Listening to the BBC world news broadcast on Thursday night, I heard Sarath Fonseka referred to as ‘the Sri Lankan opposition leader’. Wondering what was going on, I accessed the BBC website which had an even more damaging article datelined Feb. 9 with the title ‘Leaderless Sri Lankan opposition faces uphill task’. The upshot of this article was that the opposition in Sri Lanka was ‘leaderless’ because Sarath Fonseka is in detention. This would be news to most Lankans who always thought their opposition leader was Ranil Wickremesinghe and that Wickremesinghe with over 4.71 million votes in 2005, is still by far the most popular politician in the opposition. Even though this BBC article was ostensibly about the Sri Lankan opposition, it significantly had no reference to Ranil Wickremesinghe. It said "the opposition is now in huge difficulties, with its one recent figurehead incarcerated." Hence in the eyes of the BBC, the Sri Lankan opposition now has no ‘figurehead’.
The BBC is an organization that is familiar with Sri Lanka. It has Sinhala and Tamil Services, the heads of which closely interact with Sri Lanka. As such, they cannot possibly be unaware that in this country, just like in Britain, it’s the leader of the parliamentary opposition who is the leader of the opposition in the country. Had this been a news service from Mexico, we may have been able to overlook references such as the above on the grounds that to them the main opponent of incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a presidential election may well seem to be the ‘leader of the opposition’ even though he may not be the leader of the largest opposition party or be the officially appointed leader of the parliamentary opposition.
The BBC is not really hostile to the UNP or its policies and outlook. In fact, given a choice between the UPFA and the UNP, the BBC will always be on the UNP’s side. If even friendly overseas media organizations have begun to consider both Wickremesinghe and the UNP as write-offs, it’s going to be a major uphill task to bridge that credibility gap. All this while we thought Ranil Wickremsinghe was the leader of the opposition and the undisputed leader of the main opposition party and that Fonseka was only a fall guy brought in temporarily to tide over certain ‘difficulties’; and that once he had served his purpose, he would be unceremoniously dumped and the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe will resume their usual roles. Since the election clearly showed thet Fonseka did not come even close to getting what Wickremesinghe got four years ago, and around a million voters who voted for Wickremesinghe had refused to vote for Fonseka, we thought the return to normalcy would be made much easier. But things may not be that simple.
The BBC has hardly been friendly towards the Rajapaksa regime, and this deliberate attempt to give the impression of a shift in power within the Sri Lankan opposition may be a part of the western encirclement of Sri Lanka. There is no better way to punish a country than to promote a raving madman as opposition leader. If the choice is between a sane but ineffective opposition leader and a mad and even more ineffective opposition leader, and if ineffectiveness is the unavoidable common condition, then the madness factor will clinch the choice to foment the maximum disruption and see to it that Sri Lanka never raises its head in the world. The moral of this story to Ranil Wickremesinghe is that there is always a cost in the decisions one makes. When the leader of the largest opposition party and the leader of the parliamentary opposition goes around the country asking the people to vote for someone else at a presidential election, then that someone else is going to gain some importance. And this importance may not diminish overnight in spite of a resounding defeat.
The Colombo electorate
The BBC is far away, but what is worrisome is that at least a part of the attitude of the BBC may be reflected in the urban electorate here in the Colombo district as well. Nominations closed on Friday and we find Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sarath Fonseka pitted against one another in the Colombo district – both appealing to the opposition vote bank. For their part, the Fonseka camp continues to rate themselves very highly despite the resounding defeat at last month’s presidential election. UNP emissaries who had tried to persuade Fonseka to accept the position of deputy leader of the UNF and to contest on the UNP list, had been told instead to contest under Fonseka! Apparently Fonseka still genuinely believes that he is the duly elected president of Sri Lanka and that victory was denied to him through electoral fraud. Even the ‘fraudulent’ presidential election result is still being quoted by him to show that it was he who raised the UNP’s vote bank from something like 2.6 million at the PC elections to nearly 4.2 even at a ‘rigged’ election.
The JVP-Fonseka alliance will be fielding candidates in other districts as well, but in those districts, they will have to depend on whatever votes the JVP can garner. What would be interesting to watch will be the impact the Fonseka personality will have on the UNP voter of the Colombo district. Virtually every UNPer who saw the way Fonseka conducted himself at close quarters, is glad that he lost. All of them walked away from that sorry misadventure in the firm belief that the complete destruction of the UNP was averted by the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was why there was not a single member of the UNP working committee to suggest that the party should fight the parliamentary election as well under Sarath Fonseka. This realization however is at a certain level in the UNP.
