsible for attacks on the fishermen.

UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha and Minister Wimal Weerawansa are all smiles on their way to the Elections Secretariat to submit nominations for the forthcoming LG elections on behalf of party supporters, on Friday.

Intelligence sources in Colombo said there was information to suggest that disgruntled fishermen, once supporters of Tiger guerrillas, could be behind the attacks to embarrass the government. This is particularly in the light of the upcoming elections in Tamil Nadu.

However, authorities in New Delhi do not appear convinced about a third party involvement and are to request the government to probe the matter further. It is in this backdrop that India's External Affairs Ministry Secretary Nirupama Rao, is expected to arrive in Colombo for talks.

Amidst these developments, Premachandran added, "We will ask the people to strengthen our hands to negotiate a political solution for us. The government should know that we are the real representatives of the people. If the people give us the mandate, it enhances our position to negotiate.

If we gain control at the village level, we can ensure the areas are developed. We can improve facilities for them. Another concern for us is whether the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) would be able to vote freely. Some of them were denied this right during the April 2010 parliamentary elections."

The ITAK also had two of its nominations rejected in the Trincomalee district.

UNP confident in North

On the other hand, opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his deputy Karu Jayasuriya were confident their party would make inroads in the north. "A special team has picked the candidates who are acceptable to the voters," said Wickremesinghe. "Our campaign will be structured to focus on important issues affecting the people in the north. This time we are seeking a mandate on our own party symbol (elephant)," Jayasuriya said.

UPFA leaders were locked in consultation in the past two days on whether or not to go to courts challenging the rejection of nominations. Some ministers blamed Devananda, Minister for Traditional Industries and Small Enterprises, for the faux pas. Amidst controversy, Devananda had remained the government's point man in the north elbowing out other Tamil personalities in the UPFA. This is despite concerns in responsible sections of the defence establishment that some militant members of his Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) are linked to growing violence in the Jaffna peninsula. Devananda, however, strongly denies the accusations. Exacerbating the anger against him is Devananda's decision to join hands with other Tamil political parties in a common front to win demands. The critics were alluding to the recently formed Tamil Forum. Devananda has said that this was not an electoral alliance but a dialogue among Tamil parties to address the community's grievances.

Besides the Jaffna and Kilinochchi districts, UPFA nominations were also rejected in the Anuradhapura district (Galnewa and Rajanganaya Pradeshiya Sabhas), the Kurunegala district (Polgahawela PS), the Nuwara Eliya district (Nuwara Eliya PS and Talawakele-Lindula Urban Council), the Ratnapura district (Embilipitiya Urban Council), the Polonnaruwa district (Hingurakgoda PS), the Matale District (Pallepola and Wilgamuwa PS), the Galle district (Akmeemana PS), the Moneragala district (Moneragala PS, Siyambalanduwa PS), the Kandy district (Yatinuwara PS), the Puttalam district (Chilaw Urban Council, Nawagattegama and Wennappuwa PS).

There were silly mistakes for the UPFA in the Nuwara Eliya district too. For the Nuwara Eliya Pradeshiya Sabha, nominations were rejected because the UPFA could not get its numbers correct. Instead of stating that 29 candidates were contesting, it had declared one short. At the Lindula-Talawakele Urban Council, the rejection was due to a variation in the date of birth of a candidate. His year of birth was given as 1979 whilst his National Identity Card gave it as 1974.

All this means that more than ten per cent of the UPFA candidates fielded to contest elections to 301 local authorities have found their nominations rejected. A translation mistake also cost the nomination of UPFA candidates for the Yatinuwara Pradeshiya Sabha. The document did not refer to the word 'Freedom' in the UPFA name. The reason for the rejection of nominations, Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told the Sunday Times was "because of the weakness in the local government laws."

It was the government that must squarely take the blame for its failure to implement a string of amendments to local government elections laws, despite consultations and agreement with the UNP but chose to go ahead with the polls under the existing laws. There had been bi-partisan consensus to eliminate many of the 'technical' hurdles in a complicated procedural system. "We cannot accept the rejection of nominations in some areas. We will take legal action," he said.

The UNP echoed the same view, though it ultimately is the political parties that need to take the blame for the laws they have enacted. The Returning Officers were only implementing these laws.

