Central Province

  President could be the deciding factor 

In the mainly Sinhala, predominately rural areas the topic of discussion is the successful war against the LTTE. In these areas are found many fathers, sons, relatives or friends are either serving with the security forces or having been injured or killed in the fighting. As far as the PC system is concerned they have yet to feel its benefits even though it has been in existence since the late 1980s. The general opinion appears to be that only those who get elected to this body are benefited. Moreover the majority of the people have their own day-to-day problems that need urgent attention than to be concerned about a PC election.

By Rohan Abeywardena and L.B. Senaratne
The ordinary people of the Central Province have no stomach for a new Provincial Council Election and this is quite visible when we toured Kandy, Matale and Nuwara-Eliya Districts that make up the province early this week.

Unlike in past elections hardly any election-fever or any of the resulting violence and tension is evident in the Matale and Nuwara-Eliya Districts. Gone are the defacing of public places and private walls with poster warfare not only among rival party candidates, but even among candidates belonging to the same party for the sake of preferential votes. The only visible signs are a few posters pasted mainly on electricity posts and isolated cutouts of candidates seen here and there.

In the mainly Sinhala, predominately rural areas the topic of discussion is the successful war against the LTTE. In these areas are found many fathers, sons, relatives or friends are either serving with the security forces or having been injured or killed in the fighting. As far as the PC system is concerned they have yet to feel its benefits even though it has been in existence since the late 1980s. The general opinion appears to be that only those who get elected to this body are benefited. Moreover the majority of the people have their own day-to-day problems that need urgent attention than to be concerned about a PC election.

The atmosphere in the Kandy District is however very different with the election-fever fast catching up. It might be due to the theatrics and the drive of one single man who has evoked interest in the poll by being provocative. He is the UNP Chief Ministerial Candidate contesting from the Kandy District, Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Sudu Banda, better known as S.B. Dissanayake.

His latest announcement to voters this week is the raising of a jungle fighting force (kele hamudawa) to fight election violence from the government side. When questioned by the The Nation what evidence he has of the government unleashing election violence, he trots out two vague cases concerning his supporters. One is that of a couple both teachers from Galagedera and who are allegedly facing arrest on false charges and another incident where a vehicle was deliberately set on fire to frame one of his men, but luckily for the man he had an alibi in a police officer who knew the man was elsewhere when the incident happened.

UPFA Chief Ministerial Candidate Sarath Ekanayake, an engineer by profession and by all accounts said to be an honest and clean politician, is clearly no match for a street fighter like SB. He simply puts up his hands saying he is not even aware of any such incidents.

Mr. Ekanayake retorts that he had never resorted to such tactics in his entire political career. “In the 2004 PC election there was not so much as a scratch on a single individual or any damage to property. My rival in my electorate Ududumbara at the time was the formidable UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, but there were no incidents,” he said.

In the 2004 general election, they managed to beat the UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake in Ududumbara by a margin of some 3000 votes, without any reportedly violent incidents in the area and which resulted in Attanayake moving out of the electorate.

“There is no fight here. So they are trying all types of tactics,” said Mr. Ekanayake.
All indications are that his own party hierarchy is not wholeheartedly behind Dissanayake. May be no one can blame the party for the lack of enthusiasm shown; for he wastes no time in telling at any given opportunity that his true ambition is to be the President of Sri Lanka and even be a dictator in the position.

Mr. S.B. Dissanayake has a knack for mesmerizing his audiences with his rhetoric and a flow of words accusing the central provincial government and the UPFA led administration of the last Council. At his many pocket meetings which runs to dozens in any given day, he belts out a well rehearsed stream of accusations which are clapped up by die hard UNPers. His campaign bandwagon too must be the biggest with bands, firecrackers and more than a dozen vehicles, including those of at least two other candidates campaigning with him.

No chances

The government however, most probably due to increasing vociferous tactics of Dissanayake, is not taking any chances, knowing well it is fielding a weak and virtually the same team that was in power in the PC since the last Provincial Council election here in 2004. The result is that as in the recent PC elections held in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, President Rajapaksa is being used by the UPFA as the trump card. The President is quite visible in this campaign with his photographs adorned on all decorations put up by UPFA candidates in the three districts, along side their own.

Strangely photographs of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is almost non existent in the party campaign posters or cut outs. Mug shots of Dissanayake are seen on UNP election decorations accompanying photographs of other party candidates.

This scenario sits very well with Dissanayake’s ambitions of becoming the President. Especially in the Kandy District, to a stranger, it looks as if it is a straight fight between the President Rajapaksa and UNP National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake.

Mr. Dissanayake boasts that he had beaten the President in at least four encounters within the SLFP and the PC election would not be any different. His argument is that the government team is weak and is unable to keep up so the President has entered the campaign inviting everyone into the President’s House to win over their support.

