Dead heat in Badulla

Friday, 19 September 2014 01:26 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The UNP has made solid gains in the hill district, while the ruling UPFA is likely to retain its popular support in Moneragala. For the first time in a long time, the Uva election tomorrow is expected to be a tight race By Dharisha Bastians in the Uva Province Inside the Nayabedda Estate in Bandarawela, a rosy sunset casts shadows on the large cut-out of a movie-star like politician, poised precariously on the roof of Sivalingam Thangaraj’s home. Until last month, Thangaraj’s hut had no roof and only brightly-coloured plastic sheeting mounted on four sturdy branches offered any kind of shelter. The tin roofing was quite the windfall for Thangaraj and his family. “We were not even at home. But the Assistant Government Agent’s office people came and walked around this estate and they saw what people’s greatest needs were,” he says, standing outside the entrance to his small home. The following week, he received a tin sheet from Government representatives in the area. The poster is in tribute, because it’s election season, says the day labourer with a smile. Senthil Thondaman, constantly pictured in his Tamil movie-star type sunglasses and open shirt, was a provincial minister in the Uva Provincial Council controlled by the ruling alliance for the past five years. Senthil is the great nephew of Sauviamoorthy Thondaman, the estate people’s hero of the 1980s and 1990s, on whose immense political capital his party – the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) still runs. As a UPFA coalition partner, the Government relies on the CWC to garner crucial votes in the Badulla District in tomorrow’s provincial election. In the estate line rooms, election after election has come and gone, but not much has changed says Lily Theresa, a tea-plucker with a family of six to support. Drought conditions that have prevailed across the Uva Province have affected the estate community badly, she says, because the lack of rains means there is less work. “There was work seven days a week before the rains stopped. Now we are lucky if we get three days of work in one week,” Theresa explains. “Line room life is about having no facilities,” she says. Elections means only that politicians tap into these needs. “They gave us water tanks and roofing for houses. They provide tents for funerals.” Deeper inside the estate, line room residences get smaller and electric lights shines through fewer and fewer windows. In the dimness of dusk, the path is precarious and residents worry that the visitors will lose their footing. Kerosene is a precious commodity for those who must manage life, work and study by lamplight. Opposition politicians say the Rs. 20 slash in kerosene prices, announced by President Rajapaksa three days before the election, directly targets poor estate workers. Bandarawela and Badulla In the Badulla District at least, it is not clear if the last minute measures to win votes is working. United National Party rallies in the district are drawing mammoth crowds, with people practically spilling outside into the road as grounds in Bandarawela and Badulla were filled to capacity. Major towns in the District are distinctly green, in decoration and energy, and the Opposition believes it will be able to swing the vote in their favour tomorrow. In Bandarawela on Tuesday, with 72 hours left before polling day, green flags decorate the town centre managed and administered by a UNP-led council. In a remarkable show of Opposition solidarity, many flagpoles decorating the town bear both green and red and gold shaded pennants that mark the presence of Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party. The former Army Chief held a rally in the afternoon on Main Street Bandarawela on Tuesday. The highlight of the event, which drew a small crowd of about 100, was the recreation of the suicide bomb explosion targeting Fonseka in April 2006. The former Commander’s shattered vehicle was also brought to the hill country town to take its place on the gruesome display. Fonseka, who was hospitalised for three months following the explosion outside Army Headquarters in Colombo, continues to capitalise on his heroics during the war as he pursues a political career. Trucks and buses carrying Army and Navy personnel pass by the Fonseka rally and several soldiers wave at the former Commander speaking at the podium, who waves cheerfully back. After five years in politics, the former General says he and his family have lost everything but they will