The Local Government elections have been tentatively fixed for March 2016. When SLFP Leader President Maithripala Sirisena met his Cabinet Ministers, Deputy Ministers and State Ministers last week, he assured them that he would work towards a SLFP victory at next March elections. The ministers responded with a loud applause to the President’s statement. From 2005 there have been SLFP led coalition governments. Of the past two decades, the SLFP led coalitions have ruled for 17 long years. Hence, their strength at grass roots level is strong. The UNP stood in a disorganized manner during those 17 years experiencing many internal problems combined with regular defections.
The defection of Maithripala Sirisena from the SLFP to contest the presidential poll gave saline to the UNP, and the party rank and file realized the need to unite to forge ahead. However, the last general election was a tough contest with the UPFA with Mahinda Rajapaksa in the fray though President Sirisena remained independent due to the crises in the UPFA with Mahinda making a re-entry in politics after defeat. Had President Sirisena joined the fray, undoubtedly the UPFA would have gained the majority in Parliament though it would not exceed 113 under the PR system. That was the reality on ground when the results are analyzed. Despite the UNP led alliance attacking Mahinda, the UPFA indirectly led by Mahinda performed well above expectations. That proved Mahinda is still among the choice of the masses. He has a convincing smile that charms the people when he appears before them.
The elections next March will be crucial for the UNP. Though President Sirisena may not board platforms patronized by Mahinda, the SLFP strength will gather momentum at grass roots level with a SLFP President in office and Mahinda behind the scene. However, Maithri and Ranil both would find the campaign uneasy as neither side could sling mud at each other being the President and Prime Minister of the Government of Unity.
If the Mahinda faction in the SLFP which now sits in the opposition in Parliament targets the UNP and Ranil, it would embarrass Maithri. Hence, it could turn out to be a ‘funny’ polls campaign since independence. Both parties vie to take control of local bodies as separate entities in the fray. There’s no unity at such a poll. To win, one must attack the other pointing out shortcomings. How can Maithri and Ranil do that being leaders of a Government of Unity? One cannot backstab the other.
If the SLFP goes it alone, Mahinda sometimes may stay out of the campaign as his coalition friends Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunawardene, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara may emerge under a separate coalition. Mahinda as a SLFP MP will not be able to back such a coalition as he firmly says he is a born SLFPer.
With just four months to go for the local polls, the UNP’s structure at grass roots level stands at a low ebb compared to that of the SLFP. The SLFP led coalitions over 17 years maintained direct contact with the people at grass roots level. Though Maithri and Mahinda had differences, it did not affect the party in a major way at that level. Unlike the days of J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, UNP organizers and MPs are not close to the people at electoral level.
JR and Premadasa ensured that UNP MPs were in their electorates on days Parliament did not sit. Premadasa was given the task to check the presence of UNP MPs in their respective electorates when Parliament was not in session. Though Ranil repeatedly reminds his MPs to go their electorates; they hardly walk the roads, by-lanes and gravel paths in their own areas.
Contrary to the attitude of UNP members, even SLFPers who stand with Mahinda are still popular in their electorates as they work with the people even without power or portfolios. If Ranil traverses electorates to conduct a survey, many party supporters would say that they have not seen many of their MPs for months. That has caused the UNP to face setbacks over the years as voters are more intelligent than before.
For example, this Writer had not seen his own UNP MP in his area even during the past presidential and general election campaigns. When his absence in the electorate was raised, the MP said, ‘The electorate is my ‘home’ and I must tread out to gather preferential votes to win’. The UNP managed to win the electorate after many defeats because of the anti-Mahinda campaign launched by the UNP led alliance and, not because of the competency or popularity of that MP.
The weakness in many UNP MPs is that, after gaining victory they walk a few inches above the soil once given ministerial posts. Many of them hardly conduct ‘Public Days’ in an effective manner. On such days, these UNP MPs or ministers are surrounded by their henchmen while those who voted him to office have to languish for hours. They are finally referred to a henchman who collects their pleas and issues a letter.
When party supporters are treated in that manner, they turn to the popular SLFP MP in the district to meet their needs. That is how the UNP has lost its vote base in predominant UNP electorates that were held for years during the Jayewardene-Premadasa leaderships. Former UNP General Secretary, the late Gamini Athukorale revived the touch at grass roots level. But after his untimely demise that trend was lost.
Come what may, it would be interesting to watch the developments in connection with the next March local polls with the two parties in the fray under a Government of Unity. Will it turn to be an exercise in which they would return to the period of reciprocal backstabbing as in the past?
This is a big challenge thrown on Ranil by Maithri. Mahinda is an alert spectator with sharp eyes. He is patiently watching everything till 2020 arrives.