Columns - Political Column

Polls are over: Everything that counts cannot be counted

  • Outcome has more international value for UPFA, internal significance for UNP
  • JVP division came out openly at election campaign, battle likely to intensify
By Our Political Editor

Yesterday's polls to 23 local councils, more importantly the Colombo Municipal Council, seemed the biggest pre-occupation for most Sri Lankans.

As the outcome unfolds today, they will weigh in the ramifications for political parties as well as the government. For both, the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the main opposition United National Party (UNP), victories would be significant though the reasons would differ. For the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the other opposition party in the fray, the prospects appeared grim. It has now become one political party with two clearly defined sides.

Each is vying with the other, the old guard to retain its hold and the extremists to gain control. They have used the polls campaign to formally bring their woes before the public. That seemed the difference between their one time ally in the opposition, the UNP and the JVP. Despite the bitter rivalry, the factions in the UNP have put on a bold front to show they were united. The fragility of that façade was transparent and seemed temporary. In an apparent attempt to exploit this feuding, two posters appeared in bill boards in the City of Colombo at dawn on Friday. One called for the defeat of Wickremesinghe this time so the UNP may win the next election. Another said that the Ranil-Ravi-Muzzamil clique should be ousted. "I can vouch that no one in the UNP was responsible for this. We know who was behind this cheap stunt," deputy leader and campaign management committee chief Karu Jayasuriya told the Sunday Times. He said that the party leaders got to know about it even before those posters were put up.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on the campaign trail. Pic by Indika Hnduwala

The plum, of course, is the Colombo Municipal Council, to which there has been no elections for the past five years. If one is to go by intelligence assessments, it appears weighted in favour of the UNP. The rejection of the nominations of UNP's list of candidates in 2006 saw an independent group under the spectacle symbol, backed by the UNP, come to power. The group obtained 40.24 per cent of the vote and returned 23 members to the Council. The UPFA won 27.85 per cent returning 14 members. The remaining 16 seats were divided among four parties and three other independent groups.

The outcome of those polls saw the creation of history. For the first time, a three-wheeler or tuk tuk driver, Mohamed Imtiyaz, became His Worship the Mayor of Colombo. His portrait stands side by side with other Mayors in a wall of fame at the Colombo Municipal Council. However, the Council was later brought under a Special Commissioner. Imtiyaz shifted his vocation from three-wheelers to four. He is now a chauffeur at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Seoul, South Korea.

Yesterday's polls for the 53 member CMC is different. It is the first since Tiger guerrillas were militarily defeated more than two years ago. For the UPFA, a victory at the CMC is vital, both locally and internationally. Locally, with a major drive to beautify Colombo, a task spearheaded by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa; it would be a public endorsement of the on-going projects. Internationally, the government wants to showcase the CMC victory together with others to demonstrate what it calls the people's continued endorsement of UPFA government policies. This is at a time when an international campaign against the government over issues related to the military thrust to defeat Tiger guerrillas in May 2009 is set to gain momentum.

This is why President Mahinda Rajapaksa personally gave leadership to the campaign for UPFA's Mayoral candidate Milinda Moragoda. This week, he sent shivers among the Police top brass by visiting some of the City's slums that had remained out of bounds even to law enforcement authorities. Kimbula Ela in Mutwal was one such place. There, the dwellers surrounded Rajapaksa. He took one of the little children to his arms and even received a kiss much to the amazement of the crowds that gathered. There were cheers.

Not so long ago, Kimbula Ela was not within the reach of the long arm of the law. It was home for Guna (his pet name), a drug warlord now serving a jail sentence in India. Police sources said even surveillance cameras were mounted outside his shanty dwelling to warn him of any possible intrusion by the police. However, no such intrusions took place. Guna counted some controversial politicians with dubious credentials among his close friends. During the 1999 presidential election, he watched the results on television at the Colombo Hilton with a powerful politician friend. Sending shivers for the police top brass was another reason -- the Rajapaksa visit came suddenly and the local police were unaware. Hence, there were no policemen in uniform around the area. Rajapaksa visited other shanty dwellings and also addressed a larger group at 'Temple Trees.'

