UNP: Candle burning on both ends
by Francis Xavier
When the Presidential election campaign began in earnest two facts were accepted
Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse, the Prime Minister, wooing the Sinhala majority community
was going to get the most votes from that segment.The Prime Ministers alignment with
Sinhala patriotic forces like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, Jathika Hela Urumaya etc
would ensure that.
Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe canvassing for the votes of the minority communities was
going to win most votes from those sections. The Leader of the Oppositions alliance
with minority parties like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Ceylon Workers Congress,
Up - Country Peoples Front, Western Province Peoples Front etc was going to get him
the minority votes.
The Sri Lankan Tamil vote was also expected to go to Mr. Wickremasinghe. The
Liberation Tigers of Tamil eelam and their proxy the Tamil National Alliance would see
It was on these two sets of "given" that both candidates based their campaigns.
Mr. Rajapakse worked on the assessment that he was not going to get any votes from
the three minority communities, the Sri Lankan Tamils in particular. This made him
target the Sinhala constituency alone in the beginning.. The tie - ups with the JVP and
JHU were on that basis.The attacks on Mr. Wickremasinghe’s purported closeness to
the Tamils was also due to this strategy.
Mr. Wickremasinghe planned his strategy with priority`A0 on the minority communities.
He aimed to get the overwhelming support of these communities thanks to his "soft"
line`A0 on the peace process. As for the Sinhala votes he relied on the traditional
UNP vote bloc of 35% votes. There was little defence offered to the attacks made
about a UNP - LTTE nexus.
The campaigns got underway on these lines. Early expectations were that Mr.
Rajapakse would get the majority of the majority community votes and only a minority
of the minority community votes. Mr. Wickremasinghe was going to get the majority of
the minority community votes and only a minority of the majority community votes.
Based on these assessments the questions facing election pundits was whether Mr.
Rajapakse relying on majority votes alone was enough to ensure success or whether
Mr. Wickremasinghe with the minority cum Sinhala vote will be the victor?
According to mid-campaign assessments Mr. Rajapakse was expected to win the
districts of Hambantota, Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Gampaha, Kurunegala, Moneragala,
`A0 Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Mr. Wickremasinghe was expected to win
Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Ratnapura, Puttalam, Digamadulla, Batticaloa
and Trincomalee.Kegalle and Matale were fifty - fifty.
The unknown quantity was the Tamil majority Northern Province. Since the race in the
West, South, Central and East was seen as a neck to neck one the North was
expected to clinch the result.
With the LTTE more or less controlling the Jaffna and Vanni electoral districts the
tigers were expected to manipulate the poll in favour of Mr. Wickremasinghe, who
according to most people was the favourite candidate of Kilinochi. The LTTE was
keeping everyone guessing.
If Mr. Rajapakse was to off set this it was necessary for him to get more Sinhala votes.
This led to an increased attack on Mr. Wickremasinghes alleged links to the LTTE.
There was also stepped up activity to promote "Apey Mahinda" as a Sinhala son of
the soil in the rural areas especially in the Ruhunu region.
Like in most cases this simple and convenient division on majority- minority lines has
now blurred. It appears that Mr. Rajapakse is going to attract far more minority
community votes than anticipated earlier. At the same time it looks like that Mr.
Wickremasinghe is not going to get all the minority votes as he expected.
The SLMC led by Mr. Rauf Hakeem is backing Mr. Wickremasinghe strongly. The
party is strengthened further by the return of former MP’s like messers. Hizbullah,
Azeez and Harees. Mr. Hakeem has sworn that the SLMC will deliver more votes than
the LTTE. He has also claimed that all other Muslim organizations will be swept away.
An eight party Muslim umbrella front is also backing Mr. Wickremasinghe though the
coordinator has gone over to the other side.
Apart from the SLMC the UNP also has a sizeable Muslim vote bank. It was expected
that a combination of votes will help Mr. Wickremasinghe bury Mr. Rajapakse in a
massive landslide of Muslim votes.
The situation is not so simple. There are Eastern Province`A0 Muslim leaders with a
support base at local level. Messers Ameer Ali, Najib Abdul Majeed, AHM Athaullah,
Anwer Ismail et al have stronholds in Oddamavadi, Kinniya, Akkaraipattu,
Sammanthurai etc. Ms. Ferial Ashraff has widespread appeal in te Digamadulla
district. Mr. Riyas Badurdeen has support in Mannar and Vavuniya.
