President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who craftily turned Saturday`s PC polls into a referendum on his warfront, has bagged the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces with ease. It was his personal victory rather than anyone else`s. Let neither of the UPFA chief ministerial candidates who ran the two provinces previously claim he has got a fresh mandates to do more of what he was doing.
The JVP, which had contested on the UPFA ticket in 2004 and secured 8 and 10 seats in the NCP and Sabaragamuwa respectively, rendered the two councils ungovernable by siding with the UNP after it fell out with the Rajapaksa government. In so doing, the JVP made a huge political miscalculation. It did not anticipate a premature dissolution of the councils. The government wrong-footed the Opposition by opting for snap elections to such an extent that the latter even tried to move the Supreme Court against the dissolution, albeit in vain. The JVP underestimated President Rajapaksa, the risk taker.
Today, thanks to the JVP-UNP combine, the government has secured a comfortable majority in both the councils, where it was running minority administrations earlier. In the NCP, it has a seven-seat majority and in Sabaragamuwa it leads by six seats. The JVP, which had 18 members elected on the UPFA ticket in the previous councils, has been left with only three at present!
It was clear that the JVP lost the election the day the councils were dissolved and the UNP the day it nominated its chief ministerial candidates. The JVP`s ego is always not in keeping with its ability. As for victory in Saturday`s contest, the JVP stood the same chance as a cat in hell. The UNP, true to form, could not find two sons of the soil from Rajarata and Sabaragamuwa to challenge Bertie Premalal and Maheepala Herath, who had, according to their rivals, reached the nadir of their political careers due to corruption and inefficiency their administrations had earned notoriety for.
Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera (retd), the UNP`s pick for the NCP chief minister`s post was a square peg in a round hole. While his party was advocating appeasement of the LTTE and criticising a successful war being prosecuted against terrorism, he was flaunting his military achievements of yore. In the end, he became neither fish nor fowl! The UNP and he were pulling in two different directions where the war was concerned.
However, in fairness to Janaka Perera, the UNP did slightly better in the NCP this time around, though it failed to win. A highly decorated officer with an excellent track record, Janaka used to be called the `lucky general` in the army. For, all his operations became successful. But, his contribution was not enough to make the army win the war. Something similar has happened to him in politics. The UNP`s received about 62,000 more votes in the NCP as compared to its 2004 results, while the government managed to secure only 28,000 more. The government lost two seats in that province as compared to the number of seats it had in the previous council whereas the UNP got two more. The exit of the JVP, which secured one of out of eight seats it had won in 2004, may also have led to a decrease in the UPFA`s vote. In 2004, the SLMC was in the fray and secured over 14,000 votes plus one seat in the Anuradhapura District. This time, the SLMC backed the UNP without contesting. So, SLMC`s vote must have gone to the UNP.
In Sabaragamuwa, the UNP had a disastrous start. Its original candidate for the chief minister`s post got cold feet at the eleventh hour and actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake became CM candidate for want of a better alternative. He was lost between the surrealistic celluloid world and the real world of politics. He was apparently under the impression that he could wear figure hugging T-shirts and pants exposing his well toned muscles and rest assured that the youth of Ratnapura would fall over themselves to vote for him. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was wise enough to put him in a decent dress towards the end of his campaign.
In spite of Ranjan, the UNP managed to secure 111,000 new votes in Sabaragamuwa plus two more seats, as compared to 2004 PC polls results. The government`s vote increased by only 74,000 and it lost three of the 28 seats it had had in the previous council. The JVP retained two of the ten seats it had won in 2004 and its breakaway from the UPFA may have taken its toll on the government`s vote base. The UNP obviously gained from the traditional estate block vote of the CWC as plantation workers habitually vote for the Elephant symbol and not for Thondaman`s Cockerel. The CWC lost the single seat it had had in the council, though it expected to win two or more seats and hold the balance of power in Sabaragamuwa. The UNP could have fared much better, had there been someone politically savvy to take on Maheepala Herath in that province.
President Rajapaksa made a smart move about two weeks into the PC polls campaign. Realising the limitations of his chief ministerial candidates, he overtook their campaigns and turned the PC polls into a referendum as well as a contest between him and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He wanted to leave nothing to chance and asked for a mandate from the people for his highly successful war effort. Thus, he managed to trip the Opposition critical of the war in the race. In the NCP, the UNP had Janaka Perera with an excellent military track record to market-he used his photos with epaulette and accoutrements in campaign posters-but in Sabaragamuwa it had none. `One shot` was no Rambo to rise to the occasion.
The JVP may have been instrumental in having the North and the East demerged and pushing a wavering President Rajapaksa into war in 2006, but it failed to reap the fruits of its contribution to the war as it had aligned itself with the UNP and either wittingly or unwittingly lent its voice to the pacifist/pro-LTTE lobby for the various campaigns.
The government was lucky that the Opposition failed to launch a well orchestrated campaign on a platform of people`s economic hardships and serious allegations of corruption and criminal waste of public funds against the government. It kept shifting from issue to issue and got distracted by Mervyn Silva`s antics among other things and resorted to some populist gimmicks which did not necessarily translate into votes on the ground.
The UNP has once again proved it lacks proper leadership capable of challenging that of the government. So, the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is likely to have another mutiny on board and another split in the aftermath of the latest defeat. However, he may manage to stay put, claiming that the party has done better than in 2004. He has mastered the art of surviving conspiracies and smoking out their architects.
But, a huge crisis is staring the JVP in the face. Its ignominious defeat has strengthened the hands of its breakaway group. Dissident JVP MP and leader of the National Freedom Front Wimal Weerawansa said yesterday afternoon that he was willing to join forces with the JVP if the present leadership of the party changed. He has pointed out that the JVP vote has dropped in Anuradhapura from 50,000 at the 2006 LG polls to 19,000 at 2008 PC polls within two years. In 2006, it polled 19,500 in Polonnaruwa, 38,000 in Ratnapura and 36,500 in Kegalle but on Saturday it managed to secure only 7,000, 9,700 and 9,000 in those three districts respectively. The breakaway of Weerawansa and others has, inter alia, manifestly taken its toll on the JVP. The pathetic performance of the JVP where the postal votes are concerned is proof that the JVP lacks following among the public servants in spite of its campaign to obtain a 5,000-rupee pay hike for them. More importantly, the JVP`s vote has shrunk despite an increase in the number of young voters.
The indications are that, faction ridden and enervated, the JVP is reaching the end of the road in electoral politics. Another disastrous split is inevitable sooner or later. The JVP must be ruing the day it parted company with the SLFP, which helped it gain benefits disproportionate to its real strength which has now been exposed.
In the final analysis, the government won because of the sacrifices the armed forces are making for the country and the President`s unwavering leadership for the war. Even the people who were dying to see the back of Bertie and Maheepala voted with the government. But, as we said in these columns on Saturday, victory, however impressive it may be, does not mean everything is hunky-dory for the government. There is a limit to marketing the war effort. People do not live by military victories alone. When the wolf is at the door, patriotism flies out of the window. That may also explain why the UNP`s vote bank has recorded an increase in the NCP and Sabaragamuwa besides the aforesaid reasons.
The government ought to realise that it has won with the entire state machinery at its disposal against a weak Opposition. Although the polls were free and fair by and large, the fact remains that the government politicians unleashed violence triggering a violent reaction from its opponents. Fortunately, violence did not persist until the polling day and the Elections Commissioner was spared the trouble of declaring polling at any of the centres null and void.
It behoves the government to be wary of being cocky and be intoxicated with arrogance of power. What people have given it is a mandate for the war effort not carte blanche to do as it pleases.