20 April, 2019

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Midweek Politics: Monsoons And Elections

By Dharisha Bastians

Dharisha Bastians

The much-longed-for monsoon rains are lashing at the capital Colombo and other parts of the south west as Sri Lanka gears up for yet another provincial election and international challenges pertaining to its post-war accountability and reconciliation plans in the days and weeks ahead.

With election campaigning having officially ended at midnight yesterday, political parties led by the UPFA and the UNP are vying for supremacy in the battleground provinces of North Central and Eastern, although the results of the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council are almost a foregone conclusion, with the incumbent UPFA likely to carry the council with a comfortable majority.

Political analysts feel that the only Province that is really in play at the September 8 election is the East, which is likely to be clinched by the Tamil National Alliance. However with 37 council seats up for grabs, predictions are that while the TNA may obtain a majority, it will have to garner the support of other opposition parties if it wants to form a provincial government. Current predictions are that the TNA will gain 12 seats, with six seats going to the UNP, giving the two parties combined 18 seats, still one short of the council majority. Here, opposition analysts feel, is where the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress will come into play.

The SLMC decided to contest the east separately from the UPFA after an original decision to contest under the ruling party banner divided the party membership. The SLMC is likely to clinch the second or third largest number of seats in the council and will then in a uniquely tough position as it decides whether to throw in its lot with the UPFA or the combined opposition. The UPFA has offered its Chief Minister slot to Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan if it wins the Eastern Provincial Council. The greatest carrot that the combined opposition could in such an event offer the SLMC is the potential of a Muslim Chief Minister of the Council, something the UPFA simply cannot offer due to the Pillaiyan factor in play.

Polls violence

Either way opposition parties are hell bent on preventing an outright UPFA victory in the East and the run up to the poll has seen serious incidents of polls violence erupting in the hotly contested Eastern districts. In fact, polls monitors Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) this week warned of another Kolonnawa-type incident in Akkaraipattu in the Ampara District if the violent trend is not contained ahead of Saturday’s poll.

The Monitors refer to the violence in Kolonnawa during the local government elections – an internal UPFA battle that resulted in the death of SLFP strongman and Presidential Advisor Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra on 8 October 2011, with another ruling party politician, Parliamentarian Duminda Silva named as a suspect in his death.

Meanwhile, things are not looking quite so easy for the ruling party in the North Central Province however, despite a polls survey carried out by the University of Kelaniya predicting comfortable wins in Sabaragamuwa and North Central for the UPFA. The agricultural economies of the North Central region have taken a beating in recent months with farmers being unable to obtain fair prices for rice, despite Government assurances that the state would purchase from the farmer at a fixed price.

This situation is exacerbated by the prevailing drought conditions in the region which threaten to devastate crops and leave farmers literally, high and dry. Agricultural economies likeAnuradhapuraand Polonnaruwa, where the people will go to the polls to elect a new provincial council on Saturday are highly dependent on weather and government handouts. With both these having failed the local population, the Government will be hard-pressed to cruise to victory in the area.

The main opposition United National Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are being perhaps prematurely buoyant about this state of affairs, with opposition rallies, particularly organised by the UNP drawing large crowds in the dry zone province. JVP grassroots organisers inAnuradhapuraand Polonnaruwa are bemoaning the UNP’s lack of grassroots organisation in the region, where they claim the opposition could make major inroads against the UPFA if it had the will to truly reach out to the people.

While the JVP is significantly active in the areas, recent polls have indicated a lack of enthusiasm among the JVP support base after internecine battles that seem to plague every opposition party in the present Sri Lankan political context, broke out between the JVP Leadership and the party’s rank and file. A combined opposition effort in the province however, could have meant that the UPFA would have had a battle on their hands.

According to UNP officials, however, the North Central Provinceis very much in play, with their politicians including Harin Fernando, Karu Jayasuriya, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and even UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe being greeted with thunderous enthusiasm when they attend rallies in the region.

