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2nd May 1999

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Reader's comments: Track record, stupid

I have been reading with great interest, like most others, I'm sure, the post-provincial polls post mortems conducted by people from various walks of life.

Three articles over the course of two days drew my particular attention; one of them being K. Arvind's article in The Sunday Times. There was another in The Sunday Island and yet another, a letter in the daily Island, following each other in rapid succession.

The common thread that ran through these articles has been that the UNP lost all the Provincial Council elections and that a root cause behind the defeats has been the lack-lustre, one said 'pusillanimous' (meaning faint-hearted) leadership of the UNP. It seemed the flavour of the month was, Ranil Bashing.

There was little said about the rigging; the thuggery and selected intimidation and even less said about the fact that these are only provincial elections. The fact that the rains kept a good percentage of the average voter home, was not even worth a sentence.

That is however not to say that these anti-UNP leadership assaults were not well-meaning. One should give them that benefit. And yet, I felt, however bona fide may have been those comments, one could not but help feel that they had been too harsh on the UNP leader.

When someone wins, it really matters very little if it was by hook or by crook. The winner is immediately placed on a pedestal. Hosannas are given in their praise. Charisma; oomph; the smile; the way they walk, the way they talk, carries a special glow, while the vanquished is as instantly thrown to ravenous wolves.

That is the eternal truth about elections in Sri Lanka, nay, in most parts of the democratic world. Last week the Indian leader Vajpayee lost by one vote in Parliament, and people are preparing him for the dustbin of history.

So, Ranil Wickremasinghe, the UNP leader-under-fire as he is might as well come to terms with that harsh, bitter fact of political life. He has escaped crucifixion this time simply because there is nobody else in the UNP hierarchy to offer any challenge.

From my UNP friends I hear that some sections of the party disappointed with Ranil's get-up-and-no-go attitude are throwing their weight behind Karu Jayasuriya.

Karu the self-made man he is, a success story from the Premadasa era's garment industry, is a self-assured man indeed. He is very much a man in the Ranil mould type who wish to reintroduce gentleman politics into this cesspit politics we have today.

He has made it abundantly clear that he poses no threat to Ranil; will not ever challenge him; and will place implicit trust in Ranil who plucked him from relative political oblivion and made him not only the Mayor of Colombo but also the exalted post of Chairman of the Party.

Those plotters in the UNP are day dreaming if they feel they can use Karu in a political coup. Rest that thought pronto.

If that were the case i.e. if the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe be so "pusillanimous", and yet there's nobody of any national stature to replace him can you imagine the UNP sans Ranil Wickremesinghe facing a Presidential election against an incumbent President with all her horses and men. UNP members must know that without Ranil the choice is to sink together or sink separately.

The UNP membership is only courting hara-kiri post-haste. It seems that most UNP MP's have gotten comfortable in the Opposition. With some 80 odd Members in Parliament, they are not performing a fraction as well as when the UNP had 15 Members in the 1970-77 period.

Even dyed-in-the-wool UNPers will not be able to name 30 of their MP's. Others will not be able to name 10. Blame Ranil Wickremesinghe for pusillanimous leadership!

I have been a student of politics for many many years now. As Frank Sinatra would say 'I've seen it all'.

We Sri Lankans lampooned the late SWRD Bandaranaike after he died as the one who brought ruination to this country with his cock-eyed policies of expedience. After he died of course. On the other hand successive SLFP Governments puffed his image from the late SWRD to the Great SWRD.

Since of late it has become the fashion to lay all Dooshanaya on J.R. Jayewardene and all Beeshanaya on R. Premadasa.

The same people who dared hum during their reign are now vociferous knights of slander. It will be no different when President Kumaratunga's turn comes to being a 'historical figure'. The things they will say of her I shudder to think.

The Media too loves a winner. They paint pictures of politicians the way they see them, not what they are. Nowadays you get the state media propagandist. They can paint Marie Antoinette as Mona Lisa.

On the other hand I remember in days gone by the doyen of journalism of yester-year Tarzie Vitachchi referring to J.R. Jayewardene as a cold, calculating, unsmiling man, though everyone who knew JR well, including Tarzie himself, knew very well how fun-loving and warm JR could be.

