By Dr Kumar David
Local government (LG), that is, urban council, pradeshiya sabha and municipal council elections across Lanka were conducted in three stages in April, July and October 2011. The outcome was largely as expected but some singularly important outcomes have also to be noted. Before taking these up however let me summarise that the broad result was a handsome victory for President Rajapakse’s UPFA in all three of the stages. The reasons for this excellent performance consist of two big factors and a subsidiary one. Victory in a racist civil war will stand a regime in good stead in the eyes of the victorious race for a long time in any society anywhere in the world. Rajapakse is basking in the glory of war victory among the Sinhalese people.
The second reason why there is no anti-government swing in the electorate is that headline inflation is under reasonable control (6.5%) and there is an expectation, not only among the business classes but also among broader sections of society, that an economic peace dividend will arrive. The Rajapakse government has taken-off on a business and investor friendly, IMF arranged, sharply rightwing economic direction, and there is no strong opposition from the subaltern classes. People are watching how the economy progresses. If growth is rapid enough, the government hopes that the negative impact of rising inequity and future price increases can be contained by distributing some of the benefits of a bigger cake. It is still too early to tell how the cookie will grow or crumble.
The third and in my view less important factor, at least in the most recent third stage of the LG elections, was abuse of government resources – vehicles, staff, the police, flouting of election law and intimidation of the opposition – by the UPFA parties. I say it is less important for two reasons; if there was a large groundswell of anti-government anger in the mass voter base it would have shown up, at least to a degree, as more noticeable opposition victories and reduced government majorities. The other reason is that in the third and most important October phase, abuse of state power and state resources by the President’s party was less rampant than before, but the UPFA still did well.
The outcome of the LG election cycle
The summary statistics of the three phases is that the UPFA won 271 councils and the UNP 31; the UPFA, on average, polled about 60% to 65% in the Sinhalese areas and the main opposition party, the UNP, only infrequently polled over 40%. The UNP did a little better in urban than in rural areas but municipal councils even in traditional UNP strongholds like the Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia and Negombo (a mainly Catholic area) fell to the UPFA this time. Among the Sinhalese, the swing to the government party manifested in the presidential and parliamentary polls of 2010 is still holding up.
The Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil party, won 30 councils, that is all but three in Tamil majority districts. These three were remote islands off Jaffna, known to be fiefdoms of minister Douglas Devananda, where the opposition campaign was obstructed, the military used to break up TNA meetings, and, knowing the abuse of power and flouting of electoral laws by the government, one can assume that the worst rigging was in these islands. Speaking broadly, what has become abundantly and ominously clear is that Sri Lanka is, again, polarising sharply along ethnic lines. The results from Colombo confirmed this.
Colombo was the big prize and the attention of all eyes. The Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) is an electoral region in which the Sinhalese account for less than 40% of the population and the Tamils about 20%, the Muslim population probably equals or exceeds the number of Sinhalese. The results confirm the ethnic divide, with the UPFA polling just 32%, amazingly small compared to its performance elsewhere in the South. Interestingly the Democratic People’s Front led alliance of Mano Ganesan polled 11% to capture 6 seats of the total of 53 – the UNP secured 24 and the UPFA 16. The DPP is a spin off from an older Upcountry Tamil trade union (Azize’s DWC) and has established a strong base among the Tamil community of Upcountry origin which has taken up residence in the city as workers, self-employed persons and small traders. The success of the UNP and the DPP were helped by the UPFA choosing to nominate a rotten egg, frequently accused of commercial corruption, as its mayoral candidate.
The crack in the government
An event whose full import has still to be manifested, or perhaps commentators are reading too much into the incident, is a strange outburst of electoral violence on election day (9 October). Strange because it was not an exchange of gunfire between the government party and the opposition but a shooting incident between rival factions of the UPFA itself. Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra (BLP) was a so-called trade union advisor to the President but better known as a hanger-on who a friend of mine scornfully described as a “kitchen-boy at Temple Trees” (president’s official residence). He had been the UPFA organiser for the Kolonnawa area in Colombo for some years but was recently replaced by Duminda Silva (DS) often seen in the company of all powerful Defence Secretary and president’s brother Gothabaya Rajapakse. DS is said to be Gothabaya’s point man in Colombo. Hostility has been brewing for a long time between the two factions and erupted in a shoot out which left BLP and two of his armed thugs dead while DS was critically injured with gunshot injuries to his head. Other armed thugs from both sides were also injured. Many of Sri Lanka’s government party politicians provide political protection for gangland members and narcotic peddlers and move around with armed escorts of thugs and underworld characters. There is nothing the police can do because these politicos have a direct line to great powers positioned on the top rungs of the ladder.
Colombo is all a whirl with rumours that there is much more to the shooting than rivalry between ruling party political gangsters with high level connections. I will ignore rumours of sex and family intrigue and focus on two politically important points. The first is that DS is said to be an ally of Defence Secretary in the latter’s plan to position a – de facto military controlled – corporate entity, Mussolini style, over-lording Colombo and four adjacent municipalities. The plan is to drive out the slum dwellers and lower middle classes, rebuild over these sites with malls and high class flats, beautify the city, attract foreigners, and blossom as the wonder of Asia. Naturally there is great hostility from the subaltern orders and it is not clear how the shooting fracas will change relationships of power; less by the physical removal or incapacitation of persons than by adverse publicity.
The second and possibly more important matter is that this incident is said to have brought to a boil long brewing resentment among senior members and ministers of the SLFP (the main party in the UPFA). There has long been resentment that the Rajapakse family has been hogging privileges and the limelight and the party bosses have been pushed to the sidelines. Some do not conceal that they are consorting with ex-president Chandrika Bandaranaike who’s farther was the founder of the SLFP and mother a previous prime minister. The resentments of this faction, perhaps the resentment of the majority of SLFP parliamentarians, is directed more towards Gothabaya than Mahinda. In the end this may turn out to be a storm in a tea cup and the Rajapakse family may soon reassert control, but for now there is something that has to be watched.
A flicker of hope for the left
The DPP fought the election in Colombo and other areas in an alliance with a few left parties, and the leader of the Nava Sama Samaja Party, Vickremabahu Karunaratne was elected to the Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia council, an important suburb just south of Colombo. In Colombo proper it is likely that in addition to the Tamil vote the alliance also pulled in a section of the working class vote. This is a new development in the post civil-war period and this alliance of minority communities and the Sinhalese subaltern classes is well worth promoting as it could be a lever for breaking the chauvinism rampant in the majority community. When the government pushes ahead with its militarist-corporatist scheme in Colombo and its environs, for sure the UNP has neither the guts nor the gall to stand up against it. If the DPP-Left alliance comes forward to fill the vacuum it can build a substantial base for itself in the metropolis within a few years.
Sri Lanka has had a local government election cycle whose outcomes have been largely as expected. However there have also been some singularly interesting events with a potential to make a difference in the next period.