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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.