polls mere appetiser for the mega ones to follow
The Southern provincial poll assumes a more than passing
significance. The ruling UPFA will, obviously, be keen to
gauge the pulse of the people in the aftermath of the war,
in a region considered most favourable for the Alliance.
This is important in the context of a presidential election.
The popular expectation is that President Mahinda Rajapaksa
will emerge a clear winner This presidential election will
be the first since they began in this country, where a free
vote will be possible in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
And, just as much as President Rajapaksa is seen as a hero
and saviour in the South, there is little to suggest that he
enjoys the same kind of support in the North and East, which
are, traditionally, favourable to the United National Party
As elections day nears in the Southern Province, the last
of the provincial polls has taken on an entirely different
dimension: It has been turned into an internecine battle of
infighting between the various contenders of the ruling
United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which is the
favourite to emerge as the winner at next Saturday’s
The headlines so far, have been made by maverick
candidate Nishantha Muthuhettigama, who could, on his day,
make Mervyn Silva blush. Muthuhettigama spares no one, and
the media have relished the opportunity to report on a UPFA
candidate who says not even the President can dictate terms
to him. Muthuhettigama, we are certain, will have his 15
minutes of fame, but the only two questions that remain in
the South is the margin of the UPFA’s expected victory and
who the Chief Minister would be.
That President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a keen follower of
the Southern election is obvious. Despite security concerns,
the President has been more visible on the campaign trail
than leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe. That is
only understandable: The President regards the South as his
home turf, and would want a rousing endorsement from Ruhuna
to prove the point.
But the battles between candidates within the Alliance did
not escape the President’s attention. That is why he ordered
that election laws be strictly adhered to, and instructed
the Police to remove posters and cut-outs of candidates.
That became another focus of attention, when Cabinet
Minister for Mass Media and Information, Anura Priyadarshana
Yapa, said that his personal view was that the law was too
stringent. Yapa does have a valid argument: How can a
candidate project his image to the voter, if all election
laws were strictly adhered to, and there wasn’t a single
poster or cut-out in the campaign? Yapa called for a review
of the relevant laws, but conceded that, while the present
laws existed, they need to be complied with.
But the real context of the Southern provincial poll was
confirmed by the ‘other’ Yapa in the government, Minister
Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, the non-Cabinet Minister of Mass
Media and Information, who announced that presidential
elections will be held in January, followed by general
elections in March.
That this statement did not grab the headlines was mostly
because this was a public secret; nevertheless, this was the
first instance when a government spokesman had committed
himself to a definite date for the two upcoming major
In fact, Abeywardena went further to say that the
government was seeking a two-thirds mandate at the general
elections, so it could have a free hand in implementing
political reforms that would attempt to redress the
grievances of all communities in the country.
Abeywardena also said that the President elected at the poll
would govern for the next eight years. This of course
assumes that President Rajapaksa would emerge as the victor,
when he would be able to utilise the remainder of his first
term of office as well.
Certainly, necessary precautions will be taken to avoid
the kind of controversy former President Chandrika
Kuamaratunga had to endure, when she had to concede a year
of office, following a Supreme Court ruling.
This is where the Southern provincial poll assumes a more
than passing significance. The ruling UPFA will, obviously,
be keen to gauge the pulse of the people in the aftermath of
the war, in a region which it considers to be most
favourable for the Alliance. Already, projections of an 80%
slice of the vote are being made, and it remains to be seen
whether such predictions are realistic.
This is important in the context of a presidential
election. The popular expectation is that President Mahinda
Rajapaksa will emerge a clear winner. However, there are
some concerns that the President will be alive to.
This presidential election will be the first presidential
poll since presidential elections began in this country
where a free vote will be possible in the Northern and
Eastern provinces. And, just as much as President Rajapaksa
is seen as a hero and saviour in the south of the country,
there is little to suggest that he enjoys the same kind of
support in the North and East, which have been traditionally
seen as regions favourable to the United National Party
This was so even at the 2005 presidential elections,
where Rajapaksa won with a narrow majority, largely because
of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) enforced
boycott of the poll. Even with that boycott call, opposition
leader and rival presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe
was able to close the margin on Rajapaksa, because of the
strong endorsements he received in the North and East.
Comparisons with 2005 though are redundant now. The
political realities have changed almost irrevocably for the
next election. President Rajapaksa’s political fortunes have
soared since crushing the LTTE, and the gift he expects from
the nation is re-election with an overwhelming mandate- and
there is every indication that this will be a reality.
That the President is already in the fray became obvious
from the recent campaign meetings he attended in the South.
In the past four years, the President has refrained from
attacking opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe from public
platforms, but now he has started doing so. Thus the
Southern provincial poll is fast becoming a dress rehearsal
of sorts for the presidential election.
The opposition though is still groping for a candidate to
contest President Rajapaksa. And efforts by a section of the
opposition to forge a common ‘front’ to counter the
President has already run into snags, because the leftist
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is playing hard to get and
refusing to endorse a common candidate. Thus the stage is
slowly but surely being set for the two major polls next
year. For the student of politics, the Southern provincial
poll is a mere appetiser. Indeed, these two elections in
2010 will be a landmark in local political history, because
they will be the first free elections to be held in the
entirety of the country in over 30 years.