High stakesUva-Wellassa, the ‘land of one hundred thousand paddy fields,’ will go to the polls to elect its provincial representatives for the sixth time about six weeks from now. The border between Sri Lanka’s beautiful central hills region and its dry zone runs through the Uva Province, making the two districts it is home to as different as night and day.

It was long-ordained that the Uva Provincial Council election would be an important forerunner to a much bigger electoral contest scheduled for early 2015. Staggered provincial and local government polls have been the preference of the Rajapaksa Administration since it assumed office. Until the year 2004, all nine provincial elections were held on the same date. This has always been the more cost effective, administratively efficient way, yet the staggered elections offer other, more important advantages, especially for the ruling coalition.

Staggered elections allow the Government to focus its considerable resources in the targeted regions, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is inevitably the face of each UPFA campaign has considerable time to thoroughly work a campaign trail. Lately, under the Government’s ‘mega development’ drive, large infrastructure projects are fast-tracked or at the very least their openings strategically timed to maximise the UPFA’s advantage ahead of a provincial election.

In the nine years of Rajapaksa reign, Uva-Wellassa has remained one of the poorest regions in the country, with the exception of the embattled north and east. Human Development Indicators in Badulla are particularly poor. Large plantation communities in the hill district living in poor conditions on paltry wages have contributed to these ratings.
For decades, the most rural and remote villages of Moneragala and Siyambalanduwa most closely resembled the remotest corners of the Northern Province, their untouched quality mixing with abject poverty and inaccessibility. Accessibility has improved by leaps and bounds in virtually every province in the country, as a consequence of the Government’s pet roadways projects. But Uva-Wellassa remains a vulnerable region, with high poverty rates that are ripe for political exploitation and vote-buying through handouts and election promises.

The Moneragala advantage

Historically, the Moneragala District in particular has been a good performer for the UPFA and President Rajapaksa. In the 2011 local council elections in Uva, the ruling coalition polled just over 80% in Moneragala and managed 71% in Siyambalanduwa. It did less well in Badulla, a district with large minority communities, polling 63% to win the Badulla Municipal Council with 10 seats. In the 2010 presidential election, President Rajapaksa polled nearly 70% in the Moneragala District, while the result in the Badulla District was a much better reflection of the nation-wide vote with 53%. In the final all island result, President Rajapaksa polled 57%, beating his main opponent and former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka by 17 percentage points to clinch a second term.

In light of these figures, the reallocation of seats for the Uva Provincial Council, by reducing the number of elected representatives from the Badulla District, and increasing the number in Moneragala based on land mass, makes perfect political sense. The ruling alliance will have to optimise its advantage in the Moneragala District, which it should carry comfortably in the 20 September election, in order to ensure it can hold the Uva PC with a decent majority. The reallocation, technically performed by the jovial Elections Chief Mahinda Deshapriya, had one major disadvantage. It exposed the Rajapaksa regime’s vulnerability in Badulla early into this election season. It is an important weakness, one that the Administration will have to factor in repeatedly as it contemplates its presidential election fortunes in 2015.

Where large minority populations exist, even in areas of the ‘south,’ President Rajapaksa will be electorally vulnerable. In each of these regions, the Government will need a counter-strategy to mitigate those potential losses. In a fair presidential contest, it is practically a foregone conclusion that the Rajapaksa administration will lose vast swathes of the north and east. The Tamil population will vote adamantly against the President and in favour of the TNA candidate. The regime’s systematic alienation of the Muslim population across the island will harden positions in large Muslim settlements in the east, ensuring those votes too, go to an Opposition candidate.

In the south, therefore, the UPFA will have its work cut out trying to bridge those losses with increased support in regions where Sinhalese voters are in the majority. Already, the Western and Southern polls have indicated that the Government’s support base is finally in decline, even if no single Opposition party or entity has been able to capitalise effectively on that fall in electoral terms. Uva, with its Moneragala District that strongly favours the Rajapaksa Administration, will therefore prove another important test.

