The two Provincial Council elections in the NCP and Sabaragamuwa that will be held next Saturday will give the country a clear indication of the political standing of both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government in the eyes of the electors. If the government takes both PCs, as it confidently maintains it will, it is a foregone conclusion that the remaining provincial councils too will be prematurely dissolved and elections held to take advantage of the direction the political wind is blowing. With the provincial administrations nicely wrapped-up in ribbons, the government is most likely to opt for a parliamentary election very soon thereafter.
The president well understands that those who voted him to office in November 2005 are burdened with an unbearable cost of living fuelled by galloping inflation. Political considerations made him load the country with an indefensibly large cabinet and government’s profligacy and corruption in the face of acute hardship faced by the poor and the middle class had not endeared the incumbent administration to most Lankans. Yet the president has chalked up many brownie points from the military successes of the security forces who have in recent months, though at heavy cost, seriously weakened the LTTE to an extent that makes the possibility of taking Kilinochchi by the end of this year and Mullaitivu thereafter not unrealistic. Not even his worst enemy can accuse Rajapaksa of not throwing his full weight behind the war effort.
The people are all too well aware that the LTTE, as long as Prabhakaran is alive, will never settle for anything less than separation of this small island. The Tiger track record on this score is crystal clear. Whenever the LTTE agree to negotiations, they merely engage in a time buying exercise at times they are militarily weak to regroup and rearm. Thus it is imperative that they are overcome or at least sufficiently weakened to compel serious negotiations. The government’s All Party Representative Committee (APRC) exercise should have long ago finished its task of devising a package that would have satisfied the large majority of the Tamils of this country who are not supporters of the LTTE. But such has not been the case because sections of the government itself have been pulling in opposite directions. The ``All Party’’ part of the APRC’s title is certainly a gross misnomer because the committee is certainly not ``all party’’ in any sense of those two words. Any package it produces will be far from consensual.
The Sinhala extremists, represented by the JHU and the Weerawansa faction of the JVP which supports the government from the opposition, can be expected to stand in the way of an offer that will satisfy the Tamils. While a divide and rule strategy, greatly assisted by purchasing a faction of the UNP with office, and splitting the JVP with the same carrot held tantalizingly before Weerawansa and his supporters, can work for a time. But it will not bring the real solution to the National Question this country desperately needs. Mahinda Rajapaksa is not unaware of this reality but whether he will value short-term political advantages above long-term national interests remains to be seen. Winning the two elections next Saturday will certainly enable him to wrap-up electoral supremacy; but given the present style of governance and the cavalier disregard of the public perception of political excesses including the tolerance of Mervin Silva and the expensive blunder that was/is Mihin Air, a weak opposition will be to the serious detriment of the nation.
We are no soothsayers and will hazard no guesses on Saturday’s results. The country has been treated to a surfeit of predictions coloured by the vested interests of the two contending forces. The arithmetic of previous elections has clearly demonstrated that rallying the anti-UNP forces under a single banner has served the blue party well. In fact, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the last time round, was able to get rid of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government during her incumbency of the presidential throne by attaching the JVP to her saree pota, prematurely dissolving parliament and forging the UPFA to defeat the UNP and its allies. The fact that the JVP is running its own slate both in the NCP and Sabaragamuwa will no doubt help the UNP to the extent of the number of votes it can take away from the SLFP-led alliance. While Weerawansa has not been campaigning for the government, his heart is no doubt with Rajapaksa. If he had hoped to `capture’ the JVP, there are still no signs of his having succeeded. But a poor showing by Somawansa and Co. on Saturday will surely strengthen Weerawansa’s hand while the opposite will be to his detriment.
These elections like those we have seen before are running along familiar rails. The government in office is blatantly utilizing resources of the state to fuel its campaign. There have been incidents of election violence though not on the scale seen at the infamous Wayamba PC election during the Chandrika tenure. If the election authority was strong enough to anull that poll, and the case was strong enough to withstand judicial scrutiny, elections that followed would have been much better than they have been. Governments in office using state resources for their political advantage has sadly become the norm and most people do not even bother to fault offenders using publicly owned vehicles, circuit bungalows and even public servants for their election campaigns. The state media continues to blow its propaganda horn in favour of those whose patronage bestowed high office at Lake House, SLBC, Rupavahini and ITN on the people who run these organizations. The public will be surprised if this is not the case.
But an opposition cannot take refuge in the malpractices of governments to pass off election failures. They have to prove themselves in the face of such handicaps. The UNP did very well, some say brilliantly, in producing out of its hat Major General (Retd.) Janaka Perera as the candidate for the NCP’s chief ministry. When the green party’s original nominee for the top slot in the Sabaragamuwa PC was hijacked by the government, it came up with an attractive `One Shot’ alternative. The government has put most of its eggs into the war basket and it will not be long before the country knows whether the voters of the two provinces find the omelette tasty. Hopefully there will be no surfeit of violence between now and polling day and Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake will be able to ensure an election that is as far as possible both free and fair.