Much of the blame that has been pinned on Ranil Wickremasinghe has been that he is not the charismatic politician the President is. That he is not a natural politician.

And who is a natural politician? Someone who can come for a public meeting under the tightest of security and tell the people assembled there 'Nonawaruni, Mahatwaruni - how it pains me to see you placed behind barriers. I'm someone who is used to walking, squeezed among my people in the Gampaha district. But see, these security officials of mine, they don't let me come and shake your hands'.

Ranil Wickremasinghe can never say that. Yes, one does not mean a word of it, but Ranil cannot get himself to say things like that.

Premadasa, Gamini and Lalith could very easily. JR might have put the crowd back originally by 20 metres and then given an order to break the barriers and come to where they would have been anyway. Ranil doesn't have either the guile or the charm for this.

Should one blame Ranil? For one thing, hasn't Sri Lanka had enough of charismatic politics? Is the choice between someone who breaks into a charming smile however artificially and tells a fib or two on the way - that is charisma - or someone with experience, a sense of history, and a serious vision of the future?

In countries like Japan charismatic politics plays no role whatsoever. The country looks simply for a leader who can deliver the goods.

When one compares Ranil with Chandrika, and you take the charisma element out of it, Ranil will stand shoulders above the incumbent president.

I don't know why the UNP is trying to match Ranil with Chandrika on this charisma thing. They must go on Track Record.

Both are scions of well-known families and went to leading Colombo schools. the comparison ends there. Ranil entered University in good old Sri Lanka and became President not only of the Law Faculty but also of the University Federations (all the Unions).

Chandrika did not get into any Sri Lankan University, instead she went to a college in France at a time there was a severe shortage of foreign exchange for other yakkos to study abroad. Ranil is a professional (lawyer), Chandrika is nothing.

In the height of hostility he did not abandon the country and flee to safe havens abroad. He has not jumped from party to party. He has not supped with Eelam terrorists. He has not preached socialism and practised capitalism. He has not applied for liquor licenses to run a bar.

There isn't a whisper of any corrupt dealings while holding public office spanning over 22 years, and a clumsy attempt to link him to some alleged torture chamber at Batalanda ended with a whimper.

So dear nowadays UNPers don't strain yourself trying to compete your leader with your opponent on this charisma thing. You can't and it's too late in the day anyway. If you wish to target your opponent, market your proponent. Go on Track Record and take that message to every hamlet in all corners of this island.

You might even be surprised at the results.

-Navin Jayasinghe

From the Blue Corner

You've got to go when you got to go

By: Paakshikaya

I read with both amuse ment and interest what my unseen friend, Viruddha Paakshikaya has written in the pages of The Sunday Times last week. Viruddha Paakshikaya has attempted at length to justify his party's lack-lustre performance at the April 6 polls. While he is entitled to his right of reply to my own analysis of that election, may I suggest that we stop debating about that issue and look ahead.

And, looking ahead there must be only one matter worthy of analysis at present other than perhaps, the Cricket World Cup- the Southern Provincial Council for which nominations closed this week and I will devote my energies to that today.

Here, I will venture a bold prediction: the Peoples' Alliance will win the southern Provincial Council in a very convincing manner. Now, I can almost hear Viruddha Paakshikaya scoffing at my prophecy so I will proceed to explain why I say so.

My friend, the Southern Province is like no other province that went to the poll on April 6. Of the five provinces that had elections that day, four provinces- with the exception of the Sabaragamuwa Province were areas where the UNP had a solid vote base that never wavered, come what may.

And, at the end of the day, despite the clear rejection of the UNP by voters in all these provinces, that vote base was intact which is why they were consistently able to poll over 40 per cent of the vote.

Now, the Southern Province traditionally has been the stable vote base of the SLFP and it has remained so despite the many recent ups and downs of regional and national politics. The Southern Province, if I may venture a comparison, is to the SLFP what the Western Province is to the UNP. Therefore, Viruddha Paakshikaya, we start the campaign knowing that we have a block of over 40 per cent of the voters with us.