At the ground level, there are still plenty of UNPers who have believed all the balderdash served up by the party to the effect that the opposition actually won the election but has been deprived of office through electoral fraud. There are yet another group of people who feel that the unity of the joint opposition should have been maintained. They feel that the chances of ever defeating the Rajapaksa government are diminished to the extent that the opposition fails to maintain unity. As much as one quarter to one third of the UNP rank and file in the Colombo district may be of this opinion. What the joint opposition strategy did was to blur the vast ideological differences that traditionally separated the UNP and the JVP.
We have seen this happening before. In China, Mao’s guerilla’s stopped fighting the capitalist government of Chiang Kai Shek when the Japanese invaded the country. Traditional enemies were united due to a common enemy. In this case, the common enemy is the Rajapaksa regime. Whether this will motivate the UNP voter to vote outside the UNP at this parliamentary election is yet to be seen. But it has to be said that even though a good part of the traditional UNP electorate would have been put off by Fonseka’s threats and rantings from the public platform, there is an equal number of UNP voters who have been quite taken up by all the hate spewed by Fonseka.
To the increasingly desperate UNP electorate, spouting hate may give them the feeling that they are actually ‘opposing’ the government. It cleanses the system and relieves stress. A new benchmark has been established by Fonseka. All that hate mongering on the public platform and the frenzied cheering by delirious JVP cadres appears to have had a hypnotic effect on the usually staid UNP voter as well. To oppose effectively, one has to hate heartily, seems to be what the UNP electorate has learnt from the last presidential election. It’s only the rational minority that would realize that this hate mongering had a lot to do with their resounding defeat. To the blind and the desperate, what counts is their subjective state of satisfaction and Fonseka’s style of opposing the government was far more satisfying than Wickremesinghe’s way of doing it. So like drug addicts, they may go in search of this satisfying fix at this election as well.
This will be the constituency that the Fonseka camp will be working on for all they are worth. Last Sunday, UNP leader Wickremesinghe himself complained to the leaders of allied parties that Anoma Fonseka had been speaking to UNP organizers direct and inviting them to contest under the trophy symbol. It is quite clear that in this short period of time the Fonsekas, both husband and wife, have adopted a proprietary attitude towards the UNP and its constituency and begun to consider it their own. Those conciliatory noises made by the JVP to the effect that they will continue to work with the UNF to restore democracy after the election is obviously to minimize friction with their target vote base. The target of the JVP is obviously to use the Fonseka factor to win two seats in the Colombo district as they did in 2000 and 2001 contesting separately at the parliamentary elections.
Today the JVP is in serious decline, but due to the Fonseka factor and the sympathy vote, they may be able to repeat their past performance in the Colombo district. If two seats go to the Fonseka/JVP combine, the UNP is going to be in dire straits. There are 19 seats in the district. If the UPFA gets the same percentage of votes (around 52-3%) that they did at the presidential election, (and it will almost certainly be more) they will win 11 seats and get the bonus seat as well. If two seats go to the JVP/Fonseka combine, that will leave only six seats for the UNP. That will leave room only for Wickremesinghe, Ravi K and Rosy Senanayake, one Tamil candidate who will almost certainly be from Mano Ganesan’s group and two Muslim candidates, one of whom will be from the SLMC. The UNP proper will thus be reduced to just four seats in the Colombo district – an unprecedented situation.
The Kandy electorate
As the UNP has become progressively more dependent on the vote of ethnic minorities, they have become more susceptible to the arm twisting of the various minority party allies they work with. At the end of last week it seemed as if the UNP had been able to resist attempts by both Mano Ganesan and Rauff Hakeem to contest from Kandy. But by this week, they had been forced to give in. The arguments had gone back and forth until dawn on Friday morning, when the UNP had surrendered and accepted minority party diktat. The blackmailing and bickering had been such especially with regard to the Kandy district, that last Sunday, UNP leader Wickremesinghe had been forced to say that he could not make a decision on his own and that the Kandy district committee will have to be convened to come to a decision on the matter. Such is the plight of the grand old party today.
The Kandy district organizers met the UNP nominations board on Monday at party headquarters and one of the arguments put forward against Hakeem contesting from Kandy was that there already were two Muslims elected from the Kandy district and that with Hakeem’s entry this may become three and therefore Muslim voters will end up voting only for Muslim candidates and their votes will not go to Sinhalese candidates. Mano Ganesan has already achieved this in the Colombo district by fielding three candidates at the WPC elections, all three of whom won. Thus UNP Tamils vote only for Tamil candidates. UNP Muslims vote only for Muslim candidates. The long term effects of this destructive trend will be unimaginable. It was also pointed out by a Kandy district committee member that if Mano Ganesan comes in, he too will get elected on the Tamil vote. That will enable only one Sinhala MP to be elected from the Kandy district on the UNP list. (When the UNP won the district in 2004, they got six parliamentarians elected, three Muslims, Abdul Cader, Abdul Haleem and Faizer Mustapha and three Sinhalese Keheliya Rambukwella, Tissa Attanayake, and Lakshman Kiriella. This time, since they are going to lose the district, they can't expect more than five seats.)