It is also important to note that there is much insecurity and concern among Eastern
Province Muslims about Mr. Wickremasinghes alleged links with the LTTE. This is also
resulting in an anti UNP backlash.
So, Mr. Rajapakse is going to attract a considerable number of Muslim votes from the
North - East due to these reasons. Mr. Wickremasinghe will get the bulk of Muslim
votes in the South. He will also get more Muslim votes than his rival in the North - East.
But Mr. Rajapakse will also get Muslim votes. He is not a write - off.
With the Up Country Tamil parties of Messers Thondaman, Chandrasekharan and
Mano Ganeshan supporting Mr. Wickremasinghe the bulk of Indian descent Tamil
votes in the Plantations and Colombo will be for Mr. Wickremasinghe. Since the UNP
also has a Tamil vote bank the dual combination will certainly gather a vote harvest .
Again the situation is not totally one sided. Dissidents from the CWC like former MP’s
P. Devaraj and S. Sathasivam and UPF like Mr. Kanagaraj`A0 are backing Mr.
Rajapakse. So is the UPF Central Provincial Councillor - defector Mr. Arulsamy. These
men have some limited support. The mass meetings organized by them were well
There is also some resentment against the unprincipled politics of Mr. Thondaman
and Mr. Chandrasekeram. The youth and intelligentsia are up in arms. This feeling
too may express itself by rebelling against Mr. Wickremasinghes candidacy.
So, Mr. Rajapakse is going to get Up Country Tamil votes too. Mr. Wickremasinghe will
not have a total monopoly.
Mr. Rajapakse’s liability and Mr. Wickremasinghe’s asset in this respect is the Prime
Minister’s pacts with the JVP and JHU. The Tamils and Muslims of the North and East
are not directly threatened by the JVP and JHU but those living in the other seven
provinces are. Because of this the tendency would be to keep away from Mr.
Rajapakse in protest against his links with the JVP - JHU.
The Sri Lankan Tamils like the other minority communities were expected to support
Mr. Wickremasinghe. It was almost a foregone conclusion among Sri Lankan Tamils
living in Colombo , Negombo and other areas of the South. Those living in the North -
East were expected to vote en masse for Mr. Wickremasinghe. The LTTE though
officially "neutral" was supposed to aid and abet such activity.
The glorious uncertainity of politics has caused an upset now. The LTTE has moved
away from its position of neutrality. It now wants the Tamil people to adopt "non -
alignment" and keep away from Presidential polls. Though appearing to be nominally
"non - committal" the LTTE has through its known and unknown front organizations
called for a boycott. There is no need for Tamils to participate in a Sri Lankan
Presidential election say the tigers and their supporters.
With the Tamil media echoing this line along with leaflets and posters and a series of
grenades being exploded regularly the Tamil people are getting the message. Senior
LTTE leader Mr. Balakumaran launched a powerful attack on Mr. Wickremasinghe
over a tiger radio last week. This gave the green light for the Tamil media to go after
Mr. Wickremasinghe who in customary style kept his cool.
Not so his deputies. The Sudar Oli and Uthayan reported that Mr. Navin Dissanayake
addressing a meeting at Ginigathena had said that Mr. Wickremasinghe and the UNP
were responsible for weakening the LTTE through the ceasefire and creating the
Karuna split. This caused a furore. Mr. Dissanayake denied it. The newspapers
carried the denial along with their refutation.
Then came another bombshell by Mr. Milinda Moragoda in an interview to an English
daily . He claimed credit for the UNP in engineering a split within the LTTE through the
peace process whilst at the same time keeping the movement locked in via an
international security net.
Mr. Moragoda also claimed credit for the UNF government of Mr. Ranil
Wickremasinghe in the sinking of LTTE vessels during the peace talks. Mr. Moragoda
also said that if elected Mr. Wickremasinghe, too, would review the ceasefire as
pledged by Mr. Rajapakse.
It may be recalled that Mr. Wickremasinghe in a short visit to the Palaly military base
told soldiers that the LTTE lost 23 ships during the ceasefire.
LTTE and pro - LTTE sections were now on the offensive. Mr. Wickremasinghe and
the UNP were attacked relentlessly. Mr. Chandrasekeram and Mr. Mano Ganeshan
called for an explanation and threatened a review of support for Mr. Wickremasinghe.
What exactly has gone wrong between the UNP and LTTE is not clear at this point. It
may be that behind the scene negotiations went sour and the LTTE got angry with Mr.
