UPFA victory marred by scuffle for preferential vote

The re-poll in Nawalapitiya is the first such exercise ordered by the Election Secretariat due to intra-party disputes leading to the disruption of a national election. The battle for preferential votes in many districts caused animosity among former UPFA ministers, who publicly denounced each other as they jostled for commanding positions.

The campaign for the Nawalapitiya re-poll, which is scheduled for tomorrow (April 20), has sharply divided the ruling coalition, with several leading UPFA candidates targeting former non-cabinet Power Minister, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, widely accused of causing mayhem at a section of the polling booths in his home base, Nawalapitiya, at the April 8 general election.

Denying the allegations, Aluthgamage alleged that the UNP, JVP, and those who had switched their allegiance to the SLFP from the UNP, deceived Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake. He said that there was absolutely no need for a re-poll at Nawalapitiya, a claim rejected by an irate S.B. Dissanayake, who called a press conference at Gelioya, Peradeniya, where he publicly denounced Aluthgamage. Dissanayake went on to say that the UPFA could win as many as 143 or 144 seats at the election, but focused on the simmering dispute with the Nawalapitiya chief SLFP organizer.

Political sources said that since the Elections Secretariat called a re-poll at Nawalapitiya, UPFA candidates stepped up verbal attacks on their colleagues, leaving the UNP-led United National Front and the JVP-led Democratic National Alliance to campaign relatively free of violence, though several vehicles carrying supporters of Western People’s Front leader, Mano Ganeshan, came under attack in Nawalapitiya last Friday (April 16)

Although the SLFP-led ruling coalition achieved an extraordinary victory at the April 8 general election, the battle for the preferential vote, among heavyweights in several districts, has caused irreparable damage. The districts severely affected by clashes among leading candidates, mostly SLFPers and UNP dissidents, who took SLFP membership in the run-up to the parliamentary election, were Anuradhapura, Matale, Kalutara, Mahanuwara and Ratnapura.

Party sources acknowledged that the intra-party clashes were the worst ever since the introduction of the proportional representation by JRJ, way back in 1978. Sources said the UPFA could have fared even better if candidates avoided damaging fights among various district groups.

Sources said the worst-affected was the Mahanurawa electoral district, where Aluthgamage took on Keheliya Rambukwella, S. B. Dissanayake and Dr. Sarath Amunugama, in his quest for the preferential vote.

A UNP spokesman told The Island that the government should be ashamed that it had to deploy a large security contingent, including elite police commandos, to prevent clashes among UPFA candidates. "Don’t forget that the Opposition is not in any way involved in this," he said. The UNP official pointed out that supporters of another UPFA candidate had caused mayhem at a polling booth in the Trincomalee polling division, which prompted the Elections Secretariat to order a re-poll, also on April 20. He said President Rajapaksa, UPFA General Secretary Susil Premjayantha, and SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, in the run-up to the poll, had warned that trouble-makers would not receive ministerial portfolios.

When The Island raised this issue with Minister Premjayantha at a recent media briefing at the Mahaweli centre, Minister Premjayantha declined to comment on disciplinary action as it could have an effect on candidates allegedly involved in incidents at Kumburupiddy, Trincomalee and Nawalapitiya.

SLFP sources said the intra-party clashes among party seniors would definitely divide members of the Provincial Councils and Local Government Authorities.

The Election Secretariat delayed final results of both Trincomalee and Mahanuwara districts pending re-polling at one and 34 polling booths, respectively.

Sources said Aluthgamage was likely to receive the lion’s share of the preferential vote in Nawalapitiya despite being criticized by his former ministerial colleagues. Sources said that this could cause trouble to Dr. Sarath Amunugama, who according to the number of preferential votes obtained so far, was holding on the seventh place among UPFA candidates, closely followed by Faizer Mustapha.

The UPFA expects seven out of 12 seats from Kandy. Sources said Aluthgamage’s camp was campaigning aggressively causing anxiety among rivals. Although both Rambukwella and Dissanayake were now certain of being among the winners, Dr. Amunugama and Faizer may face a tough contest, sources said.

Had the SLFP leadership intervened to stop some candidates from calling media briefings, the party could have at least controlled the situation, sources said. A senior party official privately acknowledged that former ministers had acted on their own, though they knew the party opposed public criticism of members. He said a section of the privately owned media, particularly television stations, had aggravated the situation.

