Usually at provincial council elections the campaign is not as heated as at a parliamentary or presidential election campaigns. At parliamentary and presidential elections, because of the possibility of a change in governments, even ordinary villagers are as enthusiastic about the elections as the candidates themselves. On their own initiative, they invite the candidates to address gatherings in their neighbourhood, and the candidates get carried along by the enthusiasm of the people. But provincial council elections are usually an uphill struggle for the candidates. Instead of the public following the candidates around as at a parliamentary election, at provincial elections, the candidates have to chase after the people. This is the situation until around the last three days to polling when some enthusiasm is generated. As a general rule, provincial elections generate much less heat than parliamentary elections. However, there are exceptions to this rule.
If the PC election in question is of such nature that winning or losing it will result in the beginning of the end of the incumbent government, then it will generate a lot of heat. In May 1993, the ruling UNP lost the Western and Southern provincial councils to the combined opposition led by the SLFP. But at that time, nobody saw it as the beginning of the end of the UNP regime. Everybody thought it was a temporary hiccup caused by the turbulence of the Premadasa years and the split in the UNP with the DUNF formed by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake contesting against the UNP and getting over one million votes - which everyone considered to be UNP votes. After the demise of Premadasa and the return of Gamini Dissanayake to the UNP, many thought that things were back to normal. But it was only after the southern provincial council was dissolved in early 1994 and the UNP’s effort to win it back from the PA failed, that people realized that the UNP was on its way out.
After the SPC elections of 1994, everybody has been wary of the pitch being queered with the loss of control over a provincial council. The reason why the PA government did what they did at the infamous Wayamba PC election of 1999 was because of the fear that if the UNP wins the province, where the UNP has traditionally been strong, that will affect the presidential and parliamentary elections that were to follow. The Chandrika Kumaratunga government was a failure from the beginning and they had cause for anxiety. Another do or die provincial council election of this nature was the recently concluded Eastern PC poll which was fought more like a general election than a mere provincial council election. The preponderance of the minority vote in the province, a constituency where the UNP was particularly strong, gave rise to hopes of being able to defeat the Rajapakse regime. The heat and tension created by the close contest in the east was felt all over the country, with everyone waiting with bated breath to see whether the government would make it.
What can be noted immediately about the NCP and Sabaragamuwa PC election campaigns is that they have failed to generate the same heat as the Eastern election. After the EPC election, everybody expected the government to have a free run of the NCP and Sabaragamuwa. The appearance of Major General Janaka Perera changed the whole equation. At the 2005 presidential poll there was an attempt by some quarters to field him as a third candidate against both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse. Fielding a man like that against Berty Premalal Dissanayake certainly created problems for the government. But whether the UNP has managed to make the expected headway is a moot point. One of the main problems is that this being simply a provincial election, Janaka Perera cannot really promise any changes at the national level. He cannot promise to bring down the cost of living or the cost of fuel. Nor can he promise subsidies for the farmers because those are national decisions. So the conversation has centered around schools and roads – hardly things to excite people.
The EPC elections in contrast, were fought on national issues. Before going to the east as the UNP chief ministerial candidate, Rauff Hakeem announced that the EPC elections were going to be the beginning of the end for the Rajapakse government and that this was going to be a repetition of the southern provincial council elections of April 1994. Even during the campaign, what was emphasized were national issues like human rights, minority rights etcetera. The LTTE too tried to make the EPC elections the turning point of their fortunes. Just two days before the elections, the LTTE and the TNA sent out the message to the Tamil people of the east requesting them to cast their vote to defeat the government. Thus the EPC elections were fought on a national platform even though it was a mere provincial election. Just before the EPC election campaign closed, the present columnist made the point that even though all the political parties were in the fray on national agendas, the people seemed to be more interested in lesser things.
At the EPC elections, the government was asking for a mandate to liberate the Tamil people from terrorism and to introduce democracy. The UNP/SLMC was asking for a mandate to defeat the government and form a more minority friendly government. The LTTE was asking the Tamil people to ‘somehow’ defeat the government to stop them from advancing on the Vanni. But when Sirasa TV went from electorate to electorate in the east interviewing people from all walks of life and asking them what they wanted, all irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background, were asking for schools, toilets, roads and the like! The reason why the NCP elections seems boring in contrast to the eastern province elections is probably because the NCP campaign is focused more on schools, toilets and roads than national issues. In that respect perhaps the UNP’s NCP campaign is more attuned to the needs of the people of the NCP than was the EPC campaign to the people of the EP.
But the NCP campaign though relevant to the NCP has been irrelevant to the rest of the country. This campaign, to put it mildly, has been excruciatingly boring. In fact there is virtually nothing of interest for the national press to report about the NCP and Sabaragamuwa elections. In other words, these have become ‘ordinary’ PC elections where very little heat is generated, and the candidates have to run after the public instead of it being the other way around as at any parliamentary election. This ‘ordinariness’ does not bode well for the UNP. The onus is on the opposition to make the contest hot for the government. If at the outset it fails to make it look like a ‘gala uda satana’ between the government and the opposition as they were able to do at the EPC elections, then the government definitely has the upper hand.