Since both Kiriella and Tissa Attanayake had to be elected from the Kandy district, the problem was finally solved by getting Attanayake to stand down and come on the national list. After he became general secretary, even Wickremesinghe himself could not get Attanayake to give up his electoral organizership for Kundasale. He clung on to his post in the belief that a politician not elected by the people has no future. Now Rauff Hakeem and Mano Ganesan together were able to displace the general secretary of the UNP and usurp his place in the Kandy district. Where this process will end up is anybody’s guess.
If the two bastions of the UNP, Colombo and Kandy both return mostly minority community members on the UNP list, that will be a blow that the UNP will not recover from and will only re-confirm its position as a minority based party, differing from the TNA and the SLMC only in that it has a figurehead Sinhala leader. That is something that the Sinhala majority is going to find even more infuriating than a bona fide minority party with a minority leadership. Even today, much of the Sinhala electorate sees the UNP as wolves in sheep’s clothing – trying to bamboozle the Sinhala voter with puppets whose strings are pulled from behind the scenes by foreign or minority community puppeteers.
At the central provincial council elections held last year, S.B.Dissanayake was able to garner a 38% vote for the UNP because according to his own calculations, 70% of the Tamils and 60% of the Muslims in the Kandy district had voted for the UNP, whereas only about 30% of the Sinhala voters had voted for the UNP. For the minority parties, the Kandy district has been a hitherto untapped resource, especially where the Tamils are concerned. This is why Ganesan was so keen on contesting from Kandy. He knows that in the Colombo district only one Tamil candidate on the UNP list has a clear chance of winning. Because he managed to get three of his candidates elected at the last provincial council elections, Genesan is virtually certain of getting one of his candidates elected to parliament from the Colombo district. Hence he has shifted to the Kandy district to capture new territory. What is in effect happening here is that the UNP is slowly but surely losing its Tamil and Muslim base to outsiders and they can do nothing but watch helplessly.
The opposition Mahanayake
The Nuwara Eliya district can return only four Tamil MPs. In the past it was always three from the CWC (regardless of whether they contested with the UNP or the SLFP) and P.Chandrasekeran. Now that Chandrasekeran is no more, a vacancy for a new Tamil parliamentarian from Nuwara Eliya has opened up and the man best placed to replace Chandrasekeran is A. Digambaram. Even though the UNP won the Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya electorate at the last provincial council elections and the entire district at the presidential elections, it is unlikely that they will do so at this parliamentary election with Arumugam Thondaman and the heavy weights of the CWC contesting with the UPFA. They have contested before under the PA in the year 2000 - and all three of the CWC candidates have been returned albeit with significantly reduced preference votes than when they contested under the elephant symbol.
A last minute turn of events in the nominations drama in the UNP was the inclusion of a newcomer, Susil Kindelpitiya, the news editor of Sirasa TV. I first heard that Susil Kindelpitiya was going to be fielded from Kolonnawa at a gathering of media men at the Galle Face hotel. Kodituwakku has not been removed from the position of Kolonnawa organizer, but Kindelpitiya has been included in the list nevertheless. Kodituwakku is one of the last remaining UNP seniors from among those who rose to prominence after 1977. At a time like this when the UNP is in dire straits, the steadying hand of seniors is vital. At this election the UNP will be falling back on their traditional block vote and nothing else, and long term UNP loyalists may have been motivated to vote for the last remaining party senior (other than Ranil Wickremesinghe himself) in the Colombo district. Besides, Kodituwakku had been elected to parliament three times and had been a parliamentarian for an unbroken ten years and thereafter was the UNP organizer for Kolonnawa since his defeat in 2004. The UNP actually won the Kolonnawa electorate at the 2005 presidential election. So even though the going may be very tough, he has at least a fighting chance – it all depends on the instinct for self preservation of the traditional UNP voter. But in the present circumstances, a complete newcomer like Kindelpitiya has only a snow flake’s chance in hell. Hence including him in the list to make things difficult for Kodituwakku in Kolonnawa was hardly a wise move.
The congress of monks which was to have been held in Kandy under the patronage of the Ven Mahanayakes of the three nikayas was put off, but the underlying dispute has not been settled. Last week, a delegation of the JHU led by the senior monk Ven Ellawela Medhananda, who is also a very senior Siyam Nikaya monk, had gone to see the Malwatte Mahanayake. But the latter had dodged the meeting saying that he was indisposed. But he had met Anoma Fonseka, Somawansa Amarasinghe and Anura Kumara Dissnayake. The Malwatte Mahanayake is now the willing tool of the opposition. There are three issues that the Malwatte Mahanayake has with the president. But none of them are of a magnitude that warrants the kind of disruption that the venerable monk seems to be willing to make. This is what most other monks find so perplexing. The Fonseka attitude seems to be spreading like a contagion.