Daily Archives: June 30, 2008
The UNP has scored a major victory by managing to field Major General (Retd) Janaka Perera to contest as the chief ministerial candidate of the North Central Province. When the NCP and Sabaragamauwa PCs were dissolved, one point raised by this columnist was that the UNP’s prospects in these provinces were particularly bleak because of the lack of personalities who can provide leadership to the various districts. The examples that I took were the Kurunegala district, where the UNP has Gamini Jayawickreme Perera, Johnston Fernando and Dayasiri Jayasekera, all capable leaders. Even the Puttalam district has Palitha Range Bandara, an ex-cop who is good at providing leadership in a primitive, caveman like way. Colombo has Ravi Karunanayake, Matara now has Mangala Samaraweera. But the districts of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Ratnapura were wastelands in terms of leaders. Kegalle was slightly better off with Kabir Hashim providing gentlemanly leadership as an educated minority politician.
With Janaka Perera going to the NCP, where he will most probably be based in Anuradhapura, the Anuradhapura district will after a long time have a man of stature as a leader. That Janaka Perera would join the UNP is not surprising because in the 1990s, he was one of those army officers who like his seniors, the late Lucky Algama and Cecil Waidyaratne, were always identified with the UNP. Because of this identification, the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime did not make him Army Commander when his turn came. But in a rare show of magnanimity, she made Perera High Commissioner in Australia. This is considered a first class diplomatic posting and even ex-Army commanders (with the exception of Gen. Dennis Perera) and joint operations chiefs are usually sent to postings in places like Pakistan and Thailand, not to the plum postings in the west. Even General Waidyaratne was sent to Thailand as Ambassador after retirement.
Even though the Kumaratunga regime deprived Perera of the Army Commandership which he so richly deserved, he can’t say that Kumaratunga was unfair to him. Not only did she appoint him as High Commissioner but both she and Lakshman Kadirgamar stood by Perera when there was an LTTE orchestrated attempt to prevent Canberra from accepting his accreditation on the grounds that he was responsible for various human rights violations. Even Lional Bopage, the former general secretary of the JVP now living in Australia, appeared on Australian TV against Perera. But the Kumaratunga government held its ground and the Australians accepted him. This is one of the rare instances when Chandrika Kumaratunga can be held in a good light.
The Rajapakse regime, however treated Perera differently. They suddenly recalled him from his posting as Ambassador to Indonesia last year without allowing him to complete his term. At the time he was recalled, the foreign minister was Mangala Samaraweera. Perera was at that time the most high profile individual serving in an ambassadorial posting, yet the foreign minister of the time had absolutely nothing to say about why he was being recalled. That deafening silence was curious to say the least. Now that Perera and Samaraweera are on the same side of the barricade, they may perhaps be able to discuss things at leisure.
Be that as it may, one can’t really expect a man to be given short shrift by one side and expect him not to look to the other side for succor. Becoming a UNP politician for Perera is a case of going home. Having being labeled a UNPer all his life, there’s nothing wrong in him being a UNP candidate. Perera is going to be the centre of all attraction at the forthcoming PC elections. His acceptance of the UNP nominations in the NCP has upped the stakes. What would have been a one horse race for the government has now become a battleground.
Not that things are going to be easy for Perera. He has a reputation for winning battles against tremendous odds. It was he who held Jaffna in 2000 when the LTTE seemed poised to take over the peninsula. But this election is going to test his abilities to the maximum. There are no consolation prizes here. Had this been a parliamentary election, even if the UNP was unable to win power, Perera would have been an MP in the supreme legislature, and the status of parliamentarian would have been commensurate with his stature and the positions he held as Army chief or staff and former High Commissioner. But at a provincial level, he’ll have to win and become chief minister or he’ll find himself sitting with various unsavory characters who tried to get into parliament but failed and had to settle for second best.
