UNP defeat: The blame game begins

In the week following the EPC elections, the political scene was enlivened by the infighting within the victorious coalition for the chief minister’s post, rumblings within the UNP over yet another defeat, and the formation of a new political party by the Wimal Weerawansa group. The infighting in the winning camp over the chief minstry made one seriously wonder which was worse - defeat or victory? Pillaiyan has been appointed CM, but the infighting has not stopped, with M.H.Hisbulla along with two other Muslim PC members deciding to sit separately in the PC. A harassed looking president was shown on TV exhorting Pillaiyan, Hisbulla and others, not to arouse communal tensions over the CM’s post. Clearly, victory has not brought peace of mind to the government.

Holding the EPC elections at all was a huge gamble on the part of the government. If there was any province where the government was at a serious disadvantage, it was the east. Until recently, the government was waging war in the province and that was bad enough. When government writ was re-established over the province the minorities were apprehensive of an attempt to Sinhalise the province. The government had the support of the Pillaiyan group, but long after the Karuna/Pillaiyan group split from the LTTE, the Tigers were able to hold on to vast tracts of the east and that is what made all those operations against the LTTE in Vakarai, Sampur, Thoppigala and other areas necessary. Thus the Pillaiyan group was not as strong as the LTTE even in the east. Even after the LTTE was crushed, the Pillaiyan group withdrew from the Trincomalee district concentrating their forces in the Batticaloa district. Thus the strength of the TMVP is confined only in one district and the alliance with the TMVP was not necessarily the government’s ticket to victory.

Fortunately for the government, even though their ally was able to command only a part of the Tamil vote in the province, the UNP’s ally the SLMC was also able to command only a part of the Muslim vote in the Eastern Province. The reason why the government was able to win was only because they were able to carry the majority of the Sinhala vote. Even these Sinhalese votes that the government got was from a traditionally UNP vote base – the Sinhalese settlements in the area having been started by D.S.Senanayake. The UNP in fact played on this for all they were worth by appointing Rukman Senannayake to handle the election campaign. As a result, until the votes were counted, nobody knew who would win. Two weeks before the election this columnist predicted that the government would win, going by the results of the previous two elections in the east and the political alignments taking place. My assumption was that the government would be able to win with the majority of the Sinhalese and the majority of the Tamil vote.

But the goal posts kept shifting. Just two days before the election, the TNA/LTTE asked the Tamil people to vote for Hakeem – a possibility that the present columnist had not factored into the calculations. My assumption was that no Tamil party in the east would ever ask their people to vote in a Muslim chief minister – thereby diluting their claim to the area. Another assumption was that the LTTE would not risk supporting one or the other side and thus exposing its actual influence in the province. What we all failed to realize was the extent of the LTTE’s desperation to get the Rajapakse government out. Given the fluid situation, even people like myself who had confidently made predictions, were completely in the dark as to what the actual result may be. The government thus gambled and won, and the due credit for that should be given to them. Had it lost, that would not have led to their losing power immediately, thanks to the split in the JVP which has augmented the government’s vote bank in parliament; but it would have been the beginning of a long slide from which it would not have recovered. The same applies to the UNP.

The inevitable mumblings

Given the importance that the UNP places on the minority vote, the east, where the minorities predominate, was the province where the UNP was in its element and this was where they had the best chance of victory. Their chances in the east were better than even in the Central and Uva Provinces. The fact that they lost the east despite all in their favour may mean that their chances at other provincial council elections also have been queered by this result. If the government decides to stagger the PC elections, until the parliamentary election comes around in 2010, then it would have created a losing trend which would see the UNP losing the parliamentary and presidential elections as well.

The worry now in certain sections of the UNP is that defeat at the EPC elections has sealed their fate for the foreseeable future. Hence there are rumblings once again about the leadership. The UNP leadership for its part, was acutely aware that defeat would bring up that question again and they took elaborate precautions to prevent a leadership challenge by carrying out the propaganda that there will be no free and fair election in the east. The brand new elections monitoring NGO Campaign for Free and Fair Elections CAFÉ was formed by lawyer Shiral Lankatilake specifically for the purpose of absolving the leadership of any blame in the event of a defeat. Having thus started off by saying that a free and fair election in the east was an impossibility, the same cry has continued after the defeat. The UNP now refuses to accept the result on the grounds that the election was not free and fair.