At the weekly cabinet meeting last Wednesday, Rajapaksa asked ministers for their views on the outcome of the polls. There were few who made forecasts. One of them was Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who said he was sure the UPFA would win the Kandy Municipal Council. There were no takers when Rajapaksa queried his ministers what they thought would be the outcome at the Colombo Municipal Council. Since the polls in 2006, the Kandy MC had remained in the hands of the UNP. The UNP polled 53.32 per cent securing 14 seats whilst the UPFA polled 36.81 per cent of the votes and secured eight seats. The JVP also won two seats. The only other Municipal Councils the UNP has held were Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Gampaha and Nuwara Eliya. Eleven other MCs were under the UPFA. Kolonnawa, the only Urban Council for which polls were held yesterday, was also under the UNP. In 2006 it won 48.69 per cent of the votes securing ten seats whilst UPFA won 33.44 per cent securing three seats.

Two monitoring bodies were given permission to remain in polling booths to observe the polls. They were the People's Action For Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) and the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections.
PAFFREL Executive Director Rohan Hettiaratchchi told the Sunday Times, "In the past three weeks we had reports of around 140 complaints of election law violations but there were no serious incidents of violence such as murder this time. Most complaints were regarding abuse of state resources, vehicles etc. but there have been a few reported cases of threats and intimidation and firearm use. The Elections Commissioner had repeatedly reminded political parties to adhere to election laws but they have ignored him".

Visiting Colombo’s Wattes, President Rajapaksa canvassing support for UPFA candidates

CaFFE Director Keerthi Tennakoon told the Sunday Times, "The good sign in this campaign was that there were few incidents of violence but on the other hand a disturbing trend emerged with the blatant violation of election laws. State resources were abused to a great deal and the campaign was one sided with the Government having all the advantage. The Commissioner of Elections and his district level officials did their best to minimize the election law violations but they could not succeed fully. So we cannot say it's a free and fair election."

However, intra-party rivalry led to one death on Friday and sparked more clashes yesterday. In the incident on Friday, an underwold figure, a UPFA supporter, was killed reportedly by a rival gang in Kolonnawa. In an unrelated incident in Gintupitiya, one more was killed.

Two groups, one led by former Parliamentarian Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and the other by Parliamentarian Duminda Silva, clashed at Kolonnawa yesterday. From the early hours, the two sides had been after each other and Police said the incident was linked to Friday's killing.

By late afternoon the two groups began firing at each other at Walpola in Kolonnawa. Premachandra who received gun shot injuries on the head died on the spot. His body lay yesterday at the IDH in Mulleriyawa. Duminda Silva also received head injuries and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital. He was taken in for emergency surgery.

Supporters of Premachandra hurled stones at Police and STF units positioned in Kolonnawa. They alleged that the Police were onlookers as the intra party violence continued. President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was in Hambantota at the time of the incident was informed of Premachandra’s death. He boarded an Air Force helicopter for a flight to Colombo.

Doctors said a bullet that had entered Duminda’s forehead had lodged in the skull area. Earlier, Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya had threatened to put off polls in the districts of Galle and Matara. This was after he received reports of polls law violations in the two districts. In Matara, however, Minister Dullas Allahapperuma had apologised to the Commissioner for a lengthy vehicle procession. Such processions are banned under election laws. Another procession had been undertaken by Galle District parliamentarian Nishantha Muthuhettigama. A warning was issued by by Deshapriya to put off the polls if the parties involved did not give him assurances. UNP Media head Mangala Samaraweera also issued a statement calling upon the Commissioner of Elections not to put off the polls. An official announcement that he would not do so followed.

The kudos for a win for the United National Party at the CMC would naturally go largely to its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has immersed himself in the campaign of A.J.M. Muzammil, the Mayoral candidate for Colombo. Another who had spearheaded the countrywide campaign is his deputy, Karu Jayasuriya. On Friday night, he was in Hambantota and returned to Colombo last morning. For Wickremesinghe, this is besides taking time off to take part in campaigns for other party candidates outside Colombo. A defeat for the UNP, there is little doubt, would exacerbate the internecine crisis within the party. He will meet with increased pressure from the so called reformist group to step down from leadership. An area of concern for UNP campaigners yesterday were fears that segments of voters backing them would keep away. The UNP was also worried that voters may be intimidated. A two member team from the party sought a meeting with Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon. Since he was busy, they had a meeting with Senior DIG Gamini Navaratne at Police Headquarters and sought protection for voters yesterday.