In the history of local government polls, this is the first time more than 20 per cent of the candidates fielded have been rejected, i.e. one in every five being rejected even before the contest. A total of 3,931 members are to be elected at the March 17 polls to four Municipal Councils, 39 Urban Councils and 258 Pradeshiya Sabhas. A total of 12.7 million voters are eligible to vote.

Besides the rejection of its nominations in nine districts, there were also several other shocks for the main opposition United National Party (UNP). Some of its district managers and candidates had taken a lesson from the April 2010 parliamentary elections to use Tipex to erase names formally decided by the party and insert others behind the back of the party hierarchy. The party's National Nomination Board, chaired by leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, will meet today to determine what action should be taken against those responsible. There are also other critical issues due to come up at this meeting.
At the parliamentary elections in April, last year, Moneragala district UNP candidate and now MP, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, was accused of using Tipex to erase the name of Janaka Tissakuttiaratchchi, who was a UNP candidate. The Board may decide to disown the party's candidates and back an independent group in some instances.

A humiliating rejection for the UNP came in Homagama, a stronghold it was hoping to win. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, a President's Counsel, had raised objections and argued that the rejection was unfair. He has already proposed that the party go to courts over the issue. Rajapakse claimed to his party supporters that perhaps due to the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, some officials felt empowered not to heed objections. Other districts where the UNP nominations were rejected are Polonnaruwa (Welikanda and Elehera PS), Galle (Baddegama PS), Kegalle (Warakapola PS), Ratnapura (Embilipitiya and Weligapola PS), Batticaloa (Eravur UC) and Kilinochchi (Poonakery PS).

This is the first time the UNP put into effect provisions in its new constitution for the process of selecting candidates. An Advisory Committee led by leader Wickremesinghe and including deputy leader Jayasuriya, Chairman Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, Joseph Michael Perera and John Ameratunga set the guidelines. It was decided that no nominations would be given to former local authorities members who either voted or supported the budget in favour of the UPFA.
The party also appointed a National Steering Committee headed by deputy leader Jayasuriya and including among others Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Tissa Attanayake, Joseph Michael Perera, Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake, Kabir Hashim, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Mangala Samaraweera, Talatha Athukorale, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Rosie Senanayake, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Jayalath Jayawardena.

A senior UNP official said the Advisory Committee drew up the guidelines and the National Steering Committee would work out 'the strategies' for the polls campaign. The National Nomination Board (NNB) was the apex body that decided on the candidates who were earlier scrutinised by provincial nomination boards. He said that the NNB held sittings from January 21 till 4 a.m. on January 27. The candidates were interviewed in the presence of their district level members.

UNP General General Secretary Tissa Attanayake told the Sunday Times that while nine nomination lists of the UNP were rejected, as many as 35 UPFA lists had been rejected. "In three local authority areas, particularly Dimbulagala PS, we cannot accept the rejections. We strongly believe the papers were in order. We will go to court. We may back independent candidates in some areas where the UNP nominations have been rejected."

On January 22 (Saturday), the National Nomination Board meeting was to see a verbal duel between Sajith Premadasa (Hambantota district) and Ravi Karunanayake (Colombo North) as exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times city edition last week. It began when the Board was to decide on candidates for Lunugamvehera and Beliatte Pradeshiya Sabhas. During the discussion, the District Manager had reportedly asked why a particular candidate's name was rejected from the electoral list. An angry Premadasa replied, "I am the electoral chairman, I don't have to give reasons……."

The ensuing discussion led to a heated argument between Premadasa and Karunanayake. The NNB members were appalled that harsh and vulgar words, mostly unprintable, were used. Karunanayake informed leader Wickremesinghe yesterday that he would table a letter at today's meeting of the Board demanding that the party conduct a full inquiry into the alleged abuse against him by Premadasa. Despite the unhealthy spectacle that embarrassed Wickremesinghe, Jayasuriya and others, other meetings of the NNB were cordial. Premadasa who was querying some omissions or inclusions from nomination lists was even asking that Karunanayake's views be obtained.

There was also another argument between Sunil Senanayake and Premadasa in the UNP General's Secretary's room at Siri Kotha. It came when Premadasa wanted the inclusion of a name in the nomination list for the Hiniduma Pradeshiya Sabha. He had reportedly remarked that he would be the leader of the party after April 12 and that Senanayake should follow his "instructions." Senanayake had retorted that after April 12, Premadasa could expel him from the party and added that he would only heed the wishes of the party supporters in Hiniduma.

