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This is my Nation


South 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 (UNP)

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 elections.

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 elections.

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 (UNP).

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.