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Eastern Elections
A victory for both PA and UNP

The eastern province elections are over and as predicted by this columnist in both the Sunday Island and the Daily Divaina, the government won. That was not too difficult to predict, given the numerical data pertaining to the 2005 presidential elections and the 2006 local government elections, and the political alignments taking place. The UNP won a huge victory in the eastern province in 2005, getting the majority of the Tamil and Muslim votes. They won with a majority of over 92,000 in the Batticaloa district and 35,000 votes each in the Trincomalee and Digamadulla districts – a majority of over 150,000 votes in the province. But that was in a context where there was no Tamil or Muslim candidates contesting and the people were given the choice of voting for the most minority-friendly candidate - which happened to be Wickremesinghe.

In a situation where Tamil and Muslim candidates were available, the UNP was not going to have a cake walk as in 2005. Hence the majority that they received at the 2005 presidential election was by no means a steady vote base and was liable to disappear abruptly, if Muslim and Tamil candidates were to make an appearance. This is what happened at the provincial election where the Tamil and Muslim voters had a multitude of Tamil and Muslim candidates to choose from, thus depleting the minority vote bank that the UNP was counting on. The government won and that is certainly a victory. The UNP lost but is it really a defeat? The reason why the UNP has raised a mighty hue and cry over alleged election malpractices is not because they don’t know that the EPC elections was as peaceful as any election in the south can ever hope to be, but because of the apprehension that this defeat may give rise to another leadership challenge within the UNP.

In my view, it would be wrong to blame Wickremesinghe, Hakeem or anybody else in the UNP for this defeat because the whole thing was written in the figures anyway. In fact, the UNP knew as well as we columnists did, that winning was going to be an uphill task which is why they formed bogus elections monitoring NGOs and began talking of the impossibility of having a free and fair election, weeks before the elections were actually held, and when pre-election violence much lower than at most elections held in the south. Despite the panic stricken rhetoric being spewed forth by UNP apologists, it must be said that, this defeat is not really a defeat for the UNP. There is a great deal that they have gained. Firstly, unlike the highly artificial majorities that the UNP got at the 2005 presidential polls, what they got at this election with Tamils and Muslims contesting on the other side as well, can be said to be their actual strength in the province, and this base may remain with the UNP in the future as well.

Secondly, after the days of Devanayagam and Rajadurai in the 1980s, the UNP was able to make a good showing in the east. TNA parliamentarian R.Sampanthan should be commended for being able to hold on to his support base in the Trincomalee electorate while the Tamil vote in other areas of the east was going the other way. Another reason why I would say that nobody in the UNP should be blamed for this defeat is because the LTTE/TNA’s unsolicited declaration of support, though made perhaps with good intentions, proved to be self defeating, because that appears to have created panic in the minds of Muslims in many parts of the east to the effect that if Hakeem wins, the LTTE would be back to harass them. Besides, Hakeem is not seen as a strong leader, who can stand up for his people against the LTTE.

He was a compliant man who said nothing when the 2001 CFA disregarded Muslims entirely and he had met Prabhakaran and signed an MOU with him – the only Muslim leader to do so. He even expressed regret over the death of Tamilselvam. The Tamils thus saw him as a very accommodating, moderate Muslim. But the very reasons that made him acceptable to the LTTE, made him that much more unattractive to many Muslims. We predicted quite early on that this fear among Muslims, that the LTTE would be back if Hakeem wins will result in Hakeem not getting the whole of the Muslim vote has proved correct. The final nail in the coffin was when the LTTE/TNA asked Tamils as well to vote for Hakeem! In all this, Wickremesinghe was no more than a victim. On the one hand, even if he realised that Hakeem was not an Ashroff, he had no choice but to go for the elections with Hakeem. It was simply a case of either taking Hakeem or not facing the election at all because the UNP had no base in the east, except in the Ampara electorate.

Then came that bolt from the blue, just two days before election - the statement by the LTTE/TNA, to vote for the UNP. Had Wickremesinghe known beforehand that the TNA/LTTE was trying to help themselves by helping, him, he would have pleaded with them not to help him! That statement had a lot to do with frightening off many potential Muslim voters and Wickremesinghe can hardly be blamed by his party for something that happened without his concurrence. He was a victim of circumstance. The fact that the LTTE and TNA actually asked the Tamil people to vote for the UNP, is going to be used against Wickremesinghe and the UNP at every future election in the south. But then it is not the UNP that is to blame for this but the LTTE/TNA who were too eager to embarrass the government by whatever means available.

In any case, this election was not going to decide who rules the country. Because of the JVP split, the government has now got the numbers to be able to survive in parliament, so they need not use the EPC result to call for snap elections. The UNP for its part, really did not lose anything by losing. Quite on the contrary, they have now campaigned and gained something in a province where they had almost nothing! Mr Sashidaran, who has now been given the grand title of Batticaloa UNP district leader was not really an officially designated organiser of the UNP. He was only a ‘contact person’ because the UNP had no organisation in Batticaloa at all. Now, however, thanks to this election, they have a leg to stand on in that part of the country. The most important thing about this election is that both the UNP and the PA have got votes from all three communities and have political allies from all three communities. The UNP has the SLMC, LTTE/TNA while the government has the TMVP and many Muslim breakaway groups led by Ferial Ashroff, Athaulla, Hisbulla and others. The reintegration of the minority communities living in the east into the national mainstream is the biggest victory in the east which should be shared equally by both the PA and the UNP.

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