Last Friday, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Rauff Hakeem led a demonstration after Friday prayers in Maradana, protesting against the result. Earlier, the US, British German and Australian envoys met Wickremesinghe at Cambridge Place where they listened to him and the UNP saying that this election was not free and fair. Later, some western envoys had called on Minister Karu Jayasuriya who gave them a less hysterical picture of the election. The UNP must be in a panic in anticipation of a leadership challenge, but in the view of the present columnist, it would be very unreasonable to blame the UNP leadership for the EPC defeat. The UNP got a lot of minority votes as they have been getting at every election. When the government was getting Tamil votes, the UNP got Muslim votes. The Muslims and Tamils are about equal in number and thus, both the PA and the UNP had good partners to start with. The UNP also got some pro LTTE Tamil votes and the government got some anti-LTTE Muslim votes. So as far as wooing the minority vote, there was a draw. But the UNP lost because they could not muster the Sinhala vote.

The Sinhala electorates of Seruwila in Trincomalee and Ampara in the Digamadulla district between them, gave the UPFA, a majority of over 24,000 votes. One might be inclined to say that it is Wickremesinghe’s policies that have alienated the Sinhalese in this manner. But last year, Wickremesinghe did make a valiant effort to get the UNP out of that rut. He dumped the federalist line and said that the cease fire agreement also had to be renegotiated in keeping with current ground realities. These policy changes were, if I remember correctly, also ratified by the UNP working committee and even presented at the UNP convention. But there were only two people within the UNP who supported this change of direction whole heartedly – Ravi Karunanyake and Tissa Attanayake. Karunanayake made statements to the English press supporting that change of direction and Attanayake did the same with the Sinhala press. But from the rest of the UNP, all we heard was a deafening silence.

The pro-UNP media did not support this change of direction and actually worked against it. It could well be that many within the UNP thought that a change of direction at this late stage, may result in the UNP falling in between two stools losing both the minority vote without being able to gain anything significant from the Sinhala vote. Such people may have thought that the ‘jathiwadi’ market was already saturated and that the safest option would be to safeguard what they already have and hope for the best. There may also have been the concern that an attempt to woo the Sinhala vote in this manner would cause the UNP lose face with the international community. So it was that the UNP faced yet another election with the anti-Sinhala label stuck to their backs, and they lost. But you can’t blame Wickremesinghe for this because he tried his best to get the UNP out of this anti-Sinhala framework. The lesson that the EPC election should have taught the UNP is that you cannot win elections without the Sinhala vote in any province outside the north.

When the UNP working committee met last week, one decision taken was to initiate disciplinary action against the two dozen or more UNP dissidents who joined the government on the grounds that they did not work towards the victory of the UNP at the EPC elections. Taking disciplinary action against the dissidents on such grounds will be counterproductive to the UNP because that is an acknowledgement that the loss of the dissidents was the reason for the UNP defeat. For around 30 years, the UNP’s man on the ground in Ampara was P.Dayaratne. This time, he was not around to lead the UNP campaign in those areas. Neither were the UNP’s main orators, Rajitha Senaratne, and Hemakumara Nanayakkara.

As a minister, Karu Jayasuriya was batting for the other side because he was one of the first to go into the east to restore civil administration and reassure the Tamil population that they were not out to Sinhalise the east. The first face they see is very important. SLFP seniors D.M.Jayaratne, Maithripala Sirisena, or Nimal Siripala de Silva would not have been able to convince the eastern Tamils of the government’s bona fides the way Karu J would have done. Thus the loss of the dissidents can in fact be said to be a contributory factor to the UNP’s undoing in the east.

Some errors of judgment

Raising a related issue at the working committee meeting, parliamentarian John Amaratunga said that S.B..Dissananayke had made a statement to the press to the effect that had he handled the EPC election campaign, the UNP would have won and that he is happy that the government won. Amaratunga said that this was an irresponsible statement given the fact that the SBD was the national organizer of the party. Wickremesinghe said that SBD was not in the country now, and that this should be taken up when he is back. Immediately after the EPC election defeat, there was a rash of articles in the press to the effect that had S.B.Dissanayake handled the election campaign, the UNP would have won. Columnist. Manoj Abeydeera of the Divaina was one of those who said that ‘if only’ SBD had handled things, everything would have been different. Immediately after a defeat, it is natural for people to look for saviours. But it is debatable whether SBD could have substantially altered the outcome of the EPC elections. As a son of the soil, unlike the elitist Wickremesinghe, he may have been in a better position to appeal to the Sinhala voters in Ampara and Seruvila. Also perhaps, he may have safeguarded the UNPs interest in the east rather than becoming too dependent on the SLMC.

There were some factors in the way the UNP handled things which contributed to the defeat. Among these was the fact that Batticaloa was a Tamil majority district but the UNP list in this district was led by a Muslim! That was a sure fire way to antagonize the Tamils. It’s hardly surprising that all three electorates in Batticaloa was won by the UPFA. But the UNP could not help this state of affairs, because their man in Batticaloa, A.Sashidaran who was the UNP contact man for Paddirippu and Kalkudah, had been living in Colombo and had no organization at all at the grass roots level. The UNP had no alternative but to depend on the SLMC. Johnston Fernando of Kurunegala, belonging to the Colombo Chetty community, was sent to Batticaloa to hold Sashidaran’s hand and that was all that the UNP had by way of an independent presence in the district.

