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The Political Column

30th March 1997

Srimani on greasy pole

By Our Political Correspondent

After several weeks of vigorous cam paigning amidst unprecedented violence and intimidation, the local polls were held on March 21 and political pundits are still giving the PA widely different interpretations of polls results. So much so that most people are today confused.

Amidst allegations of wide-spread rigging by Govt. supporters the PA claimed a historic victory, where the people endorsed its policies for a second time in two and a half years.

Bagging 194 local bodies out of 238 the PA secured nearly 49 percent of the votes while the UNP which polled 41 percent could only get control of 43 local bodies.

The UNP claimed that the Govt.’s popularity had declined drastically over the past few years when compared with the 62 percent polled at the 1994 Presidential Elections.

But constitutional pundit Minister G. L. Peiris has strongly defended the PA and claimed that in real terms it had won more than 51 percent of the total votes. That includes the votes polled by PA-backed independent groups and other parties.

It must also be noted that the total does not include the North and the East which voted heavily for the PA at the 1994 Presidential polls.

In short, the PA is saying it was a convincing victory and the people are firmly behind it.

Of course, the local elections were a barometer to assess the popularity of the PA and the UNP. However, it is hard to compare whether the Government had fared better or equally well as it did in the Presidential election, since the 1994 poll was held in unusual circumstances with a stop-gap Presidential candidate fielded by the UNP.

But on any standards, the Govt. feel satisfied with the results given the dismal performance on the economic front and other areas.

At the same time one could argue that it is a tradition for the people to vote with the Govt. in office in local polls since it would not change the central administration.

Most people believe that development programmes in their localities could only be implemented by voting with the party in office.

Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte made this point clear in a statement during the election campaign as reported in the Daily News of March 13. It states:

‘Unfortunately there is no PA Parliamentarian for Nawalapitiya. As such no development work could be done for the area.

“Therefore this government had allocated Rs. 200 lakhs to supply electricity. But as the power of the local bodies is in the hands of the UNPers nothing can be done. The only way of overcoming this problem is to elect PA representatives for the local bodies.”

The earlier argument is supported by the polls held in 1991 where the UNP under the stewardship of President Premadasa secured 195 local bodies of a total of 238.

However, the circumstances are different. Some analysts argue, the 1991 local polls were held soon after the JVP insurrection which was ruthlessly suppressed by the UNP at that time.

Fear psychosis had gripped the country and this enabled the UNP administration to win the election. Some others thought it was an endorsement by the people of the measures taken by the Premadasa administration to suppress the JVP insurrection.

It was evident that the JVP insurrection put daily wage earners, and the self-employed in difficulties and brought the country’s economy to its knees, compelling the Government to take drastic measures.

Even the opposition parties made appeals to the Govt. to crush the insurrection their party men faced threats from the JVP.

Thus the 1991 local elections were the first opportunity given to the people to return their verdict on excesses, summary executions, abductions and various other measures which followed in the wake of government’s attempt to quell the insurrection.

But according to some analysts it did not become an issue before the people since the entire country was gripped in some sort of fear owing to the terror unleashed by the Government at that stage.

If this argument is accepted the next best opportunity given to the people to show their resentment over what happened during those years was the 1993 Provincial Council election held about a month after the assassination of President Premadasa. The newly formed DUNF led by Gamini Dissanayake opposed the Premadasa regime along with the SLFP and other opposition parties. The UNP won the election though with a narrow margin.

Therefore one could assume that the Sri Lanka electorate on many occasions did not go against the ruling party at local elections.

All the national issues will gather momentum when the people feel that they could change the administration as it happened at the 1994 general election though the PA got only a one vote majority in Parliament.

Under these circumstances some may think that the Govt.’s victory is not a clear endorsement by the people of the policies of the Govt. especially the devolution package.

Some appear to be of the view that the Government did not try to market the devolution package at the elections though the MEP wanted to make it an issue. But the most vital point is that neither President Chandrika Kumaratunga nor her ministers made much mention about the proposed political package at the hustings.

The UNP was also wise enough to forget about the package and speak of Govt.’s inability to deliver the goods.

Hence it would be different to fathom whether the people had actually endorsed the Govt.’s efforts to solve the ethnic crisis.

On the other hand though it was not made an issue at the local hustings it took the top most position in the Government’s priority list for the past two and a half years.

Of course the support given by the border villages and the south was encouraging for a Govt. which has done precious little for the people during its thirty months in office. Hence it could take gesture of the people as an approval to go ahead with its efforts after careful consideration of the mood of the electorate.

The govt.’s next step towards solving the ethnic crisis would be to go for a constitutionally non-binding referendum where the people would be called upon to exercise their will on a question coined by the authorities. But the main problem for the govt. is that the Maha Sangha who may launch a protest campaign over the devolution package if it goes before the people at a referendum.

