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This is my Nation


 Battle for supremacy intensifies

Many have queried President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strategy of holding staggered elections for provincial councils, when it diverts attention and resources from the Government’s activities not once, but several times, as the provinces go to the polls, two at a time. But the thinking in the corridors of power has been otherwise. So far, the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has been successful in winning all the provincial polls that have been staged. And although it does cost the government much in terms of time and resources, it costs the Opposition even more

Almost obscured by news of military victories in the theatre of conflict in the jungles of Mullaitivu, the upcoming Provincial Council elections are gathering momentum in the North Western (Wayamba) and Central provinces, with only three weeks more for election day.

Why the Polls are being staged is in itself a question that is being asked in many quarters. Many have queried President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strategy of holding staggered elections for provincial councils, when it diverts attention and resources from the Government’s activities not once, but several times, as the provinces go to the polls, two at a time.

But the thinking in the corridors of power has been otherwise. So far, the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has been successful in winning all the provincial polls that have been staged. And although it does cost the government much in terms of time and resources, it costs the Opposition even more.

The Opposition United National Party (UNP), has adopted a strategy of running ‘big-name’ candidates for the Provincial Polls. As a result, it is placing a lot at stake in these contests. This costs the Opposition significantly in terms of finances and resources in these regional contests-and such resources are harder to come by for the Opposition than the Government.

Snowballing effect

More than all this however, it is the snowballing effect that the Government is aiming at. At each election which the Opposition loses, the UNP particularly is left demoralised as a set of ‘no-hope also-rans’.

The divisions in the party, both at the grassroots level and at the national level are reinforced and the image of the UNP takes a humiliating battering in the eyes of the average voter. At the end of it all, the disgruntled party worker is left asking how it plans to win a general election just over a year from now, if this is the party’s standing in the provinces.

This is what has happened in the Provincial Polls held until now. The UNP lost in the Eastern province despite convincing Rauf Hakeem to resign his seat in Parliament and contest. It also lost both in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces despite fielding Janaka Perera and Ranjan Ramanayake.

There were some allegations of vote rigging especially in the Eastern Provincial Poll, but the margins of victory for the UPFA in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces left the UNP party hierarchy stunned. It was convincing proof that there was a significant erosion of its vote base, especially in the provinces where most votes are from rural areas.

Defeat

The UNP’s comprehensive defeats in these provinces have already had an impact on the campaign in the North Western province. The party attempted to inveigle a senior or a ‘big name candidate’ to run for Chief Minister, but there were no takers-despite feelers being sent to the likes of Sajith Premadasa and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera.

As such, party insiders say the ‘Wayamba’ campaign of the UNP is lacklustre and very few are optimistic of launching a real challenge to the UPFA in the region. The recent military victories in the North have bolstered the ruling party’s popularity and the UNP’s ambiguity on this issue has not helped its cause in any way.

The Central province is, of course, a different battleground entirely. Leading the UNP is the firebrand S.B. Dissanayake, fresh from a jail sentence and the loss of his seat in Parliament, and attempting to make a re-entry to national politics.

Dissanayake is never one to mince his words. This was why he was hauled before the Supreme Court for contempt in the first instance, and he has launched his campaign in characteristic style saying that he, “will be President of the country one day”.
Dissanayake is indeed a force to contend with for several reasons. He has the organisational capacity which other UNP chief ministerial candidates before him-Hakeem, Perera and Ramanayake-lacked.

He is also a skilled platform speaker, a fact which he is only too aware of, for he did boast that people flock to hear him speak. More than all this, he has a point to prove, both to the UNP hierarchy and the country.

Moreover, the Central Province has traditionally been a UNP-friendly area. Until recently, its support for the UNP was a foregone conclusion at most elections. Even at the 2005 Presidential Elections, when most of the south of the country opted for President Rajapaksa or endorsed his rival Ranil Wickremesinghe with a slender margin, the Central Province was one of the few regions to endorse the UNP with a convincing majority.

Therefore, the expectations are that the contest in the Central Province will be evenly balanced, given the traditional advantage the UNP enjoys in the region, pitted against the new-found popularity of the Government in the wake of the recent military successes in the North.

Indeed, the expectations of the UNP leadership are that the party will win in the Central Province, so that they could point the finger at the UPFA and tell the country that the ruling party’s bubble has burst. If the UNP can achieve that, it would also compel the Government to re-think its strategy of holding Provincial Polls in the rest of the country, in the Uva, Western and Southern provinces.

But this is easier said than done for the UNP and the coming weeks will see an intense battle for supremacy in the provinces, even though in reality a meaningful contest can be hoped for only in the Central Province.

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