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This is my Nation


  A ‘trial run’ of vital importance 

These elections will be an interesting benchmark for both the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and for the main Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP). They offer the parties the opportunity to test the electoral waters before the general elections which are due early next year. That the UPFA wishes the provincial polls to be a ‘trial run’ for the general elections is abundantly clear. Therefore, a closely contested poll - at least in the Central Province - is on the cards

There is never a dull moment in politics in this country and last week was no exception. As the rest of the country was celebrating the dawn of the New Year, the dates for the Provincial Council polls were announced and President Mahinda Rajapaksa effected a minor cabinet reshuffle.

The cabinet reshuffle was needed because Karu Jayasuriya had returned to the mainstream United National Party (UNP) some weeks ago, leaving the vital portfolio of Public Administration and Home Affairs vacant. That was filled by another former UNP stalwart, Sarath Amunugama who had held the same portfolio earlier. His Investment Promotion portfolio was filled by Anura Priyadarshana Yapa.

That the reshuffle stopped there and fell short of a full scale overhaul of ministerial portfolios, indicate that President Rajapaksa does not wish to upset the Government’s apple cart just yet, not with Provincial Polls looming in six weeks time, on Valentine’s Day.

Benchmark

These elections will be an interesting benchmark for both the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and for the main Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP). They offer the parties the opportunity to test the electoral waters before the general elections which are due early next year.

In previous provincial polls, the UNP gambled with picking big-name politicians as the chief ministerial aspirants: Rauf Hakeem, Janaka Perera and Ranjan Ramanayake. None of them won and now the party appears to be in two minds: S.B. Dissanayake is leading the Central Province team but the relatively lesser known Shamal Senerath will head the party list in the North Western Province.

Apparently the party was not in a position to inveigle any of the big names into the fray-and these included Gamini Jayawickrema Perera and Sajith Premadasa. Premadasa obviously sees himself destined for greater heights in the national stage and doesn’t wish to chase the tough prospect of heading a provincial administration.

S.B. Dissanayake’s case is of course different. Dissanayake is an ambitious man and is not shy to say so too. Recently, he declared that people flock to hear him speak, and said he was confident he would become President of the country one day.

Despite such lofty predictions the reality is that right now he is in the political wilderness, out of Parliament on the grounds that he was absent for more than three months, and striving to regain the limelight that he was so used to once, as the virtual Number Two of the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime.

But this is exactly why the Central Provincial Council elections will be all the more interesting. The Central Province has historically been UNP-friendly. Dissanayake has a point to prove: he has the resources to launch an effective campaign, and take on the might of the government- and he has guts to go ahead with it, no matter what.

Destabilising

This must be put in the context of Dissanayake’s present political predicament. He has been very critical of the manner in which the UNP has conducted its recent election campaigns, and there is a section in the party which believes that Dissanayake is a destabilising influence on the UNP. They wouldn’t suffer a lot of heartbreak to see him lose, even if it were to cost the party the Central Provincial Council.

The Central Provincial Council poll is therefore likely to be hotly contested, bearing in mind that much has happened since the ruling party’s easy victories in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces.

In the North West of the country however, it would hardly be a level playing field, and the odds are stacked against the UNP. The word Wayamba entered the lexicon as a synonym for the worst ever election malpractices at a past provincial poll, and this highlights the poor foothold the UNP has in the region. Ironically, leading the Peoples’ Alliance campaign against the UNP at that infamous election, was none other than S.B. Dissanayake!

The UNP’s problems at Wayamba are compounded by the fact that there are very few big names in the UNP camp from this region, and therefore it will be an uphill task for the party to launch an effective campaign.
But this is a problem the UNP will have to confront and counter in many areas of the country in the run up to the general elections next year.

Therefore, the quicker they come to terms with this issue and take remedial measures the better it would be for the party’s fortunes. Or else, it runs the risk of being an ‘also ran’ in Sri Lanka Freedom Party dominated strongholds.

Of course, the UPFA cannot afford to be complacent. The recent-and yet unresolved-standoff between the government and the Supreme Court over fuel prices left the ruling party with a lot of egg on its collective face, earning negative public sentiment in the process. This is not the best strategy to work towards an election, and that is probably why the government was keen to introduce a ‘mini budget’ with a host of price reductions at the dawn of the New Year.

That the UPFA wishes the provincial polls to be a ‘trial run’ for the general elections is abundantly clear. Therefore, a closely contested poll - at least in the Central Province - is on the cards, and the coming weeks will surely be interesting, if not entertaining.

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