A five percent shift could prove disastrous for the government. Hence the alternative should be to push the UNP to support the package as a joint effort rather than trying to make it solely a PA move.

Simultaneously the UNP also may try to avoid the proposed referendum since a victory for the government could put it in a difficult position.

As far as the UNP is concerned the local polls proved disastrous, though it could console itself on the basis that it had not lost its base vote. Perhaps the UNP will now concentrate more on rural areas.

Of course the Nalanda Ellawala assassination was an initial setback for the UNP as it could not come out in the open for the election campaign at the early stages. The UNP started way behind compared to the PA and could make only a little progress in the rural areas.

If not for the plantation workers who turned tables on Minister Thondaman’s Ceylon Workers Congress the UNP would have been in a worse position.

The upcountry results have certainly caused problems for the Thondaman-led CWC which had been enjoying the power of the plantation workers for many decades.

To review the latest trend among the plantation workers, the CWC has called for an emergency meeting of its policy-making body for today.

The meeting could be fiery with the members of the apex body calling upon the Thondamans to sit with the opposition in Parliament.

Since the General Elections in 1994, the Thondamans have maintained a dubious and dicey policy of having one foot in the government and the other in the UNP.

Mr. Thondaman who was elected to parliament as a member of the UNP serves as a Minister in the PA Cabinet while the rest of the CWC members sit in the opposition.

A deal between the UNP and the CWC has allowed room for the CWC members to enjoy this freedom.

Last Saturday when the Thondamans learnt about the verdict of the upcountry plantation workers, they conveniently put the blame on the PA for their debacle. At one stage there were indications that Thondamans might once again switch to the UNP.

A baffled and shaken Mr. Thondaman now believes that the inaction of the PA led to the catastrophe. As this was happening alternative leaders were emerging from the backwoods of the CWC. One being Deputy Minister P. P. Devaraj and the other former CWC General Secretary M. S. Sellasamy.

However, the CWC’s setback appears to be temporary. It was mostly a protest vote for the Thondamans to correct themselves, one analyst said.

Finally, analysts also believe that the plantation workers do not have a place to fall back other than Thondamans and the CWC.

Therefore there are doubts that the plantation vote that went with the UNP would stick with it for long unless the UNP cultivates a relationship with the CWC once again and strikes a political alliance as the plantation workers seem to prefer UNP to the PA.

In this regard political personalities such as Puthrasigamani groomed by late Gamini Dissanayake would be of immense use for the UNP in the future to hold on to the plantations sector.

After the defeat, Mr. Thondaman however was present at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting and got into a controversy with Minister Kingsley Wickramaratne over subsidies granted to the Milco and Nestles operations in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Wickramaratne fired some salvos at Mr. Thondaman but he stood firm and unshaken though he had conceded defeat in the plantation areas.

At the meeting the President thanked all the ministers who actively participated in the PA’s political campaign.

“My thanks are due only to those who participated in the election campaign,” the President said thus firing an indirect shot at Minister Srimani Athulathmudali.

Ms. Athulathmudali actually could not participate in the elections campaign since she was in and out of Nawaloka Hospital where Dr. Yogeswaran was operating on her daughter Sarala for appendicitis.

On the other hand the reason behind President’s displeasure was that some of the DUNLF members contested several local bodies as independent groups.

Ms. Athulathmudali was firm and could stomach all the hints passed at her at the Cabinet meeting. She went ahead in presenting a Cabinet paper to restore the status quo of the Environmental Protection Act which was suspended by the President under emergency regulations.

First it was Ministers Anuruddha Ratwatte and S. B. Dissanayake then it was Mangala Samaraweera who was followed by C. V. Gooneratne and ultimately it was the President who moved to defer her Cabinet paper. Even Minister G. L. Peiris wanted to make a comment on her proposal and said the President’s order did not in any way violate the fundamental rights of citizens as mentioned in her Cabinet paper. One minister said if Ms. Athulathmudali was so concerned about the environment, she must take all her belching buses off the road. All this controversy began after the government allowed private generators to be operated to supplement the shortfall of power generated by the hydro power stations in the country.

In her move the President suspended all the laws under which residents could go to court against the operation of these diesel power generators.

Though the Etulkotte power plant was a nuisance to the people. It did not become a major issue at the local elections in the area.

Coming back to the local elections there appears to be a serious difference of opinion in the Tamil United Liberation Front over the statement issued by party supporting the PA at the local polls. TULF parliamentary group leader Joseph Pararajasingham raised objections to the statement saying that the party leadership had failed to gauge the mood of the rank and file.

It was obvious that the TULF leadership had acted contrary to the will of the party rank and file who felt that they should not support the PA.

Mr. Pararajasingham had apparently said “there is a lot of opposition to this move in Batticaloa. The people will spit on us if we do this.”