Wickremasinghe. There was much speculation earlier that Mr. Wickremasinghe would
set up an LTTE controlled Interim Self - Governing Authority if elected. He was also
expected to disband the Tamil para military groups including the tiger rebel faction led
by Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan or Karuna.
It is very likely that the UNP realised that such action was impossible under the
present conditions and refused. It is also possible that the LTTE realised the UNP was
only bluffing and that they were not going to deliver. The tigers may also have thought
that strengthening Mr. Wickremasinghe through a massive Tamil mandate would be
counter productive in a war situation. The LTTE was also suspicious of a prolonged
ceasefire , endless negotiations under the auspices of a UNP inspired international
As for the UNP the party may have found the LTTE expectations too high to fulfil. A
tremendous Sinhala backlash was to be expected. Also, it may have been that the
party felt the LTTE was going to shortchange them and not deliver the Tamil votes.
The onslaught by Mr. Balakumaran may have triggered off warning signals.
There is a point of view among many analysts that the LTTE would prefer Mr.
Rajapakse to Mr. Wickremasinghe for two reasons. One is that a Sinhala hardline
regime under Mr. Rajapakse would create conditions for war. The international
community was likely to be put off by his regime. Chaotic governance was also likely
with different sections pulling in different directions.
These conditions were likely to be absent in a new dispensation under Mr.
Wickremasinghe. This would make it difficult for war to be resumed. The international
community was likely to back Mr. Wickremasinghe to the hilt.
As for the UNP, it is reasonable to assume that it resorted to this anti - tiger
manouevre to demonstrate to the Sinhala voters that it had already inflicted damage
to the LTTE and there would be no sell - out. With the LTTE attacking Mr.
Wickremasinghe openly the UNP had to stop putting good money after bad in a
Mr. Wickremasinghe had lost out considerably amidst the Sinhala constituency to Mr.
Rajapakse due to his perceived "closeness" to the LTTE. Whatever that he hoped to
gain through the LTTE was not going to materialise. So the UNP may have been
compelled to take an anti - tiger line hoping to recapture lost ground among Sinhala
voters at least. What it loses among North - Eastern Tamil voters it may gain among
It remains to be seen whether this hope will turn into a dupe or not. It may be too late
in the day for such a reversal. Besides the electorate may be suspicious still and
doubt whether all this is a joint trick by the UNP - LTTE to hoodwink the masses.
On the other hand the apparent UNP-LTTE rift and tiger inspired boycott will be
helpful to Mr. Rajapakse. The tendency of North eastern Tamil voters would have
been to vote for Mr. Wickremasinghe even without LTTE backing. With the tigers
enforcing a boycott most Tamil voters would simply keep away from polling. There will
be no urge to invite unwanted trouble on account of voting for the UNP.
The LTTE will also find it easier to call for a boycott because of the hostile UNP line. It
would now help justify an anti - Wickremasinghe approach.
The boycott if successful means a loss of 500, 000 plus votes for Mr.
Wickremasinghe. These votes could have clinched a decision in favour of him. Now
these votes will not be cast. So Mr. Rajapakse is lucky. Even if those votes`A0 would
have never come to him in the first place they will not be going to his opponent either.
Meanwhile, organizations like the EPDP, EPRLF (Padmanaba faction), ENDLF,
TEMVP led by Col. Karuna etc will be backing Mr. Rajapakse. In the face of an LTTE
inspired boycott these outfits will attempt to garner Tamil votes for Mr. Rajapakse
despite the JVP - JHU links.
A minimum target of 50,000 for Jaffna, 15,000 for Vanni and 35, 000 for East has
been set. There is no doubt that attempts will be made to reach these targets through
" hook or crook" and by "every trick in the book". Mr. Rajapakse, therefore, will get
North- Eastern Tamil votes too.
In a bizarre change of circumstances all initial calculations have gone awry. Both
candidates will now get votes from the majority and minority communities. The plus
point in Mr. Wickremasinghe’s favour was that he had a better chance of taking the
peace process forward rather than his rival. Now both are equalised. In this situation
the man with an accessible aura and acceptability to the common man has
Mr. Wickremasinghe is in an unenviable position. He lost out much in the South due to
the LTTE factor. Now the tigers are on the warpath and he may not get as many North-
Eastern Tamil votes as he would have hoped to. Changing tactics and appealing to
the Sinhala constituency may come too late in the day for him. The candle is burning
at both ends for Mr. Wickremasinghe.
As for Mr. Rajapakse appears to be sitting pretty hoping that fruits of victory mat fall
into his lap.
[Courtesy: The Island]