Redefining ‘victory’

This is where the Opposition advantage lies, strategists in that camp believe, as many Opposition parties look ahead to 2015 and the prospect of a common platform on which to face off against the Rajapaksa juggernaut. To pull off a victory in the Province, especially for the main Opposition UNP contesting as a single entity, will prove an uphill battle. The Opposition will therefore seek to use numbers to ‘redefine’ the terms of victory. Contesting separately for a share of the votes in Moneragala and Badulla, the Opposition parties will strive rather to break UPFA votes, erode the Government’s popular support and reduce its majority in the council. Any reduction in UPFA support will inflict damage upon the regime’s psyche, especially with a Rajapaksa family member contesting for the provincial top slot.
In these very early days, the Opposition appears to have gained early momentum. The Government has made fatal errors in the recent past that will most certainly impact their electoral fortunes. Smaller Opposition parties like the JVP and the Sarath Fonseka-led Democratic Party are displaying a willingness to be scathingly critical of the regime in general and the ruling dynasty in particular. And the UNP played offensive for the first time in years, very early into the Uva campaign, by choosing to field one of its most popular young Parliamentarians as its chief ministerial hopeful in the Province.

Harin Fernando, the 36-year-old MP hailing from the Badulla District, resigned from Parliament this week to lead the UNP’s Uva election campaign. Fernando is a largely-untested politician, with significant support in the Badulla District and a crucial ability to connect in language and idiom with a rural electorate. Thus far the UNP has contested successive provincial elections by pitting largely-unknown faces against a UPFA campaign run essentially by President Rajapaksa.

The UPFA campaign at every provincial election has been quintessentially national, with the President running the show. Against the might of his popularity and charm, the UNP has been woefully lacking in ‘star power’ candidates that can also connect on the national level. Every attempt to convince UNP Parliamentarians to quit and take a gamble in the provinces has proved an abysmal failure so far. Perhaps Fernando’s youth allowed him to take that risk, despite initial hesitation and the high stakes involved, but his entry has already breathed life into the UNP’s Uva campaign.
Outside Parliament on Tuesday, Fernando’s arrival to tender his resignation to the Secretary General of Parliament was heralded by large jubilant crowds. Like a conquering hero, the young MP was garlanded and carried upon the shoulders of his supporters. It was energy rarely seen on the streets during UNP events and a good omen for the main Opposition party, which has had serious problems energising its base after a string of election defeats since 2004.

Self-styled heir

UNP MP Sajith Premadasa, the self-styled heir apparent to the Party Leadership, proved himself unequal to the same task only five months ago. Bristling with arrogance when he was thrown a challenge to lead the UNP Southern Provincial election campaign as its Chief Minister candidate, Premadasa claimed that the people wanted him to be ‘president and not chief minister’. Shortly before Fernando rose to present his resignation speech in Parliament on Tuesday, Premadasa left the chamber. Premadasa-friendly media outfits have already commenced a campaign against Fernando. UNP insiders are fearful that Premadasa will stay on the sidelines of the Uva campaign, fuelling fears among the party rank and file that the main Opposition remains divided and in disarray.

For all his claims to the UNP leadership, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son has never been tested and most unlike his father, he is no political risk-taker. Premadasa Jr., who has been relegated to the sidelines of the UNP once more, since he refused a seat on the Leadership Council last year, seeks the leadership of his party by default. Younger contenders like Harin Fernando are already proving they are ready to fight for it. Despite his lack of presidential parentage and his untested quality then, Fernando is already proving, in every way, to be the better man.

Even if he loses this battle for the chief ministership, he would have fought and lost against a Rajapaksa family member, and the UNP will hope the defeat comes after a good fight and at the expense of ruling family popularity. Notwithstanding the result, therefore, Fernando has already won something by showing himself to be a politician willing to make personal sacrifices to give his party a fighting chance.

Ranasinghe Premadasa showed this same quality for many years, least cherished by his party leader who favoured the ‘Oxbridge’ educated Athulathmudali-Dissanayake duo, always on the sidelines, never considered a future leader of the elitist Uncle-Nephew party. President Premadasa’s success was his unshakable loyalty to the UNP, even when the leadership was aligned against him, which cemented his credentials in later years as an out-and-out party man.
Fernando is not beloved of the UNP leadership, which may not necessarily believe him to be the future of the party. Enough members of the UNP remain sceptical of his ability and loyalty. Yet he has answered many critics with this move, and if he puts up a serious fight in Uva, Fernando would have earned the right to be considered as a credible member of the UNP’s second tier leadership, knocking even the likes of Premadasa out of the running.

Harin Fernando has a great deal to prove. He has already shown the hunger and political drive to do so. Automatically, party seniors feel, this propels him to the top of emerging UNP leaders. Concerns remain about his allegiances and lack of experience, and these are fears Fernando will need to put to rest as he kicks off the election campaign for his party. A policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds will seriously backfire on the young politician and erode his credibility.