Mr. Pararajasingham also refused to accept the view expressed by his party leader, M. Sivasithamparam, that the results have endorsed the govt.’s peace plan.

Not only in the TULF, but trouble is also brewing in the PA over to the local polls.

Allegedly widespread acts of rigging have alarmed the LSSP, a constituent party of the PA. Some LSSP MPs have accused govt. supporters of rigging in many areas. This has compelled the LSSP to discuss these matters at length and take a decision.

Besides, the LSSP is also perturbed over a document put out by several trade unions in the Port of Colombo on the govt.’s agreement to handover the development of Queen Elizabeth Quay to the Peninsular and Oriental Corporation of Australia.

LSSP’s Vasudeva Nanayakkara had written to the party’s General Secretary giving details of this document.

Mr. Nanayakkara in his letter states:

“I believe what is said therein is factual and that the party should take up a strong and firm position against this deal. Should the government and the President propose to go ahead in spite of it, we should resign from the Cabinet. If the party will not decide to do so, I will want to resign from parliament as an MP of the government as I am given no choice to walk out of the government and sit in the opposition, as I would prefer to do.”

The P&O issue has already caused many problems within government circles. A few months ago we saw how Minister Ashraff was involved in a controversy over the P&O when President Kumaratunga directed him to present the final Cabinet paper on the matter.

The trade unions have now come up with a latest revelation about the P&O and the government’s reactions are yet to be seen.

However Minister Ashraff who was in the centre of the P&O controversy some time ago paid a glowing tribute to the President on her convincing victory at the local polls.

He said the election results were encouraging and that the people had expressed their confidence for the second time on the leadership qualities of the President.

There was only one issue before the electorate, sincerity and credibility of the government to solve the ethnic crisis, he added.

He made similar observations at the dinner hosted by the President at Temple Trees in honour of visiting Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. He told Mr. Arafat the government was treating the Muslims well, answering a question posed by the visiting leader.

The discussion between the government ministers and the visiting President was quite interesting. They ranged from guerrilla warfare to language problems in the country.

Only a limited number of VIPs were invited for the dinner.

On arrival at Temple Trees, the ministers were introduced to Mr. Arafat by the President.

PLOTE leader D. Siddharthan who was present told Mr. Arafat that he was trained in Palestine when President Kumaratunga moved to introduce him.

There was a pause. Then Arafat said, “I heard that Dr. George Habbash’s splinter group has given you all some training.”

Mr. Siddharthan smiled in acknowledgment.

President Kumaratunga who interjected at this stage asked Mr. Arafat, “Are they helping to divide Sri Lanka.”

Mr. Arafat referring to Dr. Habbash’s PFLP said, “That’s a Christian group.”

Though the discussion over Palestinian-trained guerrillas came to an end, Mr. Siddharthan fired another question.

“What about your pistol that you carried even to the United Nations?”

When President Kumaratunga said that he did not have to brandish pistols anymore since he was a President of a State, Mr. Arafat patted one of his pockets, drew a pistol out and said, “I can’t be without it.”

Minister Ashraff also joined the conversation to say that Mr. Arafat had always been a friend of Ms. Bandaranaike.

“She had been a great trusted friend of ours,” Mr. Arafat replied.

“We have always supported a united Sri Lanka. May be that Dr. Habbash wanted to help the other side,” he added.

All this took place on the Temple Trees lawn and subsequently they moved into the main hall for a sit-down dinner.

When the President observed that TULF leader M. Sivasithamparam was not present for the dinner, she told Minister D.M. Jayaratne “We could have invited Douglas - referring to EPDP leader Douglas Devananda.

At the dinner table, Mr. Arafat asked the President about the language problems prevailing in the country.

She explained how Sinhala and Tamil languages were derived from age-old languages in India and said that both Sinhala and Tamil languages have a long history running into more than 2,000 years.

“People of this country had been getting on well for centuries, may be there had been few incidents in the history but largely the division came after independence.”

The President told Mr. Arafat that acts of omission and commission by various governments since independence had divided the people.

“Our aim is to see that they are brought together, the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims once again.”

When the President spoke of bringing about communal harmony, Mr. Arafat said that he could see many mosques around the place.

Mr. Ashraff replying said, “They are of course all over the country,” and added the Muslims were living happily and respectably.

“The government is treating us well. When President Chandrika Kumaratunga was once addressing a political rally in Veyangoda she heard, the call for prayers by one Muslim priest at a nearby mosque. She immediately stopped her speech until the prayers were over,” Minister Ashraff said.

Minister Jayaratne said it was not something new. They had been along it all the time.”

Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake who interjected at this stage to describe the moral differences between the PA and the UNP said that it could have been a different story if the UNP was in office.

“They might have arrested the man who called for prayers.”

The President and the Ministers had a happy time with President Arafat, specially after their party’s convincing victory at the local elections.

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