I am sure, Viruddha Paakshikaya you will now say it is the balance 10 per cent that is most difficult to get at any election. I agree my friend, but I have compelling evidence as to why that balance ten per cent will not go to the UNP.

One of the major reasons for that is the personality clashes within your party's Southern Province organisers, Viruddha Paakshikaya, and I challenge you to deny that. I know you too had a difficult decision to take regarding the Chief Ministerial nominee, as people such as Ananda Kularatne of Mulkirigala were not willing to sacrifice their seats in Parliament for the sake of their party.

But this problem was not the only issue, my friend, if I am to believe your party colleagues in Parliament. Why, for instance did your leader Ranil Wickremesinghe discard former Chief Minister M. S. Amarasiri?

Now, I happen to know Matarage Sirisena Amarasiri and I am sure you will agree he is among the most genial and gentle of politicians. And if ever there was one man capable of swinging the UNP's fortunes in their favour it was him- and you discard him like a leper after decades of loyal service to the party!

I do know that your party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has this belief that the "old" UNP is tainted with it's dubious past and that he should build a "new" UNP. All that is well and good, Viruddha Paakshikaya. But what your politically immature leader has not realized is that he cannot do it overnight, by just dumping the Old Guard of the party and letting loose a set of new faces on a public which will naturally be wary of such a transformation.

And, it is not that Ranil Wickremesinghe did not have an opportunity to learn, Viruddha Paakshikaya. At the recently concluded election he avoided declaring ex-Chief Minister W.M.P.B.Dissanayake as the Chief Ministerial nominee in the Central Province. Dr. Dissanayake, another grassroots politician of the Amarasiri calibre, was left to his own devices with even staunch UNPers wondering who would be Chief Minister- and ultimately, the PA won the battle though of course Keheliya Rambukwella who seemed to be preferred to Dissanayake by the UNP leadership won the highest preferences!

To return to the Southern Province, Viruddha Paakshikaya the Chief Ministerial stakes is not the only tussle within the UNP. In the Hambantota district, there is MP Mervyn Silva- a firebrand who throws decency to the winds at the slightest provocation- battling it out with Presidential offspring Sajith Premadasa.

I will readily concede that all parties have such squabbles at electoral level. But the difference in the UNP is that these little wounds are allowed by the party leadership to fester until they erode the voters' confidence in the Party, eventually killing what little chances the UNP has of retaining power, even at the regional level.

That is not all, Viruddha Paakshikaya. What of the UMP, the newly baptized United Mahajana Party led by UNP breakaway, H.R. Piyasiri? Now, we all know that no one takes him seriously enough to believe he will win the election. But what we do know is that he will get a few thousand votes-, which could be crucial in the final analysis- and those votes, will all be disgruntled UNP votes.

I know you will cry foul and say we are financing Piyasiri's campaign. That is not correct, but even so the fact remains that your leadership has allowed such a campaign to flourish in an area where the party's support was never strong, anyway. And that is why we - and now, many in the UNP also- say your party leadership needs a radical change.

To get back to the question as to why the UNP will not get that crucial ten per cent of the vote it will need to oust the PA from power in the Southern Province, there are other reasons as well, Viruddha Paakshikaya.

When the PA government was formed in 1994, my friend, President Chandrika Kumaratunga placed special emphasis on the development of the Southern Province. Towards this end, she ensured that her Cabinet had adequate representation from the region.

The result is that key ministers- Mangala Samaraweera, Mahinda Rajapakse, Richard Pathirana, Amarasiri Dodangoda - are all from the region and they in their own ways have devised development projects and employment opportunities for voters of the area, and this is sure to pay dividends when polling day comes.

To counter this, Viruddha Paakshikaya, what do you have? The only UNP stalwart of national stature to have an electoral base in the south, Ronnie de Mel, formerly of Devinuwara has now sought refuge in the safer haven of Bulathsinhala and Hiniduma's M.S.Amarasiri is a non-starter in this race.

At least now, Viruddha Paakshikaya do you realise why the UNP will end as a bad loser when polling day dawns, in June? But that is not all, my friend. You will have more unpleasant events waiting for you in the aftermath of the election and I will take pleasure in educating you- and our readers, of course- about that now.

