‘Waiting for Mahinda mahaththaya’: Part I

‘Waiting for Mahinda mahaththaya’: Part I

Law and Trust Society Review May 2018 says the local government election for 337 local government bodies in Sri Lanka (except Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha), was held on 10 February, 2018. This election and its results captured special attention due to two main reasons:

This was the first election held under the new electoral system which was introduced to give opportunity for the community to be represented by community-based leaders on a ward basis – instead of the proportional representation system which benefited local elites and those with close connections to political parties – and thereby strengthen representative democracy in local government bodies.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)/Joint Opposition (JO), whose election campaign was fronted by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, won a great majority of the local government bodies by defeating the partners of the present coalition government, i.e. the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)/United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the United National Party (UNP)/United National Front (UNF).

The prime objective of this article is to examine the said local government election process and its result, to find out whether the main purpose of introducing a new electoral system has been achieved, i.e. strengthening representative democracy in local government bodies. As a secondary objective, the multiple implications manifested during the election campaign and in its result are identified. I focus on four research sites where controversial events took place during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. These field study locations are:

Uma Oya project affected areas: electoral wards of Makulella, Egodagama, Kirioruwa, Diganatenna, Liyangahawela and Dulgolla of the Bandarawela Pradeshiya Sabha; Bindunuwewa and Kinigama of Bandarawela Municipal Council; and Heeloya, Dowa, Ella, Balalkatuwa and Demodara of Ella Pradeshiya Sabha.

Aluthgama anti-Muslim violence affected area: electoral ward of Dharga Town in Beruwala Pradeshiya Sabha.

Paanama land-grabbing affected areas: electoral wards of Paanama West, Paanama Central, Paanama North, Paanama South and Shastrawela of Lahugala Pradeshiya Sabha.

Weliweriya-Rathupaswala contaminated drinking water affected area: electoral wards of Rathupaswala, Nedunagamuwa and Weliweriya in Gampaha Pradeshiya Sabha and Sivuralutenna of Mahara Pradeshiya Sabha.

on the Campaigns…
The Election Commission announced the date of the Local Government elections on 1 November, 2017, and the SLPP/JO, launching its election campaign led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, held its first mass scale election rally in Anuradhapura on the 17 of the same month. Thereafter, the SLPP frequently organised such massive rallies in different places. In comparison to this, smaller election rallies of the UPFA/SLFP, which were attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, commenced on 10 January, 2018 while the election rallies of the UNP/UNF, which were attended by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, commenced on 18 January, 2018.

What was reiterated at SLPP/JO events was that this election should be turned into a referendum on the present coalition government; and thereby used as the first step towards toppling it. The main slogan which could be heard over and over again throughout their campaign was ‘Mahinda agamethi karamu’ (“Let’s make Mahinda the Prime Minister”). The election propaganda of the SLPP/JO entirely took the nature of a national election. Locally important needs of the relevant local government areas were hardly ever expressed during this campaign.

The UPFA/SLFP too made national level issues as the main topic of their campaign. The President’s levelling of accusations continuously against the UNP, regarding the Bonds scam in particular, was one of the key features of its campaign. The UNP/UNF in its election rallies, accused the Ministers who have joined the coalition government representing the SLFP, of having obstructed legal actions against the crimes and corruption that had been committed during Rajapaksa’s regime.

The electronic and the print media allocated a greater proportion of their daily news bulletin to express views on these national level issues of the main political parties. Thus the atmosphere reminded people of a national and not a local government election. 

from the Field
The SLPP/JO held large-scale election rallies, with the participation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the main cities related to all the above mentioned sites (Uma Oya; Dharga Town; Paanama; and Weliweriya. The SLPP/JO was the only party to have a mass rally in the main town related to the Uma Oya site (Bandarawela). In these rallies, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the national-level leaders of that party acted as the key speakers; and the candidates who contested in the relevant local government bodies hardly had the opportunity to speak. This situation was worse particularly in the ward of Dharga Town where the two candidates of the ward did not get any opportunity during the entire election campaign period to speak at any of the pocket meetings in the area. All those opportunities were made use of by Rohitha Abeygunawardena and Piyal Nishantha De Silva, SLPP/JO supporting Members of Parliament of the same district (Kalutara).

Compared to the other parties during their election campaign, the SLPP/JO gave minimum effort to speak to community members through house-to-house visits and pocket meetings, and to introduce their candidate in the relevant ward to the community. Their main election propaganda strategy was to promote the image of Mahinda Rajapaksa through massive rallies and poster campaigns. Even the local candidates of that party always requested people to vote for their party considering it to be a vote cast for the former President.

