Columns - Political Column

MR hat-trick as UNP loses by 10 wickets

  • Personal charisma of President played major role in the resounding UPFA victory at local polls
  • Battered UNP claims 5 percent increase in vote base as leadership battle reaches climax
By Our Political Editor

It was victory for a third time in a row for President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Thursday's local government polls since his re-election last year.

The political hat-trick came within 15 months after he convincingly won the Presidential election in January last year. Then he led his United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to an unprecedented victory at the April 2010 parliamentary elections. Now he has capped it all by securing over four fifths of the 234 local authorities that went to polls. Besides the UPFA securing 205 local authorities, seven more have come his way. The SLMC which is supporting them won four local bodies while the National Congress of (A L M Athaulla), also supporting the government won two more.

In addition,at the Pallepola Pradeshiya Sabha, the UPFA supported an independent group after their nominations were rejected. That brings to 212 the total number of local authorities that will come under government control. Despite the general voter apathy at elections, the voters eventually trekked to the polls, grudgingly or otherwise, and despite the World Cup series also gripping the nation, cricket fever did not obscure the polls limited success. The final total poll was expectedly not as a high as a general election, but was not too bad considering all the circumstances even though the opposition casts doubts on how the numbers suddenly increased in the last few hours.

Police engaged in removing cut-outs displayed by candidates in Puttalam on Election Day. Pic by Hiran Priyankara Jayasinghe

In marked contrast, for the United National Party (UNP), the country's fumlbling main opposition, which publicly urged a transition similar to the people's protests sweeping West Asian and North African countries, it was another defeat. The people's protests began in Tunisa. President Zeinuddin Ben Ali was ousted.

It spread to Egypt forcing President Hosni Mubarak who was more than 30 years in power to quit. It extended to Libya where Moammer Gaddafi is waging a war against his own populace.

After a UN Security Council decision this week, he faces the military wrath from the armed forces of both western and Arab countries. Even Norway, the peace facilitator in Sri Lanka, is contributing militarily. Such protests continue. In Bahrain and Yemen, with more civilians being killed and injured. Even monarchist Saudi Arabia feels the heat.

The devastation to the UNP was like the tsunami that caused enormous damage and destruction in Japan's eastern coast. The candidate it backed for the January 2010 Presidential Election, former Commander of the Army, then General Sarath Fonseka, lost by 1.8 million votes amidst allegations of abuse of state machinery and the application of pressure on the Elections Commissioner. At the parliamentary elections in April of the same year, the UNP suffered an unprecedented loss. It secured only 60 seats, the lowest by the party ever under the proportional representation system. This week, it ended up with a meagre nine local authorities. It ceded several local authorities it held to the UPFA. The party is more in tatters with the latest rout.

As with all defeats, and all parties, the UNP is looking to see where it has 'scored'. One area is its vote base has marginally improved from the high 20s to the low 30 percent. In this cricket season, the analogy of a political analyst is that is like saying that the team that used to lose by innings lost this time by ten wickets. The other 'positive' factor for the UNP is that it lost 38 councils by less than 2,000 votes.
The case of Kolonne Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) in the Ratnapura district is the classic case where the UNP lost by one solitary vote after several re-counts where in the first count it had in fact, won. It lost the Horana Urban Council (UC) by a wafer-thin 62 votes, Tangalla UC in President Rajapaksa's old constituency by a mere 100 votes, Deraniyagala PS (164), Mirigama PS (274), Hatton-Dickoya UC (452), Haputale UC (502), Wattala-Mabole UC (520), Ja-ela UC (775), Ambalangoda PS (907), Badulla PS (1,356), Balangoda UC (1,392), Kataragama PS (1,402), Nawalapitiya UC (1,408), Ampara UC (1,490) , Boralesgamuwa UC (1,561) and so on.

Whilst the political debris of the defeat lay strewn at grassroots level, two formidable factions of the party are busier now for another prime battle.

That is for the leadership of the UNP, The Electoral College comprising the Working Committee and the party's Parliamentary Group meet tomorrow for the task. The behind-the-scenes activity resembled desperate moves, much like how experts are fighting to halt a meltdown of the nuclear power plants in Fukushima in Japan. If there is fear of radiation there, there is concern here over political radiation, which could have a paralysing effect on the party. Who will be the winner and the loser? Will it be the current leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, or the main contender, Sajith Premadasa? Either way, that could take the battered party in many directions.