Political analysts caution that in the present Presidential system, opposition parties would be hard pressed to effect regime changes at local and provincial government levels, with big changes more likely at presidential or parliamentary polls that are held islandwide and far more intensely fought. But as far as the UNP is concerned, it will be thrilled with an increase in its vote percentages, especially in terms of Sabaragamuwa and the North Central Province.

Such an increase will indicate the growing unpopularity of the incumbent administration and the main opposition hopes that will galvanise and mobilise the party’s rank and file to fight harder at the next election. An increase in the margins will have a further bearing on the future of the UNP in terms of the tussle for leadership of the party. A drastic reduction in the party’s vote percentage will undoubtedly result in fresh threats to the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe while an increase will reinforce his position.

One glimmer of hope

The one glimmer of hope for opposition supporters is that for the time being at least, the UNP factions appear to have combined forces – or at the very least, refrained from overt tension – during the campaign. It is likely that this display of unity and the involvement of all party seniors in the polls campaign especially in theNorthCentralProvinceis resulting in the energy seen at the UNP rallies in the region.

The message to the UNP leadership is therefore, crystal clear. As far as the party rank and file and grassroots activists are concerned, the reunification of the party is paramount to galvanisation and enthusiasm at election time.

While there has certainly been an upsurge of support for the opposition in the lead up to the poll, whether this will translate to actual votes that could secure the UNP a majority to clinch the North Central council remains in serious doubt. An unpopular incumbency due to economic concerns alone cannot guarantee a win in this region, because while it might be the long-suffering rice bowl of the land, the North Central area is also war-hero territory, with a significant number of families in the region having given men to the armed forces during the conflict years.

The ‘Ranaviru gammana’ or ‘war-hero villages’ therefore continue to be stoic supporters of the Rajapaksa administration because of its defeat of the Tamil Tigers. The government continues to ride on this legitimacy to great effect and it is not yet clear whether the economic burden trumps the military successes to the point of ensuring the defeat of the incumbency.

Legitimacy in fact is something the Government continues to strive for, even as the country is gripped by an energy crisis, economic uncertainty and mounting challenges in the diplomatic arena. Thus far, it has only achieved this legitimacy through its war victory and reinforcement of its image as the sole protector of the Sinhala Buddhist heritage.

Kapilavastu relics

Some political analysts see the Government’s timing of the display of the Kapilavastu relics (bone fragments of Lord Buddha, sacred to Buddhists) transported from the National Museum of India to be another attempt at claiming legitimacy as the protectors of the Sinhala Buddhist heritage ahead of the provincial polls. In 2010, President Mahinda Rajapaksa requested Indian Premier Manmohan Singh to give Sri Lankan Buddhist devotees an opportunity to worship the relics.

On 19 August, an Indian delegation led by Minister of Culture, Kumari Selja, accompanied the relics onboard a special IAF aircraft to Colombo. The relics were received at the Bandaranaike International Airport by a barefoot President Rajapaksa. Following exposition in Kelaniya, the relics travelled to several parts of the island, includingAnuradhapurain the North Central Province, Kantale in the East and Matara and Tissamaharama in the south.

The hundreds of thousands of devotees that have congregated at each of the exposition sites has prompted India to accede to a Sri Lankan request to extend the exposition by a further week. The relics were originally expected to be returned toIndiaby 4 September, but the Government will now use the additional time to set up exposition sites in several more parts of the island.

Undoubtedly, the Government is hoping that the renewed religious fervour will cement its popularity in the south of the island and hopefully reflect in the results of the election. It is a strategy that appears to be working. With the late monsoon rains finally beating down upon the island, speculation abounds especially among the faithful that bringing the sacred relics toSri Lankaappeased the wrath of the weather gods and brought showers of blessing upon the parched soil of the land.

This belief brings along with it a degree of gratitude to the Government for arranging the exposition, since the lack of rain at the correct time has badly inconvenienced the man on the street, with drought conditions resulting in enforced blackouts islandwide in the Government’s bid to conserve energy.

