Thursday, 25 September 2014 00:10
Never before has a winning party licked its wounds so defensively. Never before has a losing side been so jubilant in defeat. The Uva provincial election will be epoch-making in more ways than one. But for bringing his party back with a fighting chance, it is young Harin Fernando who should take the biggest bow.
There is poetry surrounding discussions about the outcome of the Uva Provincial election in political circles.
To begin with, there is poetry in the name: Uva-Wellassa, land of a hundred thousand rice fields, granary of the Kandyan kingdom, refuge of freedom fighters. The 1817 Uva rebellion was waged so ferociously against British rule that after the uprising was quelled, the colonial administration scorched villages, livestock and acres and acres of paddy and destroyed irrigation systems, effectively taking the heart out of the proud people of the region. Uva-Wellassa may never have been restored to its former glory, but its people have gone down in the annals of Sri Lankan history as strong, brave and resilient heroes in one of the earliest struggles for independence.
The country’s main Opposition party, which has something to cheer about after the lapse of many years and several abysmal electoral performances, is tapping into the symbolism of this heroic spirit.
“The first salvos of a freedom struggle that eventually brought down imperialist rule in Sri Lanka were heard in the far corners of Uva-Wellassa nearly 200 years ago. Resonating that same heroic spirit, that yearning for freedom and justice, the march towards the ultimate defeat of the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime has begun in the Uva Province,” the United National Party said in its euphoric post-poll statement released on Sunday morning.
For the UNP, crossing the psychological 40% mark was reason enough to dance in the streets. At election after election, it has sought to touch 35% with a lacklustre field of candidates, barely scraping 22-28% in the final tallies. The Uva Province, which includes the ruling party stronghold of Moneragala, was never expected to be an Opposition playground. The unexpectedly close fight in the province is largely credited to the entry of the party’s young politician from Badulla, Harin Fernando.
The UPFA’s bittersweet victory in Uva, a province that was to offer the alliance its best showing ahead of a major national election next year, has left Government members making defensive remarks and blaming the low voter turnout (76%) for its significantly lower margins in the region.
Private television stations have received irate telephone calls from the highest levels of Government, blaming specific political programming for engineering massive support for Fernando in the Badulla District. At least one producer is about to be axed as a result of this pressure, for giving Fernando too much prominence in the run-up to the poll, it is learnt.
Writing on the wall
In the last days of the Uva campaign, the ruling party was made aware of its waning fortunes in the province, despite President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tireless campaigning, holding hundreds of pocket meetings and inaugurating dozens of new development projects. The knowledge prompted the UPFA to pull out the big guns, slashing electricity tariffs and fuel prices, three days before election day. The two Districts of Moneragala and Badulla have seen the worst post-poll violence in years, with angry UPFA supporters attacking homes and vehicles belonging to members of the JVP or the UNP.
Fernando complains that Muslim homes in the Badulla District are being visited and its inmates threatened for voting for the UNP at Saturday’s poll.
Polling booths in predominantly Muslim areas are believed to have broken overwhelmingly in favour of the main Opposition party, despite the fact that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Rishard Bathiudeen’s ACMC were contesting in alliance, separate from the UPFA, and it is hardly rocket science to guess why. Badulla has seen its share of religious tension in the recent past, and both the SLMC and the ACMC – both parties that barely campaigned for the Uva poll – are viewed as Government proxies by the Muslim population of the area.
Alleged intelligence reports, compiled by the Police Department’s political unit and seen by the Daily FT, concluded a UNP victory in the Badulla District, even though the UPFA had been predicted to carry the Province. The UPFA managed to retain both districts, but the report was not too far off the mark one week before the election. For the Government, the writing was already on the wall.
Lessons from Uva
The Uva poll proved several things. It showed that despite the commonly-held perception, the UNP was not completely out of the running electorally. The party has capacity to reform and revive and it remains a major player as far as Sri Lankan voters are concerned. The election also highlighted the fact that when it tires of incumbency, the electorate turns to the most realistic alternative government, and shuns smaller parties with little chance of claiming power.
The UNP’s gains in the Uva Province not only spell deep trouble for the UPFA in terms of the numbers, but also sets in stone the fact that the main Opposition will have to play a leading role in any Opposition alliance at a future national election. The fear among some political observers, however, is that in this first flush of victory, the UNP will begin to behave like it has already won a national election and alienate all prospective partners in a future alliance.
The vote tally in Uva shows that the battle with the ruling alliance is a dead heat in which the UPFA has an edge, because of the massive resources at its disposal. Together the Opposition offers resistance, alone the UNP will be several percentage points short of its goal.
Victory, even this strangely-lopsided kind, never belongs to one man alone. Fernando himself is quick to acknowledge this. The UNP’s grassroots organisation was revived with Fernando’s inclusion in the field; UNP MPs flocked to the Badulla District to address hundreds of meetings held in the keenly-contested region. Sajith Premadasa’s reinstatement as Deputy Leader of the UNP was announced by Ranil Wickremesinghe, perceived as being his arch enemy. And there was more money in the campaign than the UNP could have dreamed was possible.
