Has Mervyn stopped being Mervyn? This is the question we raised in a headline yesterday for a news item on Minister Mervyn Silva's 'unbelievable change'. This swashbuckling hero walked into a rival's party office uninvited the other day and shook him by the hand––instead of the neck––and promised to conduct a violence free election campaign! The Opposition politician must have pinched himself hard in a bid to wake up, thinking that it was a dream.
One may argue that the much publicised vow the ruling party politicians took in Anuradhapura on Saturday to desist from political violence is beginning to have the desired impact on them. But, we believe that Mervyn's sudden change may be ascribed to something else.
The government is confident of winning the upcoming general election. President Rajapaksa's spectacular victory at last month’s presidential polls is still fresh and the Opposition is divided, demoralised and debilitated. United it tried to ensure Gen. Sarath Fonseka's victory a month ago but today divided it is trying to stand! Instead of asking for a mandate to rule the country, the UNP is all out to prevent the government from obtaining a two-thirds majority! So, the UPFA candidates do not seem to consider the UNP and the JVP formidable political threats. Hence, their unbelievable change!
However, the ruling party contestants are jousting with one another for preferential votes. We are very likely to witness fierce intra party clashes in the government camp in the next few weeks. On Friday, thugs of a minister smashed a party office of Wimal Weerawansa's National Freedom Front (NFF) in Walapane, injuring some of his supporters. The attack may have occurred before Saturday's pledge in Anuradhapura but it did come after President Rajapaksa showered praise on Weerawansa and hugged him at a launch of the latter's book last week. Whoever ordered Friday's attack on the NFF office could not have missed the presidential bear hug repeatedly telecast on the State controlled TV. If even President's favourites are not spared in the manape (preferential vote) war, the plight of lesser minions in the fray goes without saying.
The Opposition also has its members going for each other's jugular over manape. It was only last Friday that the name of one of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s nominees was deleted from the UNP’s Moneragala District nominations list. The UNP leader is reportedly simmering with resentment over that high-handed act committed by a provincial leader but he chose to take it lying down, unable to take up the unauthorised alteration to the nominations list for fear of its rejection on legal grounds.
The UPFA's decision to behave during the election campaign may also have to do with its long term plan. It is striving for a two-thirds majority to introduce a new Constitution. Although it is confident of victory, even its best projected results have fallen short of that target. Obviously, it is planning to engineer some crossovers to muster the required numbers to achieve its goal. Minister Rajitha Senaratne bragged the other day that he was already in touch with some UNP candidates, who had promised to switch allegiance to the UPFA after their election. Such claims should be taken with a pinch of salt but reflected in them is the UPFA's desire to win over some Opposition MPs after April 08.
So, it may be argued that the need for reaching out to UNP MPs in the next Parliament has caused the ruling party politicians to act with some restraint for the time being.
But, old habits die hard, they say. How the UPFA worthies will behave towards the Opposition, if the latter's campaign gains momentum remains to be seen. In such an eventuality, UNP politicians are likely to be shaken not by the hand but by the neck!