Rain at the appointed time is a sign of righteous governance, according to Sinhala Buddhist folklore. Drought and flooding, conversely, are signs that the rulers have angered the gods. It is more than likely that none of this was lost on a highly superstitious ruling administration. With the people of the south at least distracted by the sacred relic exposition and grateful for much needed rain, the government no doubt hopes these pros will override voter concerns about the economy and corruption when they go to the polls on Saturday.

With such reverence being accorded to the Kapilavastu relics among Sri Lankan Buddhists, it came as no surprise that UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was caught in a hailstorm of criticism after he questioned the authenticity of the sacred relics. According to Wickremesinghe it has not been proven beyond doubt that the relics are the bones of Lord Buddha and not his main disciples, Sariputta and Mugalan Theras.

Wickremesinghe, whose notorious inability to play to the gallery even when crucial votes are at stake, has landed him in trouble many times before, but the UNP Chief continues to be impervious to violent criticism from the hard-line Buddhist monk led Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and even reformists within his own party. He has accused the Government of trying to score cheap political points by exposing the relics in key areas of the provinces in play during Saturday’s election.

Hitting back at his critics, after his statement raised the ire of hardcore Sinhala Buddhists, Wickremesinghe last week charged that the indignation of government backed hardliners was ironic given that the UPFA was fielding former LTTE commander Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan better known as Pillaiyan as Chief Minister of the East.

The UNP Leader is harping on the fact that while the Government was trying to gain political mileage from the relic exposition, they were also endorsing a candidate that had allegedly masterminded the LTTE’s attack on the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Wickremesinghe hopes that reinforcing this connection between Pillaiyan and the attack on a sacred Buddhist site will give the UNP some traction in the North Central andSabaragamuwaProvincesand also with the Sinhalese voters of the East.

Media stranglehold

Unfortunately for the opposition, such tactics have proved futile in the past against the State’s propaganda juggernaut. In fact UNP insiders continue to be concerned about the lack of publicity afforded to opposition events and successes because of the Government’s perceived stranglehold on the media, even when organisations are privately owned.

Yesterday opposition activists got wind of a Government plan to telecast the relic exposition throughout the day on state media channels, in a bid to swing last minute voters, even after official campaigning has ended.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s doubts about the authenticity of the relics notwithstanding, the transportation of the Kapilavastu toSri Lankaat this juncture has another crucial, less talked of dimension. SinceNew Delhithrew in its lot with the US at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva last March, voting in favour of a resolution against Sri Lanka, relations between Colombo and its giant neighbour have been far from rosy.

Hemmed in by domestic compulsions with Tamil Nadu politicians on the rampage about Delhi’s silence in the face of mounting international calls for an international inquiry into the final phase of the Sri Lankan government’s war with the LTTE and its own national security fears about Colombo cozying up to Beijing, New Delhi would naturally be keen to maintain at least overtly, that it continues to engage with Sri Lanka and that ties between the two nations are stronger than ever.

The Kapilavastu provided the Indian Central Government with just that opportunity.New Delhi likely felt that the cultural gesture was necessary to cushion relations with Colombo ahead of the upcoming Universal Periodic Review at the UNHRC. The Indo-Lanka dynamic will once more be in the limelight once the Universal Periodic Review commences in Geneva next month.India, together with Spain and Benin, both nations with relatively less interest in Sri Lanka, were appointed by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay as the Troika that will review Sri Lanka’s report at the session.

Inclusion of India

The inclusion ofIndiain this troika is significant, especially in light of the fact that New Delhi managed to lobbyWashingtonto make eleventh hour changes to the UNHRC Resolution against Sri Lanka in March that saw a dilution of the original language contained therein.

According to diplomatic sources, these changes were agreed to by the US delegation on assurances provided by New Delhi that it would monitor Sri Lanka’s progress in terms of delivering on its promises about hastening post-war reconciliation and accountability efforts. It is a possibility therefore thatIndia’s role in the review Troika was not an accident. In such a set up, keeping Colombo happy on some fronts is of some concern to New Delhi. But if the Kapilavastu was one step in the right direction on that score, Tuesday’s violent attacks against Sri Lankan pilgrims in Tamil Nadu may have been two steps back.