continue to sacrifice. “I have been injured and maimed. I have been imprisoned on false charges. Our children have to live in hiding. If I want to end all of this, all I need to do is make one phone call to ‘uthumano’ and tell him I want to join him and strengthen his hand and he will send a helicopter here,” he thunders from the platform. The sacrifices will continue, says the soldier, until the current corrupt rulers are rooted out. “Today Sri Lanka is among the first five poorest countries in Asia. We are among the first 30 in the failed states index, the people are struggling to eat two meals a day, yet we are apparently the ‘Wonder of Asia’. It must be wonderful. For the rulers,” he charged. Twenty-nine-year-old Mohammed Fajir watches the political speeches as he rolls dough and pats down rotis on a hot griddle from his little shop a few metres from the rally. “Whoever wins on Saturday, I still have to buy flour to make my rotis, that won’t change,” he chuckles. Fajir claims every political party seeks power in order to serve their own, and not the people. His whole family, and many people in Bandarawela town are long-time UNP supporters. The UNP has never lost the Bandarawela Town Council, and the area is considered a green bastion. Fajir says in this election, he feels energy is high. “People are excited about the election, but I don’t know if anything will change,” says the pragmatic roti-maker. Harin, the unifying force Later on Tuesday evening, women and children huddle for warmth as they watch UNP politician after politician take the stage at the Bandarawela Municipal Grounds. Past 10 p.m., as the cold intensifies, still the crowd makes no move to leave. A popular music group provides entertainment, and sections of the crowd dance until political speeches resume. The biggest cheers are for the party’s Chief Ministerial hopeful and young politician, Harin Fernando, who pats himself on the back for uniting the fractured and divided main Opposition party. UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and MPs Mangala Samaraweera, Ravi Karunanayake and a host of others have already taken the stage. Sajith Premadasa, who has feuded with the leadership for several years, was also expected to turn up. “Today my party is united. Every UNP Leader stands together on my platform today,” Fernando enthuses. This is a time, says the UNP’s best hope at tomorrow’s election, when the top will keep spinning even in the sand. News has just broken of the Government’s pricing slashes for fuel and electricity. “Look what we have already achieved! Look how scared they are,” Fernando says as the crowd cheers loudly. Uva-Wellassa is the land of 100,000 paddy fields, says the Badulla District politician. “But today, we have no water to cultivate our fields. What a sad situation this is,” he said. A host of UNP leaders attended the rally, even though Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera departed before Premadasa’s arrival. The introduction of ‘Punchi Premadasa’ makes the crowd go wild, and his political speech finished, Premadasa launches into song and continues singing for a good 45 minutes. “The fact that there are women here at this hour is a sign that things have turned in our favour,” says UNP MP Eran Wickramaratne, who has been actively engaged in the UNP’s Badulla campaign. The crowds were turning up at the UNP rallies for the most part spontaneously, vows Wickramaratne, although district organisers are also mobilising people. “Harin Fernando is about to create history on Saturday,” says UNP MP Harsha De Silva at the party’s final rally at Wills Park in Badulla on Wednesday. Campaigning ended on a high for the UNP, but after a string of polls defeats, party strongmen are fearful of being too optimistic. But polls observers and Opposition activists claim the tide has already turned in the Opposition’s favour. State intelligence report Daily FT has seen an intelligence report, allegedly compiled by the Police Department’s Political Unit, that registers a slim victory for the United National Party in the Badulla District. The report dated 14 September says the entry of Fernando into the Uva provincial fray has increased grassroots support for the Opposition. According to the report, the UPFA will still manage to hold the Uva PC by being the single party to get the most number of seats in tomorrow’s election. The seat tally, according to this report, is as follows:
  • Badulla District: UNP – 8 seats; UPFA – 7 seats; JVP – 2 seats; DP – 1 seat.
  • Moneragala District: UPFA – 9 seats; UNP – 4 seats; JVP – 1 seat.