There were some unfavourable spin offs from the UNP’s dependence on the SLMC. The SLMC from Ashraff’s time has like the LTTE, suffered from a ‘sole representative’ complex. As the SLMC became more influential in the east, the governments that they got close to, from Premadasa’s of the early 1990s onwards, had to abandon their Muslim supporters in the east in exchange for SLMC support. In order to keep the SLMC happy, the UNP also abandoned their own Muslim supporters in the east. They didn’t have all that many Tamil UNP supporters in the Batticaloa district, but in the Amparai district, there still were quite a number of Muslims who were UNP. But with the SLMC calling the shots, none of these UNPers had a chance.

There were only two UNP Muslims on the EPC electoral list of the UNP – M.M.Maharoof in Muttur in the Trincomalee district and I.L.M.Mahi in Samanturai in the Digamadulla district. All other Muslim candidates in the Trinco and Digamadulla districts were from the SLMC. UNP Muslims had absolutely no chance under the SLMC and this may have driven many of them to support the UPFA, just so as to be able to defeat the SLMC. This trend can be seen from the defection of A.R.Jemil in the run up to the election, which was given wide publicity by the state owned media. Jemil, a one time protégé of UNP parliamentarian ‘My Own’ Mustafa in Kalmunai, had been a UNP co-ordinator of sorts for the Kalmunai electorate during the short lived UNP government of 2001-2004. Because of the UNP’s dependence on the SLMC, individuals like Jemil, had no future to look forward to in the UNP. Hence his vote too went to swell the vote bank of the UPFA.

There was the accusation that Wickremesinghe had given in too much to the SLMC. But then Wickremesinghe had little choice in the matter. If the SLMC had decided to hitch their wagon to the government, that would have ended the UNP’s hopes of being able to contest the EPC elections at all. In order to get the SLMC to choose the more difficult path of contesting with the opposition, the incentives had to be that much more attractive. Those who say that the SLMC was too rapacious, should realize that for their own survival, the SLMC had to be that. There would be no point in having the SLMC if they were going to allow Muslims in other political parties to dominate them. Moreover, if the SLMC was going to give up its tree symbol and its separate identity and contest under the UNP, the SLMC leaders will have to have something to show for the sacrifices they make.

In the context of the EPC elections, this UNP/SLMC alliance was certainly a judicious move with even the LTTE not having an axe to grind with Hakeem who was seen by them as a moderate Muslim leader who was conciliatory towards the LTTE.

Perhaps the only real mistake that can be laid squarely on Wickremesinghe’s doorstep is his inexplicable refusal to hold public meetings in the Seruvila electorate which was simply abandoned to the UPFA. The UNP assumed that the government’s action in waging war with the LTTE to get the water supply to Seruvila restored after the LTTE closed the sluice gates of the Mawilaru anicut, had all but obliterated support for the UNP in that electorate, and simply abandoned it. However, the Seruvila electorate had an anti-government trend as well as can be seen from the fact that one JVP councilor was elected from that electorate. The present writer said that it would be a miracle if the JVP got any seats at all in Trincomalee given the fact that the JVP had taken the only parliamentary seat the UPFA won in the district and then sat in the opposition, depriving the people of Trincomalee of the patronage that they would otherwise have got. Well, the miracle did happen mainly because of the UNP’s abdication of authority in that electorate.

The UNP also did not have a meeting in Dehiattakandiya, despite the efforts made by Lakshman Seneviratne to have a meeting in that area. Nor did the UNP leader sanction any second tier meetings in addition to the main meetings that were held in each of the districts. The second tier meetings could have been handled by the UNP’s second level leadership, like Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Johnston Fernando, Vajira Abeywardene and others. Before the elections, this columnist said that the UNP was not really putting their best foot forward and that is reflected in the final result. The fault of the UNP leadership was that they simply handed over everything to the SLMC, and expected miracles.

The reason why there were no complaints from the second level leadership about the manner in which the election campaign was being run was probably because they were all lulled into a sense of complacency by the fact that government politicos who visited the east, whiled away their time hiding in hotels without going out among the people. The movements of government politicos may have been restricted, but unlike the UNP, they didn’t hand over their campaign to their allies and take a back seat. Neither Hisbulla or Pillaiyan dominated the UPFA campaign to the same degree that Hakeem dominated the UNP campaign. The UNP had control only of the campaign in the Sinhala areas, with both the Tamil and the Muslim areas being handed over to Hakeem.

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