How the local polls played out generally deserves examination first. A full study and analysis is not possible since the various impacts of the polls outcome are yet to filter to the grassroots level. However, most of the important trends have emerged. In essence, the electors seem to acknowledge that there is no alternative group when it comes to the government or even the local councils. The infighting in the main opposition UNP has seeped right down to the grassroots level evaporating voter confidence. It also makes clear that the popular perception that mounting living costs had heavily eroded UPFA popularity is wrong. Of course, elections to 65 more local authorities were put off for another day because of petitions over the rejection of nominations. Elections to more than 40 councils which include many in urban areas, and the bigger municipalities where the cost of living impacts most were judiciously left by the government on a lame-as-lame can be excuse of the World Cup matches being played in these areas. Kurunegala, for instance has no matches - and no elections.

Elections to the Pradeshiya Sabha in Thunnukai (in the Kilinochchi District) were not held because mines in that area have not yet been cleared.

Even by Friday night, the Department of Elections had not officially announced the results. Elections were held on Thursday in 234 local authorities. They included three Municipal Councils, 30 Urban Councils, and 201 Pradeshiya Sabhas. Here are the results compiled on the basis of announcements made by the District Secretariats:

Party Vote Percentage No of No of
Received Councils Seats
UPFA 3,338,401 55.00 205 1839
UNP 2,032,891 33.89 9 892
JVP 181,220 3.01 0 57
SLMC 88,592 1.4 4 50
UPF 41,032 - 1 21
ITAK 71,171 2 12 76

"Occurrence of thuggery was reported during the period of the nominations and thereafter," Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake said. He added, "One marked feature of the election campaign was the competition even among candidates of the same party for preferences. However, it was possible to conduct the poll in a fairly pleasant atmosphere when compared to polls in previous local authority elections. But the manner in which some political parties and groups conducted themselves both before the date of poll and on the day of poll and also in misuse of State Resources and state owned media is regrettable". Nevertheless, Dissanayake has come in for bitter criticism both from local polls monitoring bodies as well as many opposition parties. His moaning and groaning have become a big joke in the country because after all that he says, he issues the certificate that the elections were conducted successfully.

UPFA General Secretary, Susil Premajayantha told the Sunday Times that "traditional" or "long standing" issues like rising food prices, mounting cost of living raised by the opposition had been disregarded. The people in the village have seen development. Roads are being built. Other infrastructure development is going on. "The results are a clear indication that people want more development," he said.

Premajayantha added, "When we started our campaign we told the people that we will win more councils than we won in the last elections. We have proved that. Human rights groups and NGOs brought allegations on issues such as human rights abuses during the separatist war. However, the results are a response to these persons who brought such allegations. The voters have backed the leader who eradicated terrorism.

"For the UNP it clear that it is unable to reach the masses in the villages. It also cannot match the leadership which President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been giving. For the JVP it should note that the villagers have rejected it outright. The people had accepted President Rajapaksa's warning in Tissamaharama that children may be misused for illegal work. That is why the JVP failed to retain power in that council".

The remarks about children being "misused illegally" came after Rajapaksa visited a school in Debarawewa. When he walked in, neither the staff nor schoolchildren turned up to greet him. He was naturally unhappy. In marked contrast, at an adjoining school, the principal came out with a bunch of flowers to greet him whilst the schoolchildren cheered. It turned out that at the first school, the Vice Principal was a JVP candidate. Fears arose in UPFA circles whether children in that school had been "indoctrinated" in JVP ideology.

After the LC election results were released violence took to the streets in Dambulla over the preferential votes relating to the same party candidates. Pic by Kanchana Kumara

Since nominations, the UPFA campaign remained lacklustre. To his credit, Rajapaksa took on the task of visiting districts. One key feature during these visits was the meetings he addressed both for the candidates as well as party supporters. He had cancelled all his engagements for two weeks until March 14 to ensure that he gave leadership to UPFA polls campaign. Interesting enough, the charisma he drew after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May last year still glowed in the villages. There were large crowds to cheer him. Rajapaksa also caused concerns for his personal security staff by walking boldly inside markets and speaking with the common people - vendors and customers alike. That personal diplomacy and the pressing-the-flesh politics continues to pay off.

In marked contrast, that was not the case with the UNP. Its leader Wickremesinghe, left the polls campaign in the hands of his deputy, Karu Jayasuriya. He even took time off to fly to Prague (with a break in Britain) for a meeting of the International Democratic Union, of which he is a vice president. Upon his return, he did address a string of meetings but those did not, like Rajapaksa, cover all the districts where polls were held. On the other hand, the man after his job, Sajith Premadasa was on a campaign of his own. There was no token show of unity even within the party.

The party’s working committee meets tomorrow with the election to the new officials under its new constitution due. In the meantime, the party hierarchy is engaged in a blame game. Wickremesinghe loyalists say Premadasa reportedly drew crowds but was not able to win any local authority including those in his own Hambantota District. The closest they came was at Tangalla which they missed by a hundred vote majority. It seemed as if the local polls were lost by the UNP because of Premadasa. On the other hand, Premadasa loyalists claim Wickremesinghe's unpopularity has led to a series of election losses and he should step down.