In the end, however, it was the ‘Harin factor’ that altered the UNP’s fortunes in the historic Uva-Wellassa region last Saturday.
In the UNP, many have refused to travel the road he did for a provincial election. It has long been mooted as an effective strategy to put forward popular parliamentarians at provincial elections, to combat the Government’s mobilisation of resources and massive spending power with faces that are recognisable by the electorate. The suggestion failed at the Western and Southern Provincial Council polls, but the realisation among key UNP strategists that the party needed a strong showing in Uva to keep hope alive for a presidential or parliamentary poll ensured Harin Fernando’s entry into the fray.
To sacrifice a Parliament seat to become a provincial opposition leader has been unpalatable to many top rung UNPers, who were not certain they could be brought back to the House if things went awry. Not even Sajith Premadasa, who prides himself as being greener than most UNP members, was willing to take the chance, and scoffed at the prospect of contesting as the UNP’s southern chief minister candidate at the March polls.
Back on the map
Long before the first ballot was cast, Fernando had already won a major victory for his party. His election rallies were filled with energy and packed to capacity. There was more organisation and visibility in the UNP campaign than had been witnessed in years.
The UNP won three big electorates in the Badulla District and lost by a couple of hundred votes in two others. Polling a respectable 40% in a province that includes a Sinhala-Buddhist heartland which strongly favours the ruling party, the UNP has managed to put itself back on the map electorally. The result has not only shaken the ruling alliance, it has cast serious doubts over the prospect of a presidential election in the next few months.
If his performance on the campaign trail was not impressive enough, Fernando and other young UNP politicians have continued to claim the narrative in the afterglow of the party’s performance in Uva.
Ruwan Wijewardene, Gampaha District Parliamentarian and Chairman of the UNP’s National Youth Front, hastily summoned a press briefing at his residence on Tuesday, hours before the party’s crucial Working Committee meeting the same evening. Wijewardene told reporters that he was stepping down as Youth Front Chairman to pave the way for his friend Harin, who was more deserving of the position in light of his sacrifice and performance during the recent poll.
Wijewardene, who is a member of the UNP Leadership Council by virtue of being Chairman of the party’s youth corps, appeared willing to hand it all over for the man who had so fearlessly walked into the fire in Uva to take the battle to the Government. The press briefing had been summoned in secret and was held outside the party’s Sirikotha headquarters in order to ensure that word of his resignation would not leak to the leadership.
“Ruwan knew that the Leader would not allow him to resign, so he kept it a secret and held the press conference in his house,” Fernando told his own press briefing at Sirikotha yesterday.
Fernando has refused to accept the position which was offered to him at the Working Committee meeting on Tuesday, insisting that Wijewardene should continue to lead the Youth Front, while he functions as his deputy or is suggesting that the pair at least shares the position. “He is my best friend in Parliament and he is a gentleman through and through,” Fernando told reporters yesterday, “I can’t take this away from him. We should work together.”
The gifting and re-gifting of positions aside, the camaraderie that was obvious between the two young politicians, both on the campaign trail and off, is a unique thing, in an age when many within the UNP are engaged in futile battles for office-bearer positions and personal glory.
Wijewardene was at Fernando’s side throughout his campaign in Badulla, among the last to leave at rallies in major towns that went on well past midnight, and accompanying him home when all the results were finally released. The relationship sets the tone for the UNP’s future and delights party faithful because it not only signals unity and cooperation, but also a transformation of the political culture.
In the game of cricket, the trophy for man of the match is usually awarded to a player from the victorious team for having propelled his team to victory. But every once in a way, a player’s individual contribution stands out so clearly that selectors are forced to award and recognise that skill, even when his team has failed to make the cut.
As a cricket crazy nation, Sri Lankans possess the capacity to appreciate and acknowledge a stunning contribution to the game from a member of the losing team. Harin Fernando’s mega-star popularity emerges from the acknowledgement that though the UNP lost the fight in Uva, Fernando was a game-changer who delivered the Opposition a dignified defeat. As far as UNP supporters are concerned, Harin Fernando walked into the lion’s den with his head held high and aglow with the light of his sacrifice for the sake of the party.
In storybooks and politics, everybody loves sacrificial heroes. Fernando’s popularity soared and senior party leaders claimed his candidacy had mobilised young people in the region in remarkable ways. He had brought with him a kind of hope that the UNP has not seen in years, which proved to be a powerful force for campaign worker and voter alike.
He has already shown tremendous political acumen, but going forward, Fernando will not only have to manage expectations, he will need maturity to navigate the petty jealousies and sniping that popularity will generate and guidance from senior politicians on how to pursue the rest of his political journey. One thing is certain after last Saturday’s outcome, and that is that Fernando has a future filled with promise. The question is whether he has the ability to hone his skills and build on his political knowledge enough to project the gravitas associated with statesmanship.
At only 34 years, Harin Fernando took a major political gamble. And just like that, he began to reflect the UNP’s once glorious past and look like one of its best hopes for the future.