A Herculean task
What are Perera’s chances of becoming chief minister of the NCP? In the past one and a half decades, the UNP has won only two elections – the parliamentary election of 2001 and the local government election held soon after in 2002. If Perera wins the NCP election, this will be the third occasion when the UNP has scored a victory and that alone will catapult him to the forefront of UNP politics. He will become a UNP front liner overnight. The NCP is the UNP’s weakest province, weaker than even the Eastern Province. In the east, the UNP may not have an organization worth talking of, but the UNP’s ally the SLMC, has a formidable organization. But in the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts, the UNP does not even have an ally to help them. The number of MPs the UNP has in these two districts are exactly the same as the JVP. The UNP has two MPs in Anuradhapura P.Harrison and Chandrani Bandara, and one MP in Polonnaruwa, Earl Gunasekera.
For years, the UNP organization in Rajarata has been crumbling and today very little of it is left. At every evaluation of electoral level party activities, the NCP always emerges as a problematic area on the UNP’s radar. The last time the UNP won a provincial election in the NCP was back in May 1993. Thereafter the UNP continuously lost every election in the NCP – the parliamentary election of 1994, the presidential election of 1994, the provincial council election of 1999, the presidential election of 1999, the parliamentary election of 2000. (At the 2000 parliamentary election, the PA won Anuradhapura but the UNP won Polonnaruwa by a margin of 2,000 votes) . At the parliamentary election of 2001, the harassed UNPers of Rajarata got some respite. They managed to win the Anuradhapura district with a majority of over 15,000 votes and the Polonnaruwa district with a majority of over 13,000 votes. But this was in a context where a radical change had taken place at the national level and a massive chunk of the SLFP, including its general secretary S.B.Dissananyake, had crossed over to the UNP in what was until then, the biggest crossover in parliamentary history.
The collapse of the economy, the Katunayake airport attack, which until the September 11 attacks three months later, was the biggest civil aviation disaster in world history, and the UNP’s gaining in strength from the SLFP crossovers, all contributed to the UNP’s victory in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in 2001. But one thing that can be noticed when looking at the figures is that even when the UNP did manage to win in these districts in 2001 and in Polonnaruwa in 2000, the majorities were very slim compared to the majorities that the PA got when they won. Since 2004, the UNP has been losing in the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts with even bigger margins than when they were losing prior to 2001. It is in such a context that Janaka Perera has accepted the challenge of winning the NCP for the UNP. It’s going to be a Herculean task to say the least.
In 2001, there was a visible change to be seen in the UNP with the influx of figures like S.B.Dissananayke which was able to give the people hope. But today, Janaka Perera is going to the NCP with no such change to be seen at the national level. Instead of change at the national level, what we have is a party divided, and a powerful section of the party including its chairman and deputy general secretary asking the leader to step down. None of the reasons that made the UNP so unpopular have been remedied in any way, and while all other factors remain depressingly constant. The only new factor in the NCP will be the personality of Janaka Perera, with no change whatsoever in the UNP’s policies or outlook. If Janaka Perera, simply by the force of his personality, is able to overcome the UNP’s unpopularity and win, then UNPers all over the country will look up to him as their deliverer. He is the messiah they have been waiting for. The NCP will then be transformed from the UNP’s weakest province to its launching pad to victory.
Trying to walk on water
That is of course IF General Perera wins. In order to win, he will have to attract tens of thousands of completely new votes to the UNP. When the last PC elections were held in the NCP in 2004, the PA’s majority was over 98,000 in the Anuradhapura district and 36,000 in the Polonnaruwa district. This time however, those majorities are going to come down drastically because the JVP will not be contesting together with the government. Moreover the 2004 PC elections were held just after a parliamentary election at which the UNP was defeated; so the 2004 PC election result was skewed by that. But even if you take the 2005 presidential election result as the benchmark, when the UNP’s prospects seemed brightest, and many people expected Wickremesinghe to win, the UNP still lost the Anuradhapura district by a margin of 48,000 votes and Polonnaruwa by 13,000 votes. Since the JVP is not contesting with the PA this time, these margins will be narrower. But even at a very conservative estimate, General Perera will need something in excess of 50,000 completely new votes to have any hope of defeating the PA in the NCP. Can he garner so many additional votes in the short time between now and the election?
