Ranil and GSP+

Ranil Wickremesinghe

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to be very disaster prone these days. First came the defeat at the eastern provincial council elections due to reasons which were mostly beyond his control. I do not for a moment believe that the story that the eastern elections were rigged. It was as peaceful as any election in the south. You do get instances of impersonation and even ballot box stuffing at every election, but this does not substantially alter the result of an election because both sides engage in this kind of behaviour. The story that the elections were rigged will not hold water because that is what the UNP said after losing the presidential elections in 2005, too.

There again the elections were free and fair and even president Kumaratunga was batting for Ranil Wickremesinghe. He should have won the presidential elections but he lost. Likewise, given the fact that the UNP had the support of the SLMC as well as the TNA/LTTE constituency in the east, which openly declared in their favour two days before the election, they should have won, but they lost yet again. I do not want to go into an analysis of why the UNP lost because that has already been done in the Sunday columns. Suffice it to say here that it would be unreasonable to place all the blame on Wickremesinghe, unlike at the presidential elections. There are times when one becomes just a victim of circumstances and the eastern elections was one such instance.

But the problem is that the defeat at the EPC elections could well translate into a string of defeats in the coming months when the other provincial council elections come around on a staggered basis. So this defeat is going to have serious repercussions within the UNP. Even though we journalists may sit back and analyse the situation at leisure and say that the UNP was a victim of circumstances, that is not going to satisfy the UNP rank and file. Our end product is analysis, but the UNP's end product is political power and that makes all the difference. The fact is that the UNP has been defeated at an election which many of the UNP's politicians who went to the east know, was generally free and fair. They have come to realise that if the UNP failed in the east, the probability is that they are going to lose in the south as well.

There are rumblings once again within the UNP, against the leadership as someone has to take the blame. The present writer heard one parliamentarian mumbling that this is the first election where a written request to vote for the party signed by the party leader was not distributed to the voters. Would such a written request have made a substantial difference in the east, where the UNP had to hang on to Hakeem to be able to contest? I do not think so, but many UNP politicians seem to think so and guess who has to take the blame for these 'lapses'?

Wickremesinghe seems to have hit upon a good way to rehabilitate himself at least in the eyes of the general public if not his party. And that is to lobby the European Commission to have the GSP+ concession (whereby readymade garments are exported to the EU duty free) extended for a further three years. Some weeks ago, the UNP working committee discussed the danger of Sri Lanka losing the GSP+ facility and the bland conclusion that they arrived at that time was that the government should be held responsible if this facility was lost. Some UNP politicians expressed similar views to the press. However, just three days before the EPC election Wickremesinghe in what seemed to be a change of heart, announced that he would go to Europe after the elections and lobby for the extension of the GSP+ facility. The Sunday Island interpreted this as the announcement of face saving manoeuvres in anticipation of a possible defeat at the EPC elections - that if Wickremesinghe could not be a victor, then he would at least be a good guy among the people by lobbying for GSP+ and averting possible job losses in the industry.

However, this face saving manoeuvre may boomerang on Wickremesinghe. He would have been OK if he had remained aloof, without touching the GSP+ issue. But now that he has got involved, he will have to produce results. Yesterday's Daily Mirror in a front page report said that Wickremesinghe had gone to Europe to lobby for GSP+. But the state owned Dinamina in banner headlines the day before, claimed that Wickremesinghe had gone to Europe to canvass against Sri Lanka. For months, nay, years, the PA has been saying that the UNP has been lobbying foreign governments to cut off aid so as to bring the government down, and the label has stuck. The UNP's behaviour has done nothing to dispel this impression. The propaganda that the government is carrying out now is that having failed to win the EPC elections, Wickremesinghe is trying to bring about the downfall of the government by lobbying for the withdrawal of the GSP+ facility.

Wickremesinghe may have gone to Europe with the best of intentions, to get GSP+ extended and thereby become a hero among the public - there are hundreds of thousands employed directly or indirectly in the garment industry. But the exact opposite is being imputed to him by the government. If Wickremesinghe is successful in his mission and the GSP+ facility is extended, the government will say sardonically, "See, he carried tales (kelang) to the EU, but we have got the facility despite all Ranil's efforts to undermine the country". However if by some chance, Sri Lanka does not get the facility, the repercussions are going to be serious - and will extend beyond mere jibes - because the government is going to tell the people that all this is due to Wickremesinghe and his trip to lobby against Sri Lanka. Wickremesinghe cannot return empty handed because if he does, the people are going to blame him for it. The EU for its part should realise that if they fail to extend the GSP+ facility, they will be seriously undermining the political career of Sri Lanka's ‘most minority friendly’ Sinhala political leader. Not only will they have to extend the GSP+ facility, but they will also have to make some mention of Wickremesinge as being one of those who convinced them that the facility should be extended for a further three years.

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