There were other irritants too for the UNP as the campaign got under way. Co-deputy leader Sajith Premadasa failed to persuade the Nomination Board to select Vijitha Kadiragonne, an office bearer at his late father, Ranasinghe Premadasa's Sucharitha movement. Though he said it was the only case in which he would make a personal plea, leader Wickremesinghe was not in favour. It was turned down by the Board. As a result, Kadiragonne contested as an independent with a group. Some of their leaflets and posters bore photographs of Sajith Premadasa causing some embarrassment to other UNP leaders. General Secretary Tissa Attanayake wrote to Premadasa asking him whether he endorsed the candidature of the independent group and if not, to issue a public statement. Premadasa did come out with a statement which did not please most in the UNP hierarchy. He said he "regretted" those who were using his portraits.

UNP Leader Wickremesinghe appealed in a special message on Friday to electors to "vote for the UNP and give a message to the government that we want a good life and that we are no longer agreeable that our democratic rights are taken away." He said in a statement read out from his temporary office at Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, "Today we have a government that has openly declared that it plans to demolish 90,000 houses. What happens to the residents? These houses have been built lawfully with the permission of the government. These residents will not be compensated. They will be taken and dumped into rural areas, some places as far as Wanni. They will have to live with different ethnic groups and different religious groups. These same people are being told you cannot be engaged in self-employment. They say they are going to do away with three-wheelers, if you are pavement hawkers they are preventing them from that too. Our fight is to protect the cities and the people and to ensure there is law and order."

For the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the fact that its woes had to be brought to the public domain during the polls campaign was certainly an embarrassment it could not avoid. Its leader Somawansa Amerasinghe had earlier declared that there "is a small organisational problem in our party." However, he was forced to admit that there indeed were problems. He told an election rally at Maligawatte on Wednesday, "We have problems from outside and as well as inside. There was the Loku Athula group of Nimalasiri Jayasinha. Splinter groups in our party are nothing new. We have experienced it before. Now the September group has been created. All the opportunists have come together. There have been betrayals in the past as well. It can happen now."

Though the event was billed as a propaganda rally for the CMC polls, posters announcing the meeting had appeared in several districts. Party cadres were told that transport was being arranged and they should travel in large numbers. The JVP had earlier tried to obtain Hyde Park Corner as the venue for the rally. Since it had not been given to any political party for election related events, they had to opt for Maligawatte. Police shut down the main road from Panchikawatte Junction to Maligawatte to accommodate what they believed would be a large turnout. However, their estimates placed the crowd at a maximum of 3,000 and some had arrived in buses from faraway places. This was in marked contrast to the large crowds the JVP mustered during May Day rallies. Most of the attendees were trade union cadres who came under K.D. Lalkantha, a backer of the old guard. It was members of these unions who took control of the JVP headquarters at Battaramulla.

Amerasinghe's remarks at the rally conceded, that too in public, that there was a battle by the extremist group to take over the leadership. He said, "There is lot of public attention on this rally. You know what the reason is. We are calling the public to vote for the JVP to start a new journey in Colombo. Do the same thing in the other councils. I went through all books of Lenin today to find out whether there is an age limit for the class struggle. For some the leadership issue is a problem, but that is not a problem for us. In 1975, I first met Rohana Wijeweera in jail. I pledged I will continue the journey with him. I decided to venture on full time politics thereafter. I have taken the responsibility of leadership to the best of my ability and fulfilled them. This party has gone through two crises. That was in 1971 and again in 1989. Those were the challenges. There is only one challenge before us -- that is to see that socialism emerges victorious. There can be obstacles in our journey, some obstacles have already come."

