By Uditha Devapriya –
About a year ago, when the Provincial Council elections were held in Uva, few predicted victory for the United National Party (UNP). There were reasons for this. Firstly, there was virtually no internal unity. An opposition that was being targeted and that in a way which worsened factional splits would have spelt victory for the government. Secondly, rumours of a newcomer entering Uva were made and denied. That didn’t bode well either.
Notwithstanding all this, Harin Fernando entered the political equation and proved that with patience and humility any incumbent, even one as popular and “loved” as Mahinda Rajapaksa, could be defeated. Naysayers from the government were thus proved wrong. Uva was won by the UPFA. But barely. Meanwhile, the signs were already in. Defeat had to come. Sooner or later.
What happened in November that year and what followed thereafter is, of course, history. Inevitably therefore, this year’s Parliamentary Election results weren’t just predictable. They were as they should have been.
There were winners and there were losers. Some were expected. Others weren’t. Despite the higher-than-heaven predictions made by both major camps, the UPFA and UNP, no one obtained a majority. There are reasons why it happened and why, after all the rhetoric spewed by the former party, the outcome wasn’t as rosy as expected.
No one can deny that the re-entry of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the UPFA added to that party’s performance. The fact that MPs loyal to the former president were elected while many of those who joined Maithripala Sirisena lost proves it. Jagath Pushpakumara and Vijith Vijithamuni Soysa, for instance, topped Monaragala in 2010. Both were kicked out.
All this points at one thing. The UPFA’s campaign was essentially aimed at getting Mahinda Rajapaksa in as Prime Minister. Predictably enough, for those who campaigned and canvassed on behalf of that party, this wasn’t as much a parliamentary election as it was a PRIME MINISTERIAL election. As such kinship with Rajapaksa helped. In the end, stalwarts like Vidura Wickramanayaka (Kalutara), who obtained lukewarm results in 2010, whizzed up, while newcomers like Niroshan Premaratne (Matara) whizzed up even more.
The UNP, to its credit, kept to its program. There was less rhetoric. More sobriety. Good governance and the need to eliminate structural flaws figured in its campaign, which coupled with its insistence on getting in clean candidates to parliament probably took in the floating voter who voted for Maithripala Sirisena last January. Even those who supported Sirisena from the UPFA, reasonably enough, would have gone green this time, a point reinforced by his continued attempts at wresting control of the SLFP and thereby preventing Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return.
The UPFA campaigned on the assumption – faulty as it was – that the 5.8 million who voted for it would remain or better still, increase. Didn’t happen. As such one thing was made clear. Nationalist rhetoric aside, there wasn’t any sustainable link between the rallies which greeted Mahinda Rajapaksa and those who wanted him as Prime Minister. The main problem with his campaign, therefore, was confusing the one for the other. Making matters worse was his assertion that the North and East got him defeated last January, one that eroded his minority electorate base.
What of the UNP? Many of those who topped the UPFA list were old names. The Greens on the other hand produced fresh faces, particularly those capable of challenging the Old Guard. Sujeewa Senasinghe got almost 400,000 votes less than his party leader, but he still obtained more votes than Ravi Karunanayake and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the latter of whom slipped to ninth place. Moreover, the party did what many never expected it to do: canvass on its own without allying itself with any Tamil communal party.
That was where the UNP aced. Big time. Here’s how.
One of the most frequent allegations (misguided as it was) against Sirisena was that he was “chosen” by minorities. Racist as it was, the UNP needed to legitimize victory without attracting that allegation. It took a huge gamble. Such gambles can cost. Fortunately for the Greens, it paid off here. Not only did it win without Tamil parties, but in areas where the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) held sway, both it and the UPFA lost sorely. Even with that, the UNP embraced victory.
What happened to the JVP? It slipped. Badly. Reasons differ as to why this happened, but above everything the need to defeat the UPFA would have been privileged more than a need to push up a third (or as the JVP loves to call itself, an “alternative”) force. Not surprisingly, in this tug-of-war it was ignored, to a point where it got fewer seats and thus had to kick out many of its stalwarts, K. D. Lal Kantha included. The same can be said of Sarath Fonseka‘s Democratic Party, by the way.
For a party that expected much more, defeat would have come because JVPers 1. aligned themselves with the Rainbow Coalition which pushed Sirisena to power or 2. grew tired of the schizophrenia which many of their party seniors were succumbing to (Anura Kumara Dissanayake, for instance, did himself no favours in trying to grab at the Greens and then criticising both parties at the 11th hour). Indecisiveness can’t fool voters for long, this was proved amply.
There are names that merit mention and names that deserve more. Ranil Wickremesinghe deserves more. Notwithstanding the hiccups he unfortunately slipped up these past six months, he brought together a party that was, barely two years back, in danger of splitting into two. He showed patience. And humility. In opting for a one-horse race over another Rainbow Coalition, he took a gamble. He won.
Mahinda Rajapaksa may not be Prime Minister, but he got what he wanted. He chased off many of those considered to have backstabbed him after the January election. By getting rid of them, Rajapaksa got his revenge. Smoothly. Calmly. With no force. Sobering on one level. Ironic on another.
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer – Email: email@example.com. Blog: fragmenteyes.blogspot.com