The Campaign for Free and Fair Election has urged voters in Nawalapitiya to reject those who spearheaded violence in the run-up to the April 8 poll, the day of the election, and now in the run-up to the re-poll. CaFFE spokesman, Keerthi Tennakoon, alleged that a group of Pradeshiya Sabha members had been involved in a violent campaign. He emphasized that the deployment of a heavy security contingent had not prevented an attack on a convoy carrying opposition activists last Friday.

In Matale, a bruising battle between district leader former minister, Janaka Bandara Tennakoon, and a newcomer to politics, Lakshman Wasantha Perera, is causing concern among the SLFPers. Perera polled 65,077 preferential votes against Tennakoon’s 47,133 at the general election, though the latter wielded immense political clout in Matale. Sources told The Island that Perera, an influential businessman close to the powers that be, was expected to go ahead with his agenda regardless of opposition. Tennakoon has gone to the extent of issuing press releases through his former ministry targeting his opponent.

Kalutara district, too, is in turmoil with former Nations Building Minister, Rohitha Abeygunawardene taking on former ministers, Kumara Welgama and Dr. Rajitha Senaratne. Both Welgama and Senaratne hit back hard at their colleague, after his supporters stormed Maggona, Kapugoda, where villages were beaten up for not backing him at the general election. Sources said Welgama and Senaratne would continue to push for disciplinary action against Abeygunawardena, who accused his erstwhile associates of leading an attack on his residence. Responding to Abeygunawardene’a claim, Dr. Senaratne told Sirasa that the accuser was a ‘big liar’.

Anuradhapura, too, experienced poll violence as SLFP heavyweights fought for preferential votes. The police struggled to cope with the situation due to heavy political pressure on law enforcement authorities to turn a blind eye to UPFA gangs. Sources said that in the absence of an expected challenge from the Opposition, UPFA candidates went after their colleagues. Had there been an Opposition threat, the situation would have been different, sources said.

Former ministers, John Seneviratne and Pavitra Wanniarachchi, accused each other of attacks in the run-up to the election, prompting President Rajapaksa to publicly refer to their dispute at a propaganda rally held in support of UPFA candidates contesting from Ratnapura.

Although the Digamadulla electorate has been relatively peaceful, there were some incidents involving supporters of UPFA candidates.

Although there had not been any clashes among UPFA candidates in Colombo, some of the losers claimed that there were serious malpractices at the main counting centre in Colombo, a charge denied by former minister Premjayantha. A section of the press has alleged that Premjayantha may have benefited from malpractices. Responding to criticism, Premjayantha told a recent media conference that there had not been any irregularity at the counting centre. Turning towards former ministers, Dinesh Gunawardene and Champika Ranawaka, who were at the head table, an angry Premjayantha emphasized that the counting of preferential votes took place in an orderly manner.

Other sources said the son of a former minister, too, had been seen at the counting centre, though he had absolutely no right to be there. Sources alleged that some candidates had manipulated the system to their advantage. Sources said the counting process should be transparent and candidates should not be allowed to flex their muscles at the counting centre.

The UNP, too, experienced trouble over the preferential vote, which ultimately led to an attack on newly-elected Puttalam district MP Palitha Range Bandara. In Matara, former Southern Provincial Council Opposition Leader Buddhika Pathirana survived an organized campaign to undermine him and deprive him of the top spot among successful candidates in the Matara district.

In Gampaha, UNP veterans Karu Jayasuriya, John Amaratunga and Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena lost to newcomers Ruwan Wijewardena and Upeksha Swarnamali, who had not even played a main role in a movie, though being called a mega star. Swarnamali, who supported defeated presidential election candidate, Gen. (retd) Sarath Fonseka at the January 26 poll, switched her allegiance to the UNP at the parliamentary election. Gampaha district UNP leader veteran politician Sarathchandra Rajakaruna, failed in his re-election bid, while the JVP/DNA had to be satisfied with one elected representative, Vijitha Herath.

At the early stage of the UPFA campaign, the SLFP targeted some National Freedom Front candidates, though they were let alone once SLFP heavyweights felt that the NFF did not pose a threat.

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