As we in the SLFP see it, Viruddha Paakshikaya, your leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is in the position of Leader of the Opposition today because he had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. He was Leader of the House when President Premadasa was killed and so he became Prime Minister and was therefore, after the death of Gamini Dissanayake, a natural choice as Opposition Leader.

But, unfortunately for the UNP he seems to be having this knack of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time and you know what I am referring to- the suspension of former leader of the House and Transport Minister Wijepala Mendis.

Last week, when the Supreme Court quashed all findings against Mr. Mendis you would have expected the government to be embarrassed. But fortunately for us Ranil Wickremesinghe had done the wrong thing at the wrong time and he was even more embarrassed than we were!

Let's face it, Viruddha Paakshikaya, this concept of appointing Commissions of Inquiry to probe the deeds of your political opponents was started by the father of many a political trend in this country- J. R. Jayewardene.

You will counter that by saying that we have perfected it to a fine art and I will say that the UNP is only getting a taste of it's own medicine. But, my friend, when we were faced with the prospect of our leader Ms. Bandaranaike losing her civic rights; we did not cast her to the wolves.

We did not say the party must get rid of those under investigation to create a new image to gather public support. Instead, we appreciated the sacrifices Ms. Bandaranaike had to make- she lost her husband because of politics- and we stood by her in her time of trial. Yes, we did have our leadership struggles and all that but at no time did we ever want to get rid of the great lady.

Now, to compare Ms. Sirima Bandaranaike with Wijeyapala Mendis, my SLFP colleagues are sure to say, amounts to political sacrilege. Nevertheless, I do see an interesting parallel in the two personalities in they both had recommendations of civic disability imposed on them.

But what did the UNP and Mr. Wickremesinghe do with Mr. Mendis? They branded him a cheat even before he could plead his case to a conclusion and suspended him without giving him the benefit of the doubt.

They chose to forget the long years of service Mr. Mendis had rendered to the UNP as MP for Katana and then as minister and leader of the House. They also forgot that Mr. Mendis had lost his son tragically in an incident which was not totally unrelated to politics.

Now, Viruddha Paakshikaya, don't get me wrong. My mission here is not to canonise Mr. Mendis as a political saint. The people of this country will definitely have their views about that matter. But what I am merely trying to say is the present UNP leadership did try to shrug off the embarrassment Mr. Mendis was causing them, by suspending him from the party, forgetting all the sacrifices he had made for the UNP!

Now that tactic has boomeranged on Mr. Wickremesinghe and his chosen advisors with the Supreme Court vindicating the stand taken by Mr. Mendis. The question now is what will Mr.Wickremesinghe do?

Clearly here Mr. Wickremesinghe has erred in his judgement. In his eagerness to paint a lily-white image of himself as a leader who is not corrupt Mr. Wickremesinghe has sacrificed the loyalty of one of the older members of the UNP and now has to pay the price for it.

We all know, Viruddha Paakshikaya, that for some time now the so-called "Old Guard" of the UNP has been dissatisfied with how the party leadership was handling matters. Some have said so privately but others like Dr. Stanley Kalpage have made their feelings known publicly.

This Old Guard has been agitating for some kind of change in either the attitude of the UNP leadership or a change in the leadership itself, but found it difficult to get support from others who feared to defy Mr. Wickremesinghe.

But now, Viruddha Paakshikaya, after last week's verdict, the floodgates will surely open. After all most UNPers recall that it was leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who insisted that Wijeyapala Mendis be penalised when more saner counsel- the likes of A.C.S.Hameed and Anura Bandaranaike- urged caution and that judgement be reserved.

Because your leader feared a party coup he was making preparations to counter these elements within the party by removing some members of the UNP from the party's policy making bodies and substituting them with people loyal to him.

Now, with the Wijeyapala Mendis issue boomeranging on him Ranil Wickremasinghe, instead of sacking others, will have a lot of explaining to do to his colleagues. With regard to Wijeyapala Mendis himself he will have to take a very difficult decision- restoring all his privileges and re-appointing him as the Leader of the House: in effect eating his own words!