There are many incidents which clearly show that voters accepted this request and voted accordingly in the election. For example, people elected the candidate from SLPP for Dowa electoral ward of Ella Pradeshiya Sabha, despite him having died of a heart attack during the campaign, prior to Election Day. In certain other areas, there was competition between candidates to display who is closest to Mahinda Rajapaksa. The candidate who contested for Dulgolla ward of Bandarawela Pradeshiya Sabha under Independent Group 2 had a poster campaign using the photograph of the former president under the title ‘Mahinda Samaga’ (“Together with Mahinda”). He was even able to out-poll the official candidate from the SLPP. Eventually, he won that ward defeating candidates from all the other parties including the SLPP. Meanwhile an SLPP candidate in Paanama continuously highlighted during his propaganda campaign that he is a relation of Mahinda Rajapaksa on his mother’s side. The SLPP candidate for Walatara ward in Beruwala Pradeshiya Sabha celebrated his sister’s wedding during the election campaign with the participation of Mahinda Rajapaksa and a large number of invitees from the area spending a huge amount of money.

Six out of seven local government bodies in the field sites were won by the SLPP. One female candidate from the UNP explained this situation:

“The contestants of the other parties were village-level community leaders. The Pohottuwa [Bud symbol of the SLPP] presented a former president. The result is clear. How can a village leader contest against a [former] president?”

Although the UNP made considerable effort to include persons who are locally active and have a local voter base onto their candidate list, sometimes there were doubts on its genuineness. Several leaders of the ‘Movement to Protect Panampattuwa’ – who worked with great commitment in the Paanama land struggle – had been given nomination by the UNP. However, most of them had been included on the proportional representation list, rather than given opportunity to contest in the wards. This can be seen as a strategy to obtain the support of the village leaders with a community base in the area, but to get the traditional party candidate elected from the ward.

This was made clear when the UNP awarded bonus seats (allocated on the basis of total number of votes received) to the defeated candidates on the proportional list from Hulannuge and Lahugala wards; instead of village leaders from the Paanama wards (which the UNP won). The chief organizer of that area took this decision with the ulterior motive of using candidates on the proportional list of Hulannuge and Lahugala wards to organize his propaganda campaign in the forthcoming Eastern Provincial Council election campaign, later this year.

In the field research locations there were two occasions where the agreements that had been reached between parties at national level had a negative impact on providing opportunities to local leaders.

In this election, as in the August 2015 parliamentary election, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) contested jointly with the UNP/UNF. Due to this national level agreement, a member of the JHU in Paanama without a base in the community had to be given candidature on the UNP list without giving such opportunity to an active youth who is very popular in the community. For this very reason, Paanama North electoral ward, which the UNP could have easily won, was secured by only 10 votes, according to one local informant.

Meanwhile, Patali Champika Ranawaka, the Leader of the JHU, was a speaker at the UNP/UNF rally held in Beruwala. The Muslim community in Dharga town feel that he justified the involvement of the Bodu Bala Sena in the attacks targeting Muslims in 2014 (during the Rajapaksa government of which he was a prominent member). Many UNP supporters of that area were of the view that due to Ranawaka’s presence on the UNP stage, a number of (Muslim) UNP supporters abstained from voting.

SLPP Setbacks
In Bandarawela Pradeshiya Sabha (Badulla district), of the electoral wards affected by the Uma Oya project (commenced by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government), all except for Dulgolla (see above – which was anyway secured by a Rajapaksa loyalist) were won by the SLPP. Of the remainder of the wards in that Pradeshiya Sabha (that is, those not affected by the project), all except for Nayabeddawaththa were also won by the SLPP.

In the Bandarawela Municipal Council, the SLPP did not contest under its own party symbol. Instead, it fielded an independent group jointly with the SLFP and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). This independent group secured all the wards in the Municipal Council. However, the SLPP was defeated in three out of five wards in the Ella Pradeshiya Sabha that are affected by the Uma Oya hydro and irrigation project i.e. Ella, Ballakatuwa and Demodara.

In Beruwela Pradeshiya Sabha (Kalutara district), the SLPP was defeated in the ward of Dharga Town that came under attack of Sinhala Buddhist extremists in 2014 (during the previous government). However, except for the wards of Welipitiya, Maggona and Malewana, the rest of the wards in Beruwala Pradeshiya Sabha were won by the SLPP.

In Lahugala Pradeshiya Sabha (Ampara district), out of the five wards in which there are people affected by the Paanama land-grab (which began during the Rajapaksa government), the SLPP was only able to secure Paanama Central ward (the UNP won three and the SLFP one). Apart from the wards in the Paanama area; the remaining six wards in Lahugala Pradeshiya Sabha (that is those not affected by the land grab) were won by the SLPP.

In Gampaha Pradeshiya Sabha (Gampaha district), the SLPP was able to secure an overwhelming victory in the wards which experienced the contaminated drinking water issue in Weliweriya (during the Rajapaksa government), as well as those in Mahara Pradeshiya Sabha, with the exception of just one ward (Enderamulla-1) in both Pradeshiya Sabhas.

To be continued