TamilWeek, Nov 27 - Dec 3, 2005
Ranil – the Sinhala leader for whom
Tamils risked their lives

In Batticaloa alone nearly 100,000 Tamils
defied a Tiger boycott to vote for him

The fact that Ranil Wickremesinghe was going to be
defeated in the south – in the largely Sinhala
Buddhist areas – became evident towards the last few
weeks of the election campaign.
The swell in the tide towards Mahinda Rajapakse was felt by a few, while the
majority of the analysts, who based their calculations on ‘independent’ polls,
predicted otherwise.

What the UNP leader tried to explain to the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency was a
rather complex message – a complicated one, especially when compared to the
simple Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic slogans of the Rajapakse camp.

It was clear from the very beginning that the southern electorate was going to
have problems in deciphering and decoding Wickremesinghe’s message despite a
very effective media campaign by his party to simplify it.

Unfortunately, given that any slip by him would have cost chunks of the minority
votes on which the UNP was banking on heavily, and also running the risk of being
exposed by the LTTE, it was only to a certain extent that the UNP leader could
clarify his plans to protect the territorial integrity of the country.

And to that extent, the plans still remained complex for the average voter.

As expected, the south voted against him and defeated him. And at the same time
the North vindicated him of all charges made against him by the south. But by
then it was too late.The LTTE plan to defeat Wickremesinghe has earned him a
degree of respect among the majority, even among the SLFP supporters,
something that the UNP leader never enjoyed since he became the Prime Minister
in December 2001.

The South may still want the nationalist and the more amiable Rajapakse as the
President, but they also want Ranil Wickremesinghe as the leader-in-waiting. After
all, it was Wickremesinghe and not Rajapakse that the LTTE wanted beaten. And
the electorate knows that the Tigers would have had a very good reason to do so.

It is because of this that the reports of a step down by Wickremesinghe from the
UNP leadership have disturbed not only the Buddhists and the minorities who
voted for him, but even a section of the Sinhala Buddhist hardliners who voted for
Rajapakse.

There is a wave of sympathy for the UNP leader from all quarters as every body
awaits his decision whether to stay or to give up.

However, the defeat of Wickremesinghe in the south is not solely attributed to the
problems in decoding his message. There are several other dimensions too.

More prominent among the other attributes is the class element.

Nowhere in recent history has the class division became so pronounced at an
election as at the November 17 poll.

The manner the Colombo business class came forward to ensure a victory for
Ranil, having wallowed in depression for more than one and half years under the
UPFA, created insecurity in the middle and the working class as never before.

It was a fact that almost 90% of the leading Colombo businessmen put their weight
behind the UNP leader this time, pinning their hopes of a better economy under
Wickremesinghe.Even the television station identified with the JHU changed
colours in support of Wickremesinghe.

On top of this came the advertising campaign of a business leader who has been
accused by Buddhist hardliners of making insidious moves to destroy Buddhism in
the country.

The fear that the business class would rule the roost under a Wickremesinghe
government undermining the values of the middle class, saw the middle class
strengthening its resolve to defeat Wickremesinghe, especially during the last
couple of weeks of the campaign.

The UNP leader also lost thousands of the Sinhala-Buddhist floating votes that
would have definitely come his way due to that advertising campaign, which was
mainly aimed at mustering the Catholic vote for Wickremesinghe.

The very nature of the campaign and the reputation of the individuals who ran it
were such that it created a high degree of insecurity among the country’s
Buddhists. Finally, in a counter move, the four Buddhist chapters held an
emergency meeting and issued a statement requesting the Sinhala Buddhists to
vote for “a unitary state”. This spelt disaster for Wickremesinghe.

Besides, in spite of advertising campaigns condemning the Buddhist allies of
Rajapakse, several predominantly Catholic electorates went to Rajapakse at the
election.

Ja Ela was won by over 4,000 votes and Katana too went to him with a majority of
over 9,000 votes. The overwhelmingly Catholic Wennappuwa, which many
predicted would go to the UNP with a big margin, too was won by Rajapakse with a
majority of 1,000 votes. So did Naththandiya.

One only hopes that these will serve as an eye-opener for Wickremesinghe – the
dangers of letting outsiders hijack his secular election campaign to play the
religious card. Despite these shortcomings in his election campaign and the
defeat in bulk of the electorates in the south, it goes without saying that Ranil
Wickremesinghe is still the best strategist that the UNP, if not the country, can
think of when it comes to peace and economy.

He is also the only senior in the party who can keep the flock, especially the party’
s minority vote bank, intact. The UNP, by its very nature, is multi-ethnic and multi-
religious and keeping the Tamil, the Muslim and the Catholic vote bank of the
party will indeed become a daunting task in the event of a step-down by him.

The much-respected gentle Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya has always been
identified as a nationalist and so is S.B. Dissanayake whose communal stance as
a powerful PA Minister contributed to the SLMC decision to cross over to the UNP
in 2001.

Mr. Wickremesinghe would have thought that stepping down is the most prudent
thing to do in the face of increased pressure from sections in the party’s rank and
file. Besides, he must be a very disappointed man, too disappointed to hold on to
the party leadership when he has been rejected, especially by the south, despite
the most ambitious election campaign that the UNP had ever launched.

However, the chances are that the party people would later regret his stepping
down, given the discipline and sophistication he had brought into the party.

More than anything else, Ranil Wickremesinghe will be remembered as the leader
who halted the war by a comprehensive ceasefire and also the one who built a
solid international safety net that protected the ceasefire and also the territorial
integrity of Sri Lanka. If not for the tab the United States, in particular, kept on the
LTTE during the last three years or so, the Tigers would by now have done
greater damage to the country.

Also unforgettable is how he won the faith of the Tamils, especially in the North
and the East, as a trustworthy leader when all the southern leaders caved in.

It is this implicit faith that made thousands of Tamils last week to risk even their
lives to defy the LTTE call for a boycott to vote for Wickremesinghe. What they
proved by this defiance was that they had more faith in Wickremesinghe than
even in Velupillai Prabhakaran.

In Batticaloa, the total turnout was 154, 615, of which nearly 100,000 Tamils cast
their ballots while the rest were Muslims.

In the Wanni, about 65,000 of the voters who cast their ballots are Tamils and this
included 902 from Mullaitivu. Thousands of others were turned back at Omanthai
by the LTTE. These people could have easily waited at home on Election Day
rather than being marked by the Tigers as those who defied their tacit boycott.

But they braved their way to the polling booth with the hope that Wickremesinghe
will bring peace. Now that the UNP leader has lost the election one wonders what
is going on in the minds of these innocent people!

A step-down by the UNP leader will definitely diminish the last rays of hope these
people have in democracy. Which way this frustration would turn, one never
knows.

Allaying the war fears among them, and also the Sinhalese and the Muslims,
should be the first major task of President Mahinda Rajapakse. Having joined
hands with the country’s two most nationalist parties, he appointed the strongest
critic of the LTTE in the SLFP camp, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, as his Prime
Minister, perhaps as a stop-gap exercise.

For the overwhelming majority of Buddhists who voted for Rajapakse – this indeed
is a reason for celebration.

But how about the Tamils and the Muslims? The stronger the accent on
nationalism, the more insecure the minorities will become.

The impact of a Wickremesinghe step-down – thus dashing the hopes of the
minorities – is likely to send tremors through every institution in the State,
including the very administration of Rajapakse.

Which way the Tamil civilians would turn in desperation, only time will tell.

Ranil Wickremesinghe and the United National Party (UNP) still have time to avert
an impending disaster.
[Courtesy: DailyMirror]
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