But pardon me, Viruddha Paakshikaya, I do digress. We started this discussion promising to focus on the upcoming Southern Provincial Council election. My point is, saddled with all these internal disputes, factions and power struggles how will the UNP launch an effective campaign in the South, an area that has traditionally been sympathetic to the SLFP ?

Now you see, Viruddha Paakshikaya, why the Southern Provincial Council election is a lost cause for the UNP. So, in the midst of all this when my friend calls Mr. Wickremesinghe a "gentleman politician of the Dudley Senanayake mould" I cannot help being amused.

It is not that I vehemently disagree with my friend. I agree that the two have some traits in common: both have a strong family tradition of politics and both were thrust into the hot seat probably before they were mature enough for the job, because of the unexpected demise of the party leader, overlooking other, more seasoned men.

And, both found the going tough once they were in the hot seat. Both of them are decent persons and therefore lack that inborn toughness required of a national leader- the toughness that J.R.Jayewardene,Sirima Bandaranaike and R.Premadasa were blessed with.

Therefore, Viruddha Paakshikaya, the logical extension of your argument that Mr. Wickremsinghe is a gentleman politician like Dudley Senanayake would be for your leader to do what Dudley Senanayake did when the going got tough- he got going , handing over the reins to the tougher Sir John Kotelawala!

Even two decades later, when the UNP was in the Opposition and pressure was growing Dudley Senanayake found it difficult to organise the party and he was about to hand over the reins to J.R. Jayewardene when illness struck him down. Or else he would have abdicated from the UNP leadership, wouldn't he?

So, Viruddha Paakshikaya, now you know what I am hinting at, don't you? For the sake of your party I hope that not only you but others in the UNP also realise this. But even if they do, I still think it is too late now to salvage your fortunes in the South- so don't bother about that; if you can put up a decent performance at the General and Presidential elections that would be more than satisfying for the sake of democracy in this country!

Queues, chaos -- banks like bus-stands

By Chamintha Thilakarathna

An overtime boycott which has caused severe inconvenience to the public at state banks will be intensified for tomorrow when 20,000 employees take a full lunch hour -- meaning that no work will be done from noon to 1pm.

The overtime boycott by the Ceylon Bank Employees Union and trade union action by the Bank Officers' Association have left both the management and the customers of four state banks and several private banks in dire straits..

Lengthy queues and confusion if not chaos in banks were a common scene in banks during the past few days.

Counters were opened but the work was so slow that in some cases the queues extended upto the main entrance.

Managers of state and private banks said there was little they could do about the situation, which had to be settled at a higher level.

A note of hope was sounded by an official of the Bank Officers' Union. He said they were scheduled to meet the President again soon and signs were that their basic demands would be met, leading to a resumption of normal work.

Cheque clearing has been severely affected by the go-slow with thousands of people complaining that the cheques due to them for various matters have been stuck for days or weeks.

Executives of export and import companies said business had been badly affected because of the bank delays and the continuation of the go-slow could deal a major blow to the economy.

"The flow of funds has been delayed and the documents are taking a long time to get worked out in the banks," said an officer of George Stuarts Exports and Imports.

An executive of Araliya Impex said they were limiting business till the go-slow dispute was settled.

According to managers of private banks, employees who normally worked from 8.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later are now working from 8.30 a.m. to 4.45 p.m.only.

Thus banking hours were reduced and work went into a backlog.

Managers said they were caught in the crossfire -- with employees accusing them of on the one side and the customers on the other.

They said they were helpless and could only hope for a settlement soon.

CBEU General Secretary M. R. Shah told The Sunday Times the management was acting irresponsibly and closing banks at odd hours.

He said the union was sticking by its main demands -- the payment of the 8 percent salary arrears with retrospective effect from 1994 and the invalidation of political victimization.

Meanwhile some of the private banks have also halted purchasing cheques in view of the delays in the cheques being realized from other banks due to the go slow.

"We cannot give credit to the customers and wait for weeks until the cheques are realized," a manager of a private bank said.

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