The leaked report concludes that the two bonus seats will be obtained by the UPFA, even though the ruling alliance and the joint Opposition will be tied in the number of seats won. Opposition activists believe that the intelligence findings prompted the last minute announcement of fuel and energy pricing reductions. Mahiyanganaya and Haputale A sweeping glance across the district explains the Badulla prediction. The UPFA election presence is minimal in the district, and the alliance limited its focus to Mahiyanganaya, an electoral division that is still in play and has been favourable to them in the recent past. President Mahinda Rajapaksa attended his first rally on the final night of campaigning in Mahiyanganaya, but the rest of the UPFA’s final campaigns consisted of tiny pocket meetings in town centres around the Badulla District. Mahiyanganaya has been a UNP bastion historically, but the party’s slide in other areas of the island was mirrored in the electorate at recent polls. The UNP believes both Haputale and Mahiyanganaya in the Badulla District will be electorates in play for the Opposition at tomorrow’s election. Haputale is the home-ground of the Lokubandara family and the division turned UPFA for the first time in decades after the former Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara and his son, Udith, crossed over to the Government. Three days before election day, Udith Lokubandara is busy distributing school books and white cloth to Buddhist devotees in Viharagala, Haputale. Three- to five-year-olds from the nearby Bishop Leo Preschool have also been standing in the shade of a big tree for about an hour, waiting to be gifted books by the Government politician. Their teacher in charge, Christobel George, says it is uncertain which way the election will go. “People will come and accept things. But nobody knows what they will do on election day,” she explains. The Polls Chief has denounced these handouts as election law violations and election bribes, but Lokubandara insists he is doing nothing wrong. “Of course we will give the people things. This is our President. This is our Government. And this is our Provincial Council,” he tells the small crowd gathered to receive the handouts. “Of course we will do for the people.” Dressed in white sarong and a tight white shirt, sporting sunglasses and a black Armani watch, Lokubandara insists to the villagers that he is still mason Gunasinghe Lokubandara’s grandson. “I may have gelled my hair and I may wear sunglasses, but I am still Banda’s son,” he tells the crowd. He twirls a gold talisman – the five-pronged vajra, the weapon of Hindu God Indra, symbolising ‘indestructibility and irresistible force’ – in his right hand, in imitation of President Rajapaksa and his eldest son, Namal, to whose coterie Lokubandara belongs. Asked why he holds it, he dismisses the talisman as ‘superstition’. Lokubandara says he has no idea what the instrument is supposed to signify. “I wear all these things so that my wife can identify my body if something happens to me,” he quips, “like President Premadasa”. The Opposition feels strongly that Haputale could swing towards the UNP in this election, because Lokubandara has been neglecting the campaign in his home electorate. Protecting franchise and ballot boxes In the Badulla District, Opposition parties are strategising jointly about how to protect the franchise and the ballot boxes on polling day. The ground appears to have shifted somewhat in the hill district, but Opposition politicians say they have to hold the swing for 48 hours once campaigning ends and ensure the process is as transparent as possible until the final result is out. In the end, UNP politicians say, it comes down to being able to hold every polling booth. “The UPFA concentrated all its resources on Moneragala and left Badulla to us,” says Harin Fernando, sitting down for a pre-poll interview in his Badulla home on Wednesday. “In hindsight that was a good thing for us.”     Moneragala: Decidedly blue The two districts in the Uva Province are as different as night and day, not only in terrain and climate, but in terms of political party dominance three days ahead of a key provincial election in the region. The Moneragala District is a solidly blue area, polling 81% for the UPFA at the last provincial election in Uva in 2009. The ruling alliance continues to dominate in terms of election propaganda and decor across the district, two days ahead of the 2014 poll to elect provincial legislators. The portrait of UPFA chief ministerial candidate Shashendra Rajapaksa is plastered across the district, on posters, cut outs and hoardings. Rajapaksa, the son of Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa has his own mobile media unit, a luxury van with a satellite transmission system. The UPFA spending power in the district has marked the alliance out as the clear front-runner in Moneragala. On Wednesday, the UPFA’s final Uva rally was held in Wellawaya, with President Rajapaksa in attendance. Scores of Sri Lanka Transport Board buses plastered with candidate number 15 and bