Muzammil’s ChallengeAugust 27, 2011, 6:33 pm
A.J.M.Muzammil finally made it, being nominated as UNP mayoral candidate for the Colombo Municipal Council. Usually being nominated for the Colombo mayoralty by the UNP is equal to actually getting the post – so strong has the UNP’s hold on the Colombo city been since 1956 when V.A.Sugathadasa became UNP mayor of Colombo establishing a hegemony that has lasted over half a century. What is important about Muza’s candidature is that this is the first time in 15 years that a Colombo politician from the UNP is contesting for the post. Ever since Ranil Wickremesinghe became the leader of the UNP he has been fielding non-politicians for the position of Colombo Mayor and to make it worse, all of them were transients who served one term and was seen no more by the loyal UNP voters of Colombo city.
First it was Karu Jayasuriya a one time business magnate who did not even complete his term before he was pushed upstairs into the provincial council and packed off to the Gampaha district, never to serve the people of Colombo again. Then it was an architect Prasanna Gunawardene who served his full term and disappeared. Finally it was another professional - a trishaw driver who won with UNP votes even though he was not nominated by that party. The long and short of all this was that the voters of Colombo city were the most abused and neglected section of the voting public in the country. They were always expected to make the UNP candidate win, but got nothing in return. The successive UNP candidates, not being politicians, were not as sensitive as they should have been to the needs of the underclass who constitute the main base of the UNP in the Colombo city.
A politician at last!
What is significant about Muza’s nomination is that he is a politician and also one with his main base in the Colombo city and he can’t leave the city and shift elsewhere even if he wants to. At least now the abused, exploited and neglected UNP voters of Colombo will have a Colombo based politician to look after their interests. That is by far the most important consideration in his nomination as mayoral candidate. Then of course there is also the question of Muslim representation in the UNP. The Muslims of Colombo and the western province in general have always been one of the mainstays of the UNP. And the western province Muslims never abandoned the UNP despite the rise of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in the east. In the east, the Muslims abandoned the UNP en masse and joined the SLMC.
At the 2010 parliamentary elections, in an unprecedented turn of events, not a single Muslim was elected to parliament on the UNP list and thus, the western province UNP Muslims were left with no representation at all. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who is not usually sensitive to such matters did not appoint a Colombo Muslim on the national list either and thus the Colombo UNP Muslim voters ended up also being neglected and exploited. They were expected to vote for the UNP en masse, but without the party doing anything to deserve that support. Nominating Muza has stemmed that slide and probably given the Muslim community in Colombo the feeling that they are still wanted by the UNP. The fact that Muza got the mayoral candidacy is no less than a miracle in itself. By the last weekend, all indications were that the UNP leader would adopt the usual wishy washy policy and hold the election without designating a mayoral candidate. The former Colombo Central parliamentarian Mohamed Maharoof was also eying the position and to avoid trouble, everybody expected him to play it safe and not nominate a mayoral candidate.
When the jockying got too hot even President Premadasa resorted to the expedient of leaving the mayoral candidacy open in 1991. This time however RW has taken a more courageous decision than was expected of him. However, it must be said that Muza may not find things as easy as his predecessors did. His predecessors were able to take victory for granted, but over the past many years, serious erosion of the UNP base has taken place in Colombo. Young politicians like Duminda Silva who had chosen the Colombo underclass as his constituency, has moved out of the UNP as has Thilanga Sumathipala who had also been eying the Borella electorate for a long time. Colombo Muslim politicians like Mohamed Maharoof, and Azath Sally have moved out of the UNP. These defections will erode the UNP base at least marginally.
Then there is the candidate fielded by the UPFA Milinda Moragoda, who because of his grandfather N.U.Jayawardena, is seen as a standard bearer of the Durava caste which is quite strong in Colombo. The Durava caste which is one of the best organized of all caste groups even had caste get-togethers at the BMICH attended by caste members from both sides of the political divide and it has to be assumed that the entire caste will unite to see one of their own leading Colombo. Then there is the fact that the Karava and Salagama castes which are also powerful in Colombo would like to see someone from a fraternal caste at the top. Besides this, Moragoda is also an acceptable figure to most Tamils in Colombo, being as he is a ‘peace talks’ man and one of the principal backers of the ceasefire agreement. Then again, there is the fact that the Colombo Muslims have also figured prominently in Moragoda’s election campaigns in Colombo with he and Maharoof campaigning together.
What all that means is that Muza will have a fight on his hands. The fact that the SLMC is contesting separately in Colombo also hits at the root of Muza’s campaign. The SLMC would like to destroy the UNP base among Muslims completely so that they would be able to have influence in the Colombo district as well. It is obviously with the aim of destroying the UNP base among Muslims in Colombo Galle and Kandy that the SLMC is contesting separately in those LG institutions. One of the biggest problems that Muza is facing is the fact that a furious and resentful Mano Ganesan is contesting separately for the CMC. Ganesan’s party has always had a base in Colombo and even in the 2006 LG election he won four seats on the council contesting separately. His popularity among Colombo Tamils went up after 2006, and he may get more this time. Besides, some TNA parliamentarians have pledged to support him. Suresh Premachandran has pledged his support, then Vino Noharathalingam has already published a statement in support of Ganesan. What is more, Ganesan is contesting himself. Muza had tried to plead with Ganesan not to contest separately, but Ganesan had not been in a mood to listen. His party was not given the UNP national list seat it was promised and he is not willing to forgive that. He says that he will be contesting against the UNP and informing all Tamils that the UNP is just using and discarding the Tamils. The point that the present columnist made when the UNP national list was announced last year was that Mano Ganesan was a man who had always won a parliamentary seat in Colombo since 2001. Even now his party has a seat which is held by Prabha Ganesan. (Who has defected to the other side.)
What Muza has got is a UNP base that has been seriously undermined by defections and he has the fight of his life on his hands. If the UNP loses the CMC, that will have catastrophic consequences for the UNP and Sri Lanka will end up as a one party state. So Muza will have to show a lively leg there. The Colombo city has not always been monopolized by the UNP. While it is true that the CMC has remained UNP since 1956, before 1977, the left parties also had a base in Colombo. Kusala Abeywardene of the LSSP won the Borella seat in 1970 and Pieter Keunaman was and MP for Colombo Central. Even Bernard Soysa was based in Colombo city. What this means is that things could go the other way again and given the erosion that has taken place during the past five years, nothing is absolutely certain in Colombo any more.
Be that as it may, this leg of the LG elections is being held in areas traditionally favourable to the UNP. Of the 23 LG institutions that will be going to the polls on 8 October, no less than 17 are Municipal Councils, with one Urban Council and five pradesheeya sabhas. The urban vote has traditionally gone to the UNP, and the UNP can be expected to fare much better at this leg election than they have at any election since 2001/2002. They should be able to win at least the flagship municipalities of Colombo, Kandy and Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia. If the UNP wins just these three and achieves a good percentage in the others, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s hold on the party will be strengthened and no leadership challenges will be possible at least until the next round of provincial council elections in three to four years time.
But if he loses any of the flagship institutions, there’ll be fireworks. It does not augur well that RW has chosen Neranjan Wijeratne the former diyawadana nilame as the mayoral candidate for Kandy. Wijeratne could not win himself a seat even on the provincial council, and it does not augur well for someone who has failed to win a provincial council seat to be fielded as the mayoral candidate. If however he contested the Kandy municipality without being designated as the mayoral candidate and in free competition with the others he got the highest number of preference votes, appointing him mayor in such circumstances would have been above board.
RW’s men under seige
Right now, it looks as if Wickremesinghe is imposing his loyalists on the electorate, expecting the voter to endorse his favourites. The UNP had made the decision that anybody who contests the parliamentary election will not be appointed on the national list if they lose. But what Wickremesinghe has now done in Kandy is something very similar – a PC candidate who failed to get into the Central provincial council has been given the Kandy mayoralty on a platter. Wickremesinghe should be mindful of the fact that what gave Karu Jayasuriya the courage to rise up against him for the umpteenth time were the reports he was getting from all over the country on election day at the last leg of the LG elections, that UNP voters were not going to the polling booth. There are more UNP voters in the urban areas than in the rural areas. What if significant numbers of urban UNP voters also keep away at this election too? Even more significantly, what will happen if UNP voters fail to endorse a Wickremesinghe selection as Mayoral candidate?
An interesting sideshow that is going on in the provinces are the rebellions faced by UNP provincial council opposition leaders - the most embattled being Kasthuri Anuradhanayake of the North Central provincial council. Anuradhanayake became the opposition leader of the NCPC after the assassination of Janaka Perera. He was appointed to that position by RW as he had got the third highest preference votes on the UNP list and both those above him had died in the bomb blast. However, from the beginning a group of UNP provincial councilors had wanted the fourth on the list, Anil Ratnayake appointed opposition leader on the basis that he was a senior man who had served on the PC for twenty years and had the experience necessary for the job.
But Anuradhanayake was an RW loyalist and he retained his job. Anuradhanayake was in fact one of those who spoke in Wickremesinghe’s favour at the last working committee. Last week the move to have him ousted intensified with 10 of the12 UNP provincial council members in the NCPC signing a letter asking for his removal from the position of opposition leader. According to the rules of procedure of the NCPC, the chairman of the council should appoint an opposition leader after ascertaining the wishes of the majority of the opposition members. The Chairman of the NCPC has accepted the letter submitted by the ten UNP members and Anuradhanayake’s career is on the line.
The grouse that the other members have is that Anuradhanayake has not had a group meeting as yet. He asks no questions in the council and does not even attend party leaders’ meetings with the chairman and sends someone else instead. NCPC member Rohana Gamage told the present writer that while some people say that this is a case of Sajith supporters working to oust an RW supporter, that this struggle to change the opposition leader had been going on for the past three years, before there was any Sajith group and that on two previous occasions RW had appointed his famous committees to solve the matter, but no solution had been arrived at. In fact in a 40 point charge sheet sent to the party headquarters about him, the first charge was that Anuradhanayake did not have the capacity to lead the provincial council group.