The meteoric rise of JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in recent times has been due in large part to his fearless and scathing criticism of the ruling family, previously considered untouchable even among political opponents. Dissanayake has filled a long-existent political vacuum by linking corruption, mismanagement and bad governance to the heart of the regime, something the UNP has consistently failed to do.

Serious choices for UNP

If the Premadasa faction stays out of the Uva fray, the UNP will have serious choices to make looking ahead to the presidential election. The Hambantota MP’s absence will cement perceptions about continuing UNP fractiousness and internal chaos, ensuring the party does not see a significant upswing of support from voters desperately seeking an alternative.

Despite the reluctance of its leadership, therefore, the UNP may find itself facing a major decision about the common oppositional platform. As the largest political party in Opposition, the UNP would prefer to dictate the terms of this platform, and field its own candidate at the presidential poll. Yet, if there is no visible swing towards the UNP as an alternative to Rajapaksa rule, the Opposition party will find its choices limited to contesting independently to face certain defeat or joining an alliance to give itself a fighting chance.

Presidential contests are national elections, when the behaviour of the electorate drastically differs to provincial or local contests. Guaranteed a major chunk of the minority vote and with incumbency fatigue setting in, an Opposition alliance may prove the best hope of any party in Opposition.

For the Government’s part, it has had an early setback with decisions by Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF and the Muslim parties within the alliance to contest independently at the Uva election. Undoubtedly, both these groups will ultimately extend support to the UPFA to form a provincial government in Uva. But their mandates will be separate and won on platforms that will most certainly be vehemently anti-Government.

The Aluthgama effect

The Rajapaksa Administration can give itself a hearty pat on the back for affecting the reunion of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem and All Ceylon Muslim Congress Leader Rishard Bathiudeen, both Ministers in the present Cabinet. Hakeem and Bathiudeen have been arch rivals since the latter allegedly spearheaded the leak of a sleazy sex scandal in collaboration with the UPFA under the Kumaratunga regime in May 2004.

Bathiudeen and four others quit the SLMC which was then allied to the United National Party and remained in Opposition after the April 2004 Parliamentary election, and allegedly engaged in a bid to oust the SLMC Leader and force the Muslim party to join the Government. The scandal took a dramatic turn the following year when a woman set herself alight in the SLMC’s Leader’s compound. While Hakeem has always been an uncomfortable member of the Rajapaksa Cabinet, Bathiudeen has been a firm Presidential loyalist.

The events in Aluthgama on 15 June appear to have changed all of that. The two Ministers took the President on directly at Cabinet meetings soon after the anti-Muslim riots in the region and now, for the first time in a decade, Hakeem and Bathiudeen have joined forces to contest the Uva provincial poll, striking a massive blow to the ruling coalition in the Badulla District.

The region has seen an upsurge of religious tension in recent times, with Buddhist hardline groups allying against the Muslim population in Badulla town. Hakeem and Bathiudeen will campaign for the votes of those concerned Muslim voters and to do so, it will campaign blatantly against the Rajapaksa regime and the Sinhala Buddhist hardline groups that have mushroomed under this regime and appear to enjoy considerable impunity to carry out vendettas against minority religious communities.

The development follows UPFA fortunes that are already dented in the Badulla District, but the Government has no one to blame but itself for the situation. Systematically, the Rajapaksa Administration has alienated the Muslim community to such a distressing degree that no Muslim politician can hope to win support without condemning and criticising the regime. Under the circumstances, President Rajapaksa will have to throw his Government’s full weight behind his nephew Shasheendra and campaign furiously to increase his advantage in Moneragala.

In every way therefore, the Uva poll is a high stakes game. There will be no other electoral litmus test before President Rajapaksa launches his re-election bid, unless he announces a general election first. The existential challenge that the Rajapaksa electoral giant – even in its slightly more unpopular form – poses to the Opposition parties may propel them to seek out an alliance ahead of the national elections. Yet for President Rajapaksa, a decision on whether to call the snap election may even come to rest upon the Uva result. Astrological compulsions aside, his Government’s electoral showing in Uva-Wellassa on 21 September may be the one thing standing between an early 2015 presidential fight or holding on for one more year. (FT- Dharisha Bastians)

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