This is my Nation  


Symbolic parting of ways

Nominations for the forthcoming general elections opened this week, and will conclude in the coming week, and the battle lines are becoming clearer, as respective political parties weigh their options and decide on strategy for the poll.
The ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is busy finalising its Nomination lists and briefing candidates, while at the same time trying to avoid intra-party rivalry. A novel strategy that has been adopted for this purpose is the appointment of District leaders and deputies in each electoral district.

While it has been more or less smooth sailing for the ruling party, the collective Opposition was last week grappling with a major policy decision: Whether to contest under one banner, as they did at the presidential election, or whether to go their separate ways.
There is still a possibility of a last minute change of direction, but at the time of writing, indications are that, the main Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) and the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) will contest as separate entities.

Losing presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka and former Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MP and ex-cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunga as well as SLFP (Mahajana faction) stalwart Tiran Alles are said to support the JVP in this move.
The UNP will contest as the United National Alliance (UNA), which will also include the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the Mano Ganesan-led Democratic Peoples’ Front (DPF) and SLFP (M) leader Mangala Samaraweera.

For many idealists who were hoping for a broad alliance, to offer some resistance to the UPFA juggernaut, this was disappointing news. Such an alliance, they hoped, would optimise the ‘sympathy for General Fonseka’ factor, and lead to an enhanced performance at the general election.
However, it appears that harsh political realities have at last sunk in, especially among the UNP stalwarts who were in the forefront in agitating that the UNP should contest under the ‘elephant’ symbol, no less. The JVP was welcome, they argued, as long as they contested under the ‘elephant’. That was not to be.

There were many reasons for the UNP to insist on the ‘elephant’ symbol, quite apart from the fact that ‘hardcore’ UNP voters only recognised the ‘Aliya’. And foremost among these was a perception that a fate similar to what befell the SLFP at the last general election could await them.
At that poll, by virtue of nominating only a few candidates for each electoral district, the JVP garnered 39 seats. The UNP hierarchy estimated that the JVP would win at least 20 seats, if they were accommodated in the UNP lists this year, obviously, at the expense of potential UNP MPs.

The UNP and the JVP were enamoured with each other during the presidential election campaign, but their common denominator was opposition to President Rajapaksa. Even if the JVP was accommodated in the UNP list, there was no guarantee that the honeymoon would last for the next six years.
That is because, ideologically, and in terms of issues such as economic policy and resolving ethnic grievances in the country, the UNP and the JVP positions are poles apart. There is, therefore, every likelihood that there would be a parting of ways over some issue or other, sooner rather than later.

The UNP, it must be understood, is particularly sensitive to the issue of MPs getting elected from its ticket and then defecting to the ruling party. This is what happened over the past six years as first President Chandrika Kumaratunga and then President Rajapaksa lured UNPers away from their ranks.
The UNP clearly did not want a repeat performance of that. Nor did they want a situation where the party’s electoral organisers have toiled hard for nearly thirteen of the past sixteen years in the opposition, only for the JVP to steal a march over them at the general election.

Another factor weighed heavily in the UNP’s considerations: At the 2005 presidential elections, Ranil Wickremesinghe polled 4.7 million votes when the JVP vote accrued to Rajapaksa. In 2010, General Fonseka polled only 4 million votes, with the JVP supporting him.

Of course, elections are not always simple arithmetic, and there are many confounding factors. Yet, these numbers suggest that the Opposition has to now confront what appears to be a harsh reality: Despite their high profile and efficient organisational ability, the JVP’s vote base seems to have dwindled considerably.
In these circumstances, UNPers argue that the JVP would be ‘unwanted baggage’ in their campaign. Besides, they would have to counter embarrassing questions as to what their policies would be, vis-à-vis the economy and the ethnic issue, queries which have little common ground as explanations.

Of course, the ‘split’ between the UNP and the JVP can only be to the advantage of the ruling UPFA. If not anything else, it would ensure that most of the electoral districts would be won by the Alliance, thereby ensuring a haul of over 20 bonus seats that could ultimately prove crucial.
The UPFA, when it found that it could not enact Constitutional amendments to have elections on the first-past-the-post system, almost gave up on its dream of securing a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament. With the ‘split’ between the UNP and the JVP, that dream has now taken a new lease of life.

The Opposition is yet hopeful. It is counting on several factors that could work in its favour. The general election is not a referendum on President Rajapaksa’s popularity, and many of his ministers have been found wanting in their performance. Thus, the UPFA may well have a fight on its hands in some regions.

The incarceration of General Fonseka, however much it may be necessary for legal reasons, has evoked sympathy for the man who led the nation in its battle against terrorism. The government’s handling of the issue has only made him a hero, and that too, could work against the UPFA’s prospects.

Nevertheless, six weeks is a long time in politics. The political currents in the country are in a state of flux, and much could happen between now and April 8. The only certainty is that the coming weeks will be interesting, to say the least.