When it was pointed out that he might be antagonizing some people by repeatedly proclaiming that he wants to be the President of the country, Dissanayake said he was not trying to be the next President as he was fighting to make Ranil Wickremesinghe the next President.

He readily admitted that being provocative was an advantageous tactic at his disposal and said he had this vision of being the leader of this country for a long time. “I wanted to be the Sakvithi (Universal) Monarch from my school days and I am in no hurry. Fate will decide.” When it was pointed that there were not many UNP heavyweights campaigning with him, Dissanayake readily retorted, “I told big shots not to come with me.” Being a man with a big ego may be he is not comfortable with other heavyweights.

While Dissanayake shouted out claims that the previous PC administration had not given even a hundred jobs and had not built a single road, while the Rajapaksas were robbing the country with 107 Ministers, the UPFA Chief Ministerial Candidate, Sarath Ekanayake, countered that in every village at least one road had been concreted, while carrying on with other development work amidst a costly conflict in the North. As for jobs, in the teaching sector alone 6500 graduate teachers had been recruited to overcome the teacher shortage in the province and not a single of those appointments was made on political considerations.

Key battleground

The Kandy District is undoubtedly the key battle ground in this contest with the largest number of candidates to be elected. Kandy District 30, followed by 16 from Nuwara-Eliya and 10 from Matale.

Though Dissanayake talked in terms of winning a landslide, to most observers it is mere wishful thinking. At the last PC election held here in July 2004, the JVP contested as a member of the UPFA and the CWC and the Up-Country People’s Front was in alliance with the UNP. The result was that UPFA won two districts - the Kandy District was won by the UPFA with 244,595 votes to UNP’s 202,264 votes and the seats were split 16 to 14 and Matale District was won by the UPFA with 92,510 votes as against UNP’s 69,309 votes, dividing the seats 6 to 4.

The UNP in alliance with the main Up-country Tamil parties won the Nuwara Eliya District with 138,572 votes as opposed to 89,192 votes garnered by the UPFA. The final overall tally in the province was UPFA 30 seats, including two bonus seats and the UNP 26 seats.

In the present elections the JVP is contesting alone and the JVP breakaway group, the National Freedom Front is with the UPFA and one of the JVP elected members in the last PC elections from the Nuwara -Eliya District, who crossed over to the NFF is also contesting on the UPFA ticket this time, in addition to other NFF candidates. The CWC, the Up-Country People’s Front and another estate group led by Arulsamy are also contesting under the UPFA this time. With the main Up-Country Tamil parties with their captive voter bases contesting under the UPFA will certainly ensure its victory in Nuwara-Eliya.

One of the key charges levelled against the Government campaign by Dissanayake is that it is badly divided. “Their biggest meeting at Norwood couldn’t gather alliance partners on one stage. Three key partners were not there. “Only CWC Leader Arumugam Thondaman and President Rajapaksa were there. There was no show by Up-Country People’s Front Leader Chandrasekeran and Minister Putrasigamany”

Mr. S.B. Dissanayake, the UNP and other candidates are of the opinion that as a result of such in- fighting among Tamil parties, coupled with almost unprecedented economic woes facing estate workers they would easily turn those votes in UNP’s favour.

CWC team leader in the Nuwara Eliya District, Radha Krishnan dismisses UNP claims that any rift between them and UPFA would drive the voters to UNP. “If there is any rivalry, that is democracy in practice, but the votes will remain in those parties, he asserts emphatically.

About the non-presence of other Tamil parties at the Norwood meeting, the CWC group leader said it was purely their show and they had not invited the other Tamil parties, who were competing for votes with them.

Mr. Radha Krishnan said it was true that their founder leader Saumyamoorthy Thondaman had trained their people to mark their vote for the elephant, “but today we have educated our people that elephant will not come to power and therefore to vote for the betel leaf and unlike those days estate youth are educated.

He said under this government the estate sector had got many gains by way of concreted roads, new school buildings, improved health facilities, electricity to line rooms and most importantly jobs. In the last few years more than 200 had been recruited to the police force from among estate youth, 101 Gramasewakas, 3178 teachers, 350 postmen and 500 language facilitators to serve in government departments and institutions to assist estate workers who come to these institutions to obtain their services.

“We have explained all these gains to our people. Besides, most of the UNP Sinhala voters in these areas we spoke to said they would now vote for the UPFA because of the success of the war,” Krishnan said.

The CWC group leader, while praising Dissanayake as a capable politician and a friend, said they being a minority party knew of their limitations despite the fact they made up about 52 percent of the population in the district and following the guidelines laid down by their late founder Leader Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, they would always align with the party in power in order to get help for their long-neglected people.

He also said they had no illusions about grabbing power, because they understood the significance of places like Kandy in the culture of this country. “Unlike the East, where the Chief Ministership went to Pillaiyan, we cannot expect such things here,” he said however adding that unlike the last time when the JVP had the deciding vote with nine members to their own eight, this time they will be the deciding factor with the JVP expected to be beaten to a very low position.