The leadership tussle in the UNP has been placed in the backburner due to the local elections. But still, its internal problems had an impact on the nominations of candidates and the mistakes made in filing some of the lists. The party's National Lawyers Union is dysfunctional as its leadership wants Wickremesinghe ousted. The party's long time Legal head, Daya Pelpola was entrusted with the task of ensuring nomination lists were in accordance with the law. Premadasa did not fancy the idea and had his own lawyers sit in on the legal team going through the lists. A small group of lawyers burnt the midnight oil in doing so; now they will have to be drafting papers to go to courts on the lists rejected.

At least technically, the only window of opportunity for resolving the leadership crisis will be between March 17 and April 12, a period of 14 days. However, that does not mean that the travails are over for the UNP. Sections of the party are angered that leader Wickemesinghe had named one of his aides and former police officer, Sudath Chandrasekera as a member of the propaganda team of the party. Worse enough, other sections complain that the party is hard pressed for money and say that business community was reluctant to make donations.

Ironically, it comes at a time when sections opposed to Premadasa wanted the party to take a policy decision that no one should accept individual cash donations. Needless to say, the move was totally counter productive. The man most concerned over these issues is Managala Samaraweera, who is literally the party's campaign manager since he is responsible for the media. His aides say, at the end of the day when the party fares poorly, it is he who would be the sacrificial lamb, blamed for the shortcomings.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) also had its nominations rejected in two districts - Matale (Wilgamuwa) and Puttalam (Nattandiya). "We will take legal action against these rejections. In the local authority areas where the UNP nominations have been rejected, we will woo the voters," JVP parliamentarian Sunil Handunetti told the Sunday Times.

However, in fielding candidates on the JVP ticket, its leaders have sent a clear message that they have no truck, at least electorally, with the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). The smaller partners have also been prevented from contesting the local polls as DNA candidates since they cannot obtain the endorsement of their General Secretary. He is Vijitha Herath, a JVP parliamentarian.

Thus, the DNA leader, former General Sarath Fonseka, and his backers including Tiran Alles MP and Arjuna Ranatunga MP have not been able to secure another party or field independent candidates for the local polls. If they succeeded, it would have come as a test of strength and popularity of Fonseka since he unsuccessfully contested last year's presidential election. Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court determination that in terms of the Constitution, a Military Court Martial was a court of law, was read out in the Appeal Court. That ruling gives legal validity to Courts Martial and rulings made by it, including the punishments it recommends to the President.

However, Fonseka's lawyers say they will go ahead with their cases before the Court of Appeal challenging the findings of the two different General Courts Martial.

In the eastern province, there was a marked shift. At the April 2010 parliamentary elections, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) contested under the UPFA ticket. However, at the upcoming local polls, it has fielded candidates under it own party name. Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan oversaw the handing over of all TMVP nominations on behalf of his party. UPFA sources confirmed yesterday that their attempts to persuade the TMVP to contest under the Alliance symbol were not successful.

Elections Commissioner issues guidelines

Elections Commissioner Dayananda Disssanayaka has issued guidelines, as he always does, to prevent the misuse of state assets during the lead up to the Local Government elections on March 17. The guidelines include the prohibition on use of state property for election work. "During past elections the Department has received complaints that state property such as motor vehicles, jeeps and helicopters have been used for election work. Hence officials in charge of such vehicles should ensure that these are not used for the election work of any political party, candidate or independent group," the Elections Commissioner said in a circular.

The circular has been sent to the Secretary to the President, Secretary to the Prime Minister, Ministry Secretaries, the Public Service Commission, the Police Commission, Chief Secretaries of all Provincial Councils and District Secretaries. The circular also sates that buildings that belong to the state such as school buildings, state guest houses etc should not be used for election propaganda meetings while the free use of state guest houses during this time is strictly forbidden. The Elections Commissioner has also told public officials that it is inappropriate to organize various state functions such as launching of new ventures, inauguration ceremonies etc., which could be used as a way of gaining publicity for those contesting the elections.

Whether the elections on March 17 are going to be free and fair will be determined only by the extent to which the contestants will follow the guidelines set by the Commissioner of Elections. Even if it is obvious to some, whether they would, Sri Lankans and the world outside would have to wait for 49 days for the answer to emerge.

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