Wickremesinghe has summoned a meeting of the UNP Working Committee for tomorrow to discuss how the leadership issue should be resolved. In an unexpected move, his rival Sajith Premadasa, appeared conciliatory. As our front page report reveals, he said the leadership issue would have to be resolved by consensus.

The party’s parliamentary group will meet on Tuesday, just ahead of Parliament sittings in the afternoon. This was whilst the deadline for the election of a new leader remains until April 12. In terms of the new UNP constitution, if a new party leader cannot be elected by consensus, a vote by secret ballot would have to be held. In the event, Premadasa throws his hat in the ring tomorrow, then the matter will go for a consensus procedure, and if there is no consensus, a vote by a college comprising the party's parliamentary group and the working committee on a subsequent date.

UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake told a news conference on Friday the polls results were a clear indication that "the UPFA has failed to retain the vote base it had a year back." He said: "The vote base of the UPFA has been reduced compared to the past Presidential and Parliamentary elections while the UNP vote base has increased compared to the last parliamentary elections. The 29 percent of votes received in parliamentary elections has risen to nearly 34 percent."

He added that the "UPFA has returned 1839 members and the UNP has 892 members in the councils, though the number of councils we control is less. Our resolution at the local polls was to show the protest against the cost of living and the other recent problems and the government never worked in favour of a free and fair election. There was violence, intimidation, and the misuse of state resources including vehicles and manpower. Even on the Election Day, the state media were being misused. We also have our doubts on how the voter turn-out increased in the last few hours of the voting. As the voting percentage until 2 p.m. was less than 30 percent and between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. 35 percent more had voted. We are suspicious about this and carrying out our own investigations."

Taking comfort in an increase of five percent in the votes polled appears to be the only consoling factor for the UNP leadership. However, a leading UNP member who did not wish to be identified for obvious reasons, said "meka hariyata aliyekkuwa kullakin vahana yanawa vagey. (This is like trying to cover an elephant with a reed-woven winnow). "Let us take another example," he noted adding, "We borrow Rs 1000 on 5 percent interest per month. It comes to only Rs 50. But if we borrow Rs 100,000 at the same rate, it would come to Rs 5,000," Like that, he said, it is only a low poll that has shown this five percent increase compared to the number who voted at the parliamentary elections. You cannot see reality through percentages. "What does this show?" he asked and gave his own reply. "Let us face reality. A large number of our voters did not cast their votes. We as UNPers have to do some soul searching to find out why we have sunk to such low depths. A major party like ours cannot gloat over a five percent increase in votes and pretend to the country that everything is hunky dory. Therein lay our problem."

Among the local authorities the UNP held after the 2006 local government elections and lost were: Wattala-Mabole (UC), Biyagama, Mirigama, Palindanuwara, Patha Dumbara, Naula, Malimbada, Kinniya, Kobeigana, Kataragama, Ridimaliyadda, Peliyagoda, Panadura, Horana, Beruwala, Wattala-Mabole (PS), Welimada, and Pallepola. At the Kolonne Pradeshiya Sabha, the UPFA secured 10,075 votes while the UNP got 10,074 votes. However the percentage of the votes both parties polled was 47.80 but the UPFA won six seats and UNP three in the councils thanks to that one vote.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) also suffered a setback. The votes polled by it did not register a marked increase. This, together with its loss of the Tissamaharama Pradeshiya Sabha showed that the party remains stagnant. The Tissamahanrama PS which it has held since 2002 was won by the UPFA with 14,523 votes (7 seats), the UNP came second with 8,344 votes (3 seats) while the JVP fell to third place with 7,767 votes (2 seats). Quite clearly the exit of the party's erstwhile propaganda secretary,
Wimal Weerawansa is one of the contributory causes. Another is the party's outdated programmes are not being endorsed by voters. For the local polls, the JVP's slogan was "Revatillata Nimawak - Aluth Magaka Arambumak (End to lies - Dawn of New Path).

The JVP's response to its poor performance came from General Secretary Tilvin Silva and parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

Tilvin Silva told a news conference on Friday, "We do not accept the outcome of the local polls as a genuine victory for the UPFA. The government misused state media and state resources for the elections. We consider this as a one-sided election where all state resources were misused. Even on the day of the elections there were violence and intimidation that scared the voters. Due to direct and indirect threats the people did not come to vote.

"However we are satisfied with the number of votes we got. We do not agree with government claims that we have been wiped out. People should remember that we are fighting against all odds such as misuse of state property and violence directed against the JVP. We do not agree that a split in the party had resulted in the defeat and our foundation remains strong.