A group of 184 pilgrims including 36 children to churches in Velankanni and Poondi Matha in central Tamil Nadu swiftly turned nightmarish for the tourists when pro-LTTE groups led protests that turned violent as the hours waned. The Sri Lankans were compelled to cut their tour short and return to Colombo, but not before protestors attacked the buses carrying them to the airport from the pilgrimage sites.

Indian media and the Government in Colombo reported that they had received support from the Indian authorities who escorted the pilgrims to the Velankanni and the airport with police security. Senior diplomatic sources confirm that the Sri Lankan Government dispatched a Mihin Lanka aircraft to Trichy to bring the pilgrims back to Sri Lanka and they arrived early Wednesday morning.

According to these sources, the pilgrims were Sinhalese and Tamil Christians on an arranged tour of the Christian pilgrimage sites in the southern Indian state. The pilgrims were first attacked while at the Poondi Matha church and once again enroute to Velankanni before deciding to cut short the tour. However, government sources added that when the Colombo and Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commission in Chennai learnt of the first protests at Poondi Matha, the pilgrims had been warned not to proceed to Velankanni, although this order had been disobeyed.

By the time High Commission officials reached Poondi Matha to escort the pilgrims back to the Trichy airport, they had already proceeded to Velankanni on the advice of their travel agent, these sources added. It is now being learnt that a majority of the pilgrims hailed from the Puttlam District, part of the North-Western Catholic belt.

The protests and attacks against the Sri Lankans were allegedly led by the Naam Tamilar Katchi, a pro-Tiger group led by one time Tamil Nadu film director, Seeman. Seeman’s group, on that occasion too joined by Vaiko’s MDMK cadres were also responsible for the protests and attacks on Thirukumar Nadesan, businessman and relative of President Rajapaksa while he was in Chennai earlier this year.

Naam Tamilar’s Leader is famed for his well-established links to LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and has allegedly vowed not to allow any Sinhalese to walk the streets of Tamil Nadu. According to Indian media reports, 50 suspects have been arrested in connection with the violent protests, many of them Vaiko supporters.

While New Delhi is quick to distance itself from these emotive outbursts of violence in its south, there is no doubt that pressure from Tamil Nadu is compelling the Centre to act on Sri Lanka’s lack of action on the post-conflict accountability issues and the ongoing problems of the Tamil people.

Jeopardising Indo-Lanka ties

The Hindu newspaper in an editorial a few days ago, warned that reactionary expressions against Sri Lanka by Tamil Nadu politicians like Chief Minister Jayalalitha were seriously jeopardising Indo-Lanka ties that extend beyond the realm of the politics of the Tamil people.

“However, the Centre’s callous attitude cannot serve as an excuse for irresponsible grandstanding by Tamil Nadu politicians. We are already on a slippery slope. Today a school soccer match has been cancelled; tomorrow the demand will be for a ban on cricketers, tourists and pilgrims from Sri Lanka,” the paper’s editorial read in a curiously prophetic way.

Colombo has reacted by issuing a travel advisory to Sri Lankans against visiting Tamil Nadu in light of the attacks, a tongue in cheek move in the backdrop of a recent British travel advisory to its citizens stating that there was an upsurge in nationalism and anti-Western rhetoric inSri Lanka.

All this notwithstanding, Saturday’s election takes centre stage in the Sri Lankan political firmament. In light of what is to follow hot on the heels of the polls – a visit by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, whose advance technical team arrives in the island on 14 September – the ruling party will be more than a little enthusiastic to clinch all three polls, in what would be a fitting signal to the international community that the Rajapaksa administration is more secure and popular

than ever.

Courtesy Daily FT

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    I believe the present elections are a test case for President Rajapakse. He has let go of certain controls allowing constituent parties of the UFPA to have a go at each other even on communal and religous lines. Further the EC and Police have been allowed some freedom to take action.

    So the outcome of this election will determine the future political direction to be taken by the President. It will also decide the course of action for the political reconcilliation process.He realises that people are fed up and the Govt is fast reaching a dead end.

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