JVP votes

JVP group leader in Nuwara Eliya Michael Aculas de Silva is a hard worker and is quite at home working with Tamil youth and fluently speaking their language having grown up among them. Michael has no illusions about his party’s chances with some in the party breaking away to form the NFF. From the three seats it won at the last PC poll, he said they now expected it to come down to two as one of their former elected members is now contesting on the UPFA after having joined the NFF.

Born and living among members of both communities, Michael is quite aware of their problems and needs, especially those at the bottom rungs of the society. He met us while supervising community development projects in three villages situated in parts of the former Olefant Estate. Here we noticed both Tamil and Sinhala youth were working with him in these projects or come seeking his advice.

He charged that Up-Country Tamil leaders like Arumugam Thondaman, who moved about like a Maharaja would not enter a line room let alone have glass of water from a worker’s quarter, but the JVPers were there taking part in all aspects of estate life and this has helped to open the eyes of the estate workers towards the party.

“The high cost of living coupled with reduction of work days to three per week due to stagnant tea market, are issues the estate workers can no longer bear,” the JVP District Leader said explaining that earlier they were paid Rs 221 per day if they worked 20 days a month and Rs 275 per day if they worked 25 days a month, but now they were reduced to working no more than 15 days a month. In the same period the price of wheat flour, their staple diet, had shot up to Rs 78 per kilo from Rs 24 and kerosene which they use for both cooking and lighting had shot up to Rs70 per litre.

The district leader of the JVP who has already carried out Rs. 3.3 million worth of community projects in Shanthipura, Olefant Estate, where we met him, is hopeful of grabbing at least one per cent of the estate Tamil vote this time. And instead of just criticizing those at the helm, Silva also offers solutions to problems faced by the people there. According to him instead of primarily relying on tea, which is dependent on global vagaries, the authorities should look into areas like reopening and developing seed potato farms as at present 90 per cent of the seed potato requirement of the country is imported. At present only six seed potato farms are operating and those too at partial capacity.

Another area for development he suggested was the cut-flower industry, which is ideal for this district. But he lamented that instead of growing all the flowers we need, the country was importing as much as 65 per cent of its requirement.

UNPers in the district too charged that estate workers were badly hit by the reduction in the number of days they are offered work. “They had no time to cook rice, so all they make is a simple roti or ate bread. But a loaf of bread is at least Rs35”, complained UNP Mayor of Nuwara-Eliya, Chandra Lal Karunaratne.

The Mayor said the unemployment situation there had also exacerbated, as a result of estate youth who were earlier employed in Colombo and elsewhere returning to the estates because of the stringent security measures they are subjected to in other areas.

“Unlike the CWC, which uses up worker membership fees for the personal benefit of their leaders, the UNP was there to serve the estate workers with offices in all estates along with the party youth and women’s clubs. Arumugam Thondaman talks so big, but 80,000 estate workers are still without identity cards. The party has become so unpopular with estate workers, it is now running behind Sinhala voters,” Karunaratne said.

Not worried

UNP candidate G.M.M. Piyasiri said they were not worried about CWC and Up-Country People’s Front being with the UPFA as without either of the parties the UNP had won the 1999 PC poll single-handedly. Besides this time they are contesting with the UNP Ravindran Ganeshan, the brother Western People’s Front Leader Mano Ganeshan, who had been a sitting member of the Central Provincial Council for 16 years and a former UPFA sitting member Sathasivam Digambaran, who even served as a presidential advisor.

In Matale we met several office bearers of the 151 member Traders, Association of the Dambulla Economic Centre, which handles bulk of the country’s vegetable and fruit wholesale trade.

A certain powerful UPFA politician is accused of extorting Rs 200,000 from each of these traders to fund the party campaign, but its General Secretary I.G. Wijenanda, Treasurer A.M.G.T. Abeyratne and Committee Members P.G.S. Ariyaratne and M.A. Wimalasena said in unison that it was a preposterous charge.

They said their members belonged to all political parties and being businessmen had dealings with all parties. The person who levelled the allegation lived in the adjoining property to the Dambulla Economic Zone but didn’t even know the number of wholesale commission agents operating there.

Being commission agents, whose objective was to buy and sell as fast as possible the highly perishable items they were dealing with, were not in a position to amass mass wealth to throw such huge sums into political campaigns. Most of all their commissions are a fixed rate and cannot be adjusted as they wish as key Government sector institutions are there in person to check any abuses, they said.

Matale District appears to be the least interested in the poll. Even on nomination day when more than a thousand vehicles of various party candidates and their supporters converged there, everything had ended peacefully with the police doing an excellent job.

But here we found people generally talking very favourably and openly of the security forces victories and handling of the war by the government in general. Even the formidable Aluwihara family seemed very much subdued in their campaign work.