Then, the Marxist leader who said there was "no crisis" in his party hit hard at his detractors. Amerasinghe said, "Some are worried about the drop in votes. I was elected as the leader of the party early this year. Now they are calling to remove me. We are not looking for top positions. We not only do not want wealth, but also do not want popularity. We have come to gain liberation through socialism. What has happened to us is not the end of the world. We are not the only persons to experience such problems. We should defeat any attempts to have factions in the party. If anyone has fallen prey to those who have been uttering falsehoods, the party door is open to them. But there is no brotherhood for those who have violated the party constitution. They should be defeated. We have a small problem. Do not fear about that; we will resolve that. All oppressed should gather. I am not going to be the leader forever. There are others who can take over leadership. We will not have leaders on wheelchairs. The party is 43 years old. I will continue to serve the party. Even if it is to sweep the party office I will do that."

With those defiant words, Amerasinghe has at long last, not only conceded publicly that his party is in the throes of a crisis. He has also thrown a challenge to the extremist group that he is gearing to meet the threats and challenges posed by it. A small victory came this week when the JVP gained control of its website Lanka Truth. Though it had earlier remained in the hands of the extremists who held the password to upload reports, the domain name had been registered with the JVP. They obtained a new password and are set to re-launch the site. This is whilst the extremists registered Lankaviews, their new website. Due to their failed attempts to gain control of Lanka, the party's newspaper, the extremists will now launch a new newspaper - Janarala.

Within less than 24 hours, the extremist group responded. They gathered, of all places, at the J.R. Jayewardene Centre, a stone's throw away from the Colombo Municipal Council. The grand dad of Sri Lankan capitalism would have turned in his grave at the news that groups that had debunked his politics were seeking the safety of an events centre named after him to discuss how to take the country along a revolutionary path. Some 250 extremist cadres from different districts lined up outside the Centre for identity checks and to be frisked before they were allowed in. A meeting that began at 9 a.m. ended only at 6 p.m. There was of course a short break for lunch.

The three key players from the extremist group who made strong speeches against the current JVP leadership and their policies were Pubudu Jagoda, Asoka and Opatha (Senadheera Gunatilleke). The speakers wanted the district level representatives to make it known to grassroots level cadres that their intention was not to form another political party. To the contrary, they were told, to inform them that they wanted to ensure the JVP followed the "true Marxist ideology." One of the speakers was to say that the meeting was summoned to get the views of the district representatives on the current crisis facing the party. One or two participants suggested that they function under another name, a proposal that did not meet with favour.

Nevertheless the extremists believe they have on hand a "readymade political party." Weeks ahead of the presidential election last year, Lakshman Nipunaratchchi, registered a new political party, Eksath Prajatantrawadi Peramuna with hare as its symbol. In fact this Peramuna fielded a candidate for January 2010 presidential election. The Secretary of the party was listed as Dimuthu Bandara Abeykoon, a former JVP parliamentarian for Kandy District. He has sided himself with the extremists. However, Nipunaratchchi, the President of that party is a staunch supporter of the old guard. So are a large number in that party's Central Committee. Hence, wresting control of the new party is as difficult as capturing power in the JVP.

Pubudu Jagoda was also spearheading a media campaign. He arranged for meeting places for media to rendezvous with a party representative, and then board one of their vans to be taken to interviews with leaders of the extremist group. However, Kumar Gunaratnam alias Kumara remained elusive. CID detectives are still trying to ascertain his whereabouts. The only information that he is moving around in the Colombo District came from Kamal Rajapaksa, the JVP cook who is backing the old guard. He had claimed to have seen him at the residence of Venura Herath, where Kamal worked as a cook. Herath was Managing Director of JVP's Lanka newspaper.

Efforts by the extremist group to capture power seem a daunting task. JVP insiders say the Central Committee comprises 25 members. Of this, 16 persons are said to be with the old guard with only the remaining nine supporting Kumara. Attempts are under way to woo at least four members but the task does not appear easy. It was the Bolshevik Party, a group of the hardcore party cadres that elected by vote both the Central Committee as well as the politburo. Extremist group leaders are also worried that the Police were backing the old guard. Concerns grew after reports that a vociferous member of the old guard spoke to a UPFA higher up and pleaded for help. Thus, the woes of the JVP is bound to continue in the coming weeks and months.

As the third and last phase of the local polls ended yesterday the question still looms large -- whether a democratic opposition will receive a new lease of life or fade into the twilight of politics. The words of Albert Einstein ring true. He said "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." That is politics in Sri Lanka.

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