"On the final day of the campaign, the President came to the area and made a false statement claiming that there was a possibility of children being abducted for illegal work. He implied that the JVP may be responsible for any misdeeds. We did not have time to respond to the allegations. Therefore the people in this area were misled."

JVP parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayaka told the Sunday Times "We do not consider this is as a loss to the JVP, but a loss to the people as the victory for the government will not lead to a decrease in food prices or pay hikes. The people have benefited in the short term. We lost the only Council we held in Tissamaharama, as the entire Rajapaksa family concentrated on the campaign in the area. Since nominations were called the Rajapaksa family members were providing all requirements of the people. This ranged from coffins to food. These were indirect bribes to the people".

In the North, where the Tamil National Alliance (contesting as Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi), won 12 local authorities, three more than the local bodies won by the UNP including Manthai east in the Mullaitivu district.

Its victory shows that the one time proxy of Tiger guerrillas retains grassroots level support despite the military defeat of the LTTE.

One of its appointed parliamentarians, M. A. Sumanthiran told the Sunday Times, "Our leader " R. Sampanthan, made an appeal to the Tamils in the north and east calling them to vote for the ITAK to strengthen the hands of the party as the party is currently negotiating with the government to find a settlement. The voters giving a clear mandate to the party would mean that the government cannot get away from the demands of the Tamil people".

Here is how the local polls played out in some of the districts:

Kurunegala District: The UNP managed to win the Kuliyapitiya Urban Council which it has retained for nearly 50 years. The council was elected as the best urban council last year and its Chairman Lakshman Adikari has been able to initiate several projects including a bus stand and a super market complex. The vote for the UNP was seen as a case of showing gratitude for the work done. Six members were returned from the UNP and three from the UPFA.

Kandy District: There were set backs for the UPFA in the Prime Minister's D.M. Jayaratne's electorate, Gampola and an area close to the Central Province Governor Tikiri Kobbekaduwa's hometown Kadugannawa. There the two Urban Councils were won by the UNP.

Matale District : The key feature in the district was that an independent group won the Urban Council. However, it was backed by the UPFA after its nominations were rejected. Like in most other districts, the JVP suffered a setback and none of its members was elected. This was in contrast to six members it had in the councils where elections were held.

Already the clashes for the top positions in the councils were visible. On Friday five of the members elected to the Dambulla Urban Council carried black flags and paraded the streets demanding that Jaliya Opatha who obtained the highest number of votes not be given the chairman's position in the council. The Army was detailed to prevent any clashes in Dambulla.

Monaragala District: The Kataragama Pradeshiya Sabha, which has been controlled by the UNP since its inception in the past 20 years, was won by the UPFA. It won 4595 votes and secured 7 seats. The UNP got 3193 votes and own only three seats.

Mannar: There were allegations that the Police warned voters to vote in favour of the UPFA. They said action would be taken if they do not vote for the govt. However, Police denied the allegation. There were heated arguments between the police and voters over this issue. Thereafter ITAK MP Selvam Adaikalananthan intervened to tell the police that they should not interfere.

Trincomalee: There were allegations that Eastern province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan visited the Vergual area on election day and warned voters that the lands given to them would be withdrawn if they do not vote for his party. He had also visited schools and told the principals to get voters to vote in favour of his party. Otherwise, he had reportedly said that facilities such as computers would be withdrawn. However, Chandrakanthan denied the allegations.

Badulla District: The newly formed Bandarawela Muncipaial Council in the Badulla district fell to the UNP. The UNP won 5,772 votes while the UPFA secured 5618 votes. Unlike in Kolonne, it was the reverse with the UNP winning 6 and the UPFA winning three of the seats in the MC.

Batticaloa District: The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress stronghold of Eravur in the Batticaloa district also fell to the UPFA. It won with 54.32 percent of the vote. The SLMC managed only 28.45 percent of the votes.
In the Northern Province, the ITAK won nine of the ten local authorities to which polls were held including Manthai east in the Mullaitivu district. In the Mannar district the polls were held after 30 years.

In the days and weeks to come, the results of the local polls and the new political dimensions it has caused will remain a talking point. Whilst the government can, quite justifiably toast champagne for its victory, for the main opposition UNP, there are concerted campaigns by two different sides. One wants Wickremesinghe to remain as leader whilst the other wants a new comer, Sajith Premadasa. Whoever takes the hot seat, it will be a long time before the party instils confidence in the minds of the voters at grassroots level that it is a genuine opposition bent on raising issues for the benefit and welfare of the people. The UNP also has to dispel the notion that has grown that those heading the two sides are only appendages of the ruling UPFA bent on raising mundane issues and hiding major ones under the carpet. That no doubt is a long haul.

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