When Janaka Perera was nominated as the UNP’s chief ministerial candidate, everybody expected the government to go on a massive vilification campaign against him. But this has not materialized. One of the main reasons why the NCP election campaign has failed to generate any heat is the lack of vilification campaigns that was manifest in the CBK era.. It’s now less than two weeks to election day, and to date the PA government has done less harm to General Perera in terms of vilification than Lionel Bopage in 2001, when he appeared on Australian TV against Perera’s appointment as High Commissioner to Australia. If they were going to do any vilification, they would have started on it by now. Trying to do anything so late in the day would be useless. This government, with the sole exception of Mervyn Silva, seems adept at not doing anything that would attract counterproductive attention. Even during the EPC election campaign, there was no vilification of Rauff Hakeem even though Hakeem would have lent himself to vilification much more readily than General Perera.
Nonsense as a weapon
Instead if vilifying Perera and focusing on him, the PA seems to have decided to drown him in banalities. For the first half of the campaign, all we heard from the NCP was that argument about suitcases and toothbrushes – with Berty Premalal Dissanayake saying that Janaka Perera came to the NCP with a suitcase and a tooth brush to contest the elections and that he will pick up the same suitcase and go back to Colombo after the polls. Perera replied that he went to save Jaffna in the same way - with a suitcase and a toothbrush! The entire debate in the NCP has revolved around this suitcase, with some PA speakers telling the people to ask Janaka Perera for his address – because he has no permanent address in the NCP. Then there is another jibe one hears often on the PA stage in the NCP to the effect that in the past few years, the UNP has sent three people from Colombo to Anuradhapura. The first was Keerthisinha Wijeratne who came to Anuradhapura, stayed at a hotel, spent millions at a provincial council election, came first on the UNP list, and after a while joined the Rajapakse government.
After Wijeratne, came Thilanga Sumathipala who also stayed at a hotel in the same manner and spent millions and he too joined Mahinda Rajapakse. Now Janaka Perera has come to Anuradhapura and is staying at a hotel, and spending on an election. Even by the standards of a provincial election, this is banal beyond belief. It’s a victory for the government to have been able to keep the debate at this level and it is a failure for the UNP not to have been able to break out of this straitjacket. Janaka Perera is a victim of the fact that bringing in of non-politicians to contest elections has happened once too often in the UNP. When that happens, very eminent persons who can make a contribution that ordinary run of the mill politicians can’t, should be enlisted. Premadasa brought in K.N.Choksy. Chandrika brought in Lakshman Kadirgamar. Likewise, Janaka Perera is one of those who would adorn any political party and he certainly is a good catch for the UNP.
There has been a quantum leap in the quality of the UNP leadership in the NCP after he came in. There was in fact no way to improve the quality of the UNP set up in Anuradhapura without fielding an outsider. There is also the fact that he is not really an outsider to that part of the country. He even has a village and an army camp named after him in Welioya. But he came at a time when enlisting outsiders had become something of a joke in the UNP. This is now seen as one of party leader Ranil Wickremesinghepeculiarities – like his other habit of appointing committees at the drop of a hat.
When asked about his reading of the situation in the NCP and Sabaragamuwa, UNP Colombo district leader Ravi Karunanyake who has been assigned to the Ratnapura electorate for the elections said that the two UNP chief ministerial candidates, who are fresh new faces, are huge attractions among the people when compared to the two candidates of the PA who have been around for a long time and have various allegations against them. He said that there certainly was a pull factor for their two candidates and that there was a new momentum for the UNP in the two provinces. Asked whether he would be so bold as to make a prediction as to what the outcome would be, Karunanayake said that it was too early for that because the PA campaign was still not on and they were still not sure about what kind of skullduggery or terror tactics was being planned by the government. The fact that the UNP feels that the PA campaign has not even begun with less than two weeks to go for the election, is because the PA has not been throwing anything substantial at the UNP. If this is being done deliberately, then it’s a brilliant strategy.
The PA seems to be doing to Janaka Perera what the Russians did to Napoleon Bonaparte – drawing him on without resisting or fighting. If there is no friction, there is no heat. And if there is no heat, it doesn’t look as if the UNP is mounting a proper challenge to the government. Besides they keep talking nonsense so that the general is compelled to respond to that nonsense. The government has adopted a typical Sinhala war strategy against Perera. They don’t take him head on or even give him a straight yes or no answer. They use their bureaucratic discretion to ignore his letters asking for adequate security. His protests too are ignored. Probably for the first time in his life, the general is confronted with an enemy that refuses to come out for a straight fight! How he is going to prevail against an enemy that refuses to fight and at the same time refuses to surrender will be interesting to watch.
