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Victory at local polls: Icing on the cake for UPFA

Just when Sri Lankans thought they had their last helping of elections for a while, another round of keenly contested polls has been announced, for 23 local bodies, mostly municipal councils in the major cities to be held on October 8.
The announcement itself marks a change of stance from the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Earlier, the government had contemplated not holding municipal elections in the major cities, toying with the idea of administering these regions with a specially authorised body.
The official reason offered for this was that administration would be more efficient and a case was made to amalgamate the municipal councils of Colombo, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia and Sri Jaywardenepura-Kotte and form a special authority.

Now however these plans have been shelved, indicating that the UPFA is supremely confident of winning a majority of the municipalities on offer, including the Colombo Municipal Council which even at the worst of times, has been a bastion of the opposition United National Party (UNP).
This thinking of the government is surely based on the current high-pitched dispute within the UNP where the Ranil Wickremesinghe faction is striving to see off a challenge for the party leadership posed by Sajith Premadasa who is using his co-deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya as a proxy.
The UPFA strategy has been astoundingly simple: stagger the elections. For the UNP, as one election defeat leads to another, the calls for Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down from the leadership keep growing and with Wickremesinghe opting to stay put, divisions in the party have reached a climax.

This tactic was adopted by the UPFA from 2008 onwards when elections to the provincial councils were held on a staggered basis. With the war ending in 2009, presidential elections were held first and general elections followed in 2010, with the UPFA gaining maximum political dividends as a result.
With the executive, Parliament and the provincial councils firmly under its control, in 2011 the government began its assault on local government bodies. In two rounds of elections held this year in March and in July it has captured most of the councils on offer except those in the North.
Therefore, in more ways than one, if the UPFA is able to win most of the municipalities which go to the polls on October, it will be the icing on the cake. Conversely, for the UNP, it may spell the beginning of the end.
That is because municipalities are generally centred around major cities with urban demographics dominating the voting population. More often than not, they represent the so-called ‘upper middle class’, that is traditionally identified with the UNP.

Among such municipalities up for grabs in October - other than those in the greater Colombo region - are those in Moratuwa, Kolonnawa, Gampaha, Negombo, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Badulla and Ratnapura.
Clearly however, the grand prize will be the Colombo Municipal Council for the simple reason that it has always been a UNP stronghold. Even at the 2010 general election, when the UNP was routed throughout the country it held on to the five electoral districts in Colombo with convincing majorities.
The two major parties have decided on different strategies to try and woo the Colombo voter and this is reflected in their choice of candidates for the mayoralty: Milinda Moragoda from the UPFA and A. J. M. Muzammil from the UNP.

Moragoda, grandson of financier N. U. Jayawardena was originally a UNP strongman and a close associate of Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe until he crossed over to join the cabinet. Thereafter, he was a high profile minister holding the portfolios of tourism and justice.
Unable to secure a seat at the 2010 parliamentary elections, he remained close to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and was a presidential advisor. Now, he has been afforded the opportunity to reignite his political career with a chance at the Colombo mayoralty.
Muzammil in contrast cannot boast of such an impressive track record but is being rewarded for his loyalty to party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. There is another reason however for his nomination: He comes from the Muslim community.

It appears that it was a foregone conclusion that the UNP would nominate a Muslim as its mayoral candidate for Colombo. The other front runners were Mohamed Maharoof and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, the latter being the nominee of the Sajith Premadasa faction.
Bakeer Markar too has more impressive credentials than Muzammil but Wickremesinghe wouldn’t wish to nominate him, as a victory for him would have amounted to a victory for the Premadasa faction. Besides, Bakeer Markar hails from Beruwela and has fewer connections to Colombo.
The UNP is obviously keen to exploit the communal factor by nominating a Muslim candidate. This is a tactic supported by history: Six of the Colombo Municipal Council’s last 12 mayors have been Muslim - and all of them were elected with support from the UNP.

If, for the government, the battle for the Colombo Municipal Council is a matter of prestige, it means much more for the UNP. The party’s leadership crisis is at its peak with no resolution in sight. A defeat at the Colombo Municipal Council elections could well be a turning point for the UNP.
It will be recalled that when elections were last held for the Council in 2006, the UNP made a mess of it and had its nomination papers rejected on the grounds that a candidate’s name had been altered. On that occasion, the party then supported a group with the ‘spectacle’ symbol-and that group still won.
That is an indication of how hard-core Colombo voters have been in support for the UNP. If that were to change now, it could be considered that the UNP has indeed reached a nadir in its popularity - and this is exactly what the UPFA is aiming for.

The UPFA will certainly use all the resources at its disposal to achieve this - and it can afford to do so because the entire state apparatus is at its disposal. The least the UNP could do is to present a united front to the Colombo voter - at least until these elections are dispensed with.
The coming weeks therefore will present an absorbing contest: The UPFA is keen to consolidate its power in the remaining local authorities in the country and the UNP will be aspiring once again to break a long running losing streak.