Back to the courts
One of the questions now faced by the UNP reformist group is where they go from here. It seems they have exhausted all possibilities, played all their cards. And now, if the UNP manages to win at least the flagship LG institutions that are up for elections this time, there is the danger that RW will become even more entrenched. The only alternative that the reformists have now is the court case filed by Maithri Gunaratne. The Mt Lavinia civil high courts will hear the case on the 16 September to ascertain whether the case should be allowed to proceed in the district courts in Nugegoda. Perhaps in the long run, this may be the only recourse available to the reformists.
In fact it may have been better for the reformists to concentrate on this dull and long drawn out strategy instead of going for an exhilarating but very short lived strategy of promoting Karu Jayasuriya as an alternative leader. That failed and now nobody seems to know what to do. May be the way to go is to concentrate on court action, as this is one area where all the arguments are in favour of the reformists. The mere fact that the RW faction was so keen to avoid a trial, should be an indication that they are on the backfoot. They managed to obtain a temporary stay order from the Mt Lavinia high courts because the RW faction’s main argument had been that just one individual is trying to hold the UNP to ransom, and the high courts had taken serious cognizance of that.
The president himself announced the government’s decision to lift the emergency last week, and the USA and Britain welcomed it even before the UNP and JVP did! One would have thought that the USA and Britain which have both just emerged panting and palpitating from unprecedented national crises, would be too busy to notice that the state of emergency in Sri Lanka has been lifted. But not so, They seem to be watching Sri Lanka 24 hours a day, seven days a week and their response time to developments here is shorter than that of the local opposition. What can be more galling than to have something that is so closely bound up with sovereignty as emergency provisions, either approved or disapproved by some foreign country? Last week’s announcement by Britain and the USA that they approve of the lifting of the emergency is not taken by this columnist as a sign that international pressure on Sri Lanka is easing.
Talking to the deaf
Rather it is an insult to our very notion of nationhood. The sovereignty of this nation is something that every government has tried to protect, each in its own way. The present government should take as an example the UNP governments of J.R.Jayewardene and R.Premadasa after 1977 in this regard. The pressures coming from outside were doggedly resisted and Sri Lanka prevailed in the end. When power was handed over by the UNP to the PA in 1994, nobody could say that the sovereignty of this nation was in any way impaired despite all that had happened in the past. And so it should be when one day, this government has to bow out.
We are now confronted with a period of intense foreign intervention and the present government should not have any qualms about doing what it takes to ensure that the sovereignty of this nation is protected. They in fact have an advantage that the old UNP government did not possess – an emerging power bloc in the form of China and Russia which is willing to support us. Even if the present government has to sell Trincomalee to the Indians, give Hambantota to the Chinese and bring the Russians into Colombo, they should do it without any hesitation. Remember that it is much the same powers that ultimately helped the pro-western and pro-capitalist UNP when the west turned their backs on them.
Prof G.L.Peiris probably has the most unenviable task that any foreign minister has had in this country. Even A.C.S.Hameed did not have the same problems at the height of Indian intervention in the 1980s. GLP is talking to the deaf! He has been trying to explain matters to the western diplomatic community in Colombo, at every available opportunity. At the release of the defence ministry’s factual analysis of the humanitarian operation, he was telling the poker faced western diplomats present that a clear line of demarcation should be established between politics and a genuine concern for human rights and that we should know where political agendas ended and actual concern for human rights began.
Rear Admiral Jayantha Perera of the navy was in the USA on a training course when the war ended. Soon afterwards, they had got the opportunity to meet Robert Blake and Richard Boucher of the State Department and one of the questions that Perera had asked Boucher is why the USA has one policy for Sri Lanka and another for Iraq and Afghanistan. Boucher’s cryptic and evasive reply to that had been "That’s all politics." So it is politics! Another matter that GLP stressed at the launch of the factual analysis of the defence ministry is that most of these things that the west wanted Sri Lanka to do were things that the government itself wanted to do and that there is nobody more concerned about the wellbeing of the people than the government of Sri Lanka, and that there is no need to have anybody breathing down our necks over the same matters.
Later, at another speech delivered at the Kotelawala Defence Academy, GLP had to stress that Sri Lanka’s problems cannot be solved by external intervention and that while assistance from outside is needed, it is the elected government of Sri Lanka that should be in the driving seat. Foreign countries cannot come in with the intention of putting things right instantly and then moving out. He had even made an ominous warning. It is easy to come in but difficult to move out. Once they come in, what are the limits of that intervention? They get embroiled in internecine conflict, and they support one group against the other. Would even regime change guarantee finality and stability, or would it raise additional problems?
In apparent desperation at the obtuseness that he was faced with, GLP had then even reminded the western diplomats about their own vulnerabilities and their lack of financial resources to back their foreign policy initiatives, and whether the people in their home countries who were unemployed and spending winters without heating would be pleased at their governments making Sri Lanka a priority while their own societies fell apart? But after all this was said, the fact that the USA and Britain welcomed the lifting of the emergency in Sri Lanka shows that nothing of what GLP said has sunk in!
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Last Updated May 21 2013 | 06:02 pm