SB’s unending agony
An event that gained the headlines last week, was the ruling delivered by the International Human Rights Committee set up under the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that S.B.Dissanayake’s civic rights should be restored and that he should be paid compensation for the time he spent in jail. The Human Rights Committee has given the government six months to report back on what it was doing to give effect to its ruling. In strictly legal terms, this ruling has no effect in Sri Lanka. This ruling was given under the first optional protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which was signed in the late 1990s by Lakshman Kadirgamar during the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. Under the first optional protocol, appeals can be made to the International Human Rights committee against decisions handed down by local courts and the government was bound to implement the ruling of the international court.
But in a previous case the supreme court of Sri Lanka decided that according to the Sri Lanka constitution, the court of final appeal in Sri Lanka is the supreme court and the first optional protocol to the ICCPR was unconstitutional. Thus the first optional protocol is a dead letter and appeals made and rulings delivered under its provisions have no legal effect in Sri Lanka. But the moral authority of a ruling like this is tremendous. The international court has ordered the government to restore SB’s civic rights. The question is whether the government can restore something that was never taken away in the first place? In the past few months, there have been rulings given by the elections commissioner and the secretary general of parliament to the effect that SB lost his seat in parliament not due to any civic disability but due to non attendance for three months. The chief justice also has gone on record as saying that it was never the intention of the court that SB should be unseated, because had that been the case, a copy of the judgment would have been sent to the elections commissioner and the secretary general of parliament.
Moreover, SB’s lawyers contend that civic disabilities apply only to those convicted of criminal offenses and not those sentenced under the civil law. So even before the international court delivered the judgment, SB’s civic rights issue was beginning to clear up. Even on the question of imprisonment for contempt of court, SB pleaded guilty, and he was sentenced on that basis. Moreover, President Rajapakse has always been on good terms with SB and the onus is not so much on the government as on the UNP to do what is right by SB. All that the UNP has to do is to allocate one of its national list seats to SB, so that he can come back to parliament and put to rest the issue of civic rights once and for all. The parliamentary seat vacated by SB is occupied by a member of the UNP – Renuka Herath. While it is true that the party can’t force any MP to resign, a political party that aspires to lead the country should have some mechanism to shift individuals around. When Sirisena Cooray wanted to come back to politics in 1994/5, K.Ganeshalingam publicly offered to resign as Colombo’s Mayor to make way for Cooray. Mangala Samaraweera willingly gave up one of his ministries in 2000/2001, in order to accommodate Hakeem during the short lived ‘pariwasa’ government.
Similarly, there should be someone in the UNP willing to resign to accommodate SB. Generally people are not afraid to sacrifice the positions they hold when they smell power in the offing. They cling tenaciously to what they already have only in circumstances where power is nowhere in sight. It’s every man for himself during famine. So where does the UNP stand? Does it smell power or is it facing a famine? Ravi Karunanyake has always been a strong supporter of SB. When asked whether he feels that the party is doing enough to see that its national organizer is back in active politics, Karunanyake said that the party is doing enough and more. But the question is, what are they doing enough and more of? We don’t see anything happening. Asked whether K.N.Choksy has been asked to resign to accommodate SB in accordance with a recent decision of the UNP the political affairs committee at the request of John Amaratunga, Karunanayke says that Choksy was away in India when the political affairs committee last met and that he will be called in at the next meeting.
Last Wednesday, the UNP committee on internal reforms met under the chairmanship of Joseph Michael Perera. Tissa Attanayake, John Amaratunga and Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake were present. This committee has been meeting regularly and it appears that the questionnaire that Joseph Michael Perera prepared for UNP parliamentarians concerning the proposed reforms, has been revived in a different way by getting MP’s to give their views in person. Last Wednesday, Kurunegala district parliamentarians Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Dayasiri Jayasekera gave their views to the committee. Both MPs back Wickremesinghe continuing to remain as the leader. Kariyawasam is a Wickremesinghe protégé while Jayasekera holds the view that the leader should remain, with S.B.Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa being given higher positions within the party hierarchy.
When the JHU committees on foreign affairs, security and legal affairs met last week in a combined session, to assess the impact of the recently concluded SAARC summit in Colombo, Udaya Gammampila said that the holding of SAARC had been helpful in the battle against the LTTE. He stressed that for this purpose, good relations have to be maintained with the Indian central government and the Indian bureaucracy. He said that it was necessary to have the Indian central government on Sri Lanka’s side in order to neutralize pro-Tiger elements in Tamil Nadu and to complete the final push into Killinochchi and Mullaitivu. He further stated that the cost of the SAARC summit should be considered an expense incurred in the war on terror. He deplored the anti-Indian sentiments expressed by the JVP and said that this anti-Indianism was designed to push India to take the other side and thereby provide the LTTE with an escape route.