In purely political terms, a victory for the UNP in the present circumstances will be nothing short of a miracle. But then Janaka Perera in his previous profession, was known for being able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The NCP election will be very interesting to watch. Perera is no ordinary politician. Without his contribution, this country would not be the same. As such, we can only wish the General all the very best in his new career.
It may be relevant to note in this context, that in the late 1990s when the Sri Lankan armed forces at the receiving end of the LTTE, General Perera was able to inflict a crushing defeat on LTTE forces that tried to overrun Welioya with only soldiers from non-combatant units, grama arakshakas and ordinary villagers under his command. He is a formidable organizer and can inspire people to do what they would not otherwise do. It was he who stopped the retreat from Jaffna in 2000. Clearly, Berty Premalal Dissanayake is going to have to have his hands full in the coming weeks.
The shrewd one
The UNP was faced with an embarrassing position last week, when Upul Shantha Sannasgala, their chief ministerial nominee for Sabaragamuwa, pulled out. Except for Janaka Perera, nobody in the UNP really seems to be keen on facing this election. In fact the UNP even went to courts in an attempt to prevent the election from being held. Sannasgala, from his university days, has always had his eye on the bottom line. The announcement that he had been nominated as the UNP’s chief ministerial candidate for Sabaragamuwa came as a surprise because the defeat was almost certain and the only thing he could realistically aspire to be is the leader of the opposition of Sabaragamuwa.
For anyone with political ambitions, defeat at a provincial election can mean that his career ends before it has even started. In 1999, when the southern provincial election came around, the UNP was similarly faced with the problem of putting forward a chief ministerial candidate. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya then tried to persuade Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene to resign from parliament to contest as the chief ministerial candidate, but he flatly refused. That refusal saved his political career.
Had he contested as the chief ministerial candidate and lost, he may not have been able to get back into parliament and would have been stuck in a provincial council limbo for the rest of his days. Likewise, Sannasgala was shrewd enough to realize that what the UNP was offering him was in fact a poisoned chalice. Had he contested the chief ministerial post and lost, the aura that he built around himself would have been lost forever. The thing to note is that both Janaka Perera and Upul Shantha Sannasgala are complete newcomers to politics. The UNP has had to tap into the social capital built up by outsiders in order to shore up its crumbling support in the country – not a good sign for any political party at all. The celebrity dependency of the UNP is much higher than either the PA or the JVP.
There was a touching scene at Sirikotha last week when Janaka Perera received the overwhelming endorsement of all the candidates of the NCP. Normally, a fellow candidate is seen as a rival. But the UNP’s NCP candidates realized that the infusion of Pererasocial capital into the campaign improved their own chances.
There is however something that Janaka Perera has to watch out for. The UNP has appointed district coordinators for the election campaign as is usually done. From what we hear, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera has been placed in charge of the Anuradhapura district. He’s perfectly OK. But it appears that the person placed in charge of Polonnaruwa, is of all people, Lakshman Kiriella! On the very day of the Anuradhapura air base attack, Kiriella came on TV and said that the government must now go for a ceasefire and peace negotiations. This gave people the impression that the UNP was a party of sniveling cowards, just waiting for an opportunity to surrender to the LTTE at the first sound of gunfire. And in the days following, the UNP built up a campaign for a ceasefire.
A few days later, Tamilchelvam was killed in his bunker and the UNP, which had spoken of ceasefires and the impossibility of winning the war, was suddenly rendered speechless and their campaign for a ceasefire ceased forthwith. Then more recently, Kiriella said in another TV appearance "Oney gonekta yuddha karanna puluwan". That was a sure way of rubbing a lot of people on the wrong side. Many members of the public support the war effort, and people have been taking things from the Rajapakse regime, which they would not have tolerated from any other government, because there is the commonly held perception that the government is committed to winning the war. Even the chief incumbent of the Bellanwila Rajamaha Viharaya came on TV to condemn this statement by Kiriella and the Ven. Monk requested the UNP not to make ‘gon’ statements about the war.
Placing Kiriella to co-ordinate Janaka Perera’s campaign in Polonnaruwa, must be somebody’s idea of a practical joke. Or it may be their way of keeping Kiriella out of the TV cameras and close enough for Janaka Perera to keep a close watch on him. Kiriella is one man who can ruin Perera’s campaign with a single statement. Having him in the campaign will be like wearing a suicide belt made of a volatile, spontaneously ignitable explosive substance! JP had better watch out and it may be useful in his spare time to educate Kiriella on military matters. He can start by asking "Do I look like a bovine type to you?" This brings us to the point that never before has there been such a glaring mismatch between a candidate and the party he was contesting from. JP will have to keep his fingers crossed that neither Kiriella nor Wickremesinghe will say anything during the campaign that would embarrass him.
No Madduma Bandara
With regard to Sabaragamuwa, the joke in UNP circles is that they are now looking for a ‘Madduma Bandara’ to contest as the chief ministerial candidate. This refers to Madduma Bandara, the second son of Ehalepola Disave of Sabaragamuwa, whose family was executed by Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. When his elder brother screamed and struggled in terror as the executioners seized him, the young Madduma Bandara is said to have stepped up fearlessly and shown his brother how to die with dignity. Sannasgala refused to play Madduma Bandara for the UNP.
Despite the fact that two PC elections are in the offing, the rebellion against the leadership continued, last week, with Lakshman Seneviratne, Johnston Fernando and Jayalath Jayawardene presenting their proposals in writing to the committee of party seniors appointed by the leader to look into this question. The committee of seniors comprised of Tissa Attanayake, Rukman Senanayake, Joseph Michael Perera, Sarathchandra Rajakaruna, Gamini Jayawickreme Perera, Renuka Herath, and Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake.
A noteworthy thing being that many members of this seniors committee had themselves at one point or another led rebellions against the leader. Tissa, Rukman, Jayawickrema Perera, have all been in anti-Ranil rebellions themselves and the only reason why they are still with him is because they cannot get rid of him! This shows how far gone the UNP is. The attempt of the Johnston-Lakshman group now seems to be to convince the committee of party seniors itself, that there was a need to have a change of party leadership. Immediately after the two PC elections, there will be more MPs joining the Johnston-Lakshman group. If the PC elections are lost, that will be the last straw for many people. Sabaragamuwa is all but lost already, and all hopes of the Wickremesinghe faction will be focused on Janaka Perera. If he manages to arrest the UNP’s slide, that will give the beleaguered UNP leader some breathing space.
But the problem will be that there is only one Janaka Perera in the country and he can’t be sent everywhere to win elections for the UNP. Moreover, if Perera does win this election despite the tremendous odds ranged against him, every UNP rank and file member will be screaming for Perera to be made UNP leader! Even though we said earlier that the UNP has won only two elections during the past one and a half decades, the second election was a local government election held soon after a decisive parliamentary election of 2001 which gave the UNP a handicap. So in actual fact, they have won only one decisive election in fifteen years. If Janaka Perera is able, with nothing but his personality, to deliver a second victory to the UNP, then every right thinking person in this country is going to rise on his behalf.
When the JVP politburo met last week, the main topic of discussion was the elections and observations were made to the effect that while the government had lost control, the UNP was not in a position to even organize an effective demonstration. Vijitha Herath said that the JVP has a chance of doing well at the forthcoming PC elections. Even though the JVP itself has been having problems with yet another of their parliamentarians, Anjaan Umma, defecting to the JNP, the JVP is still far better organized at the local level than the UNP. They seem to feel that their superior ground level organization and the prevailing despondency in the UNP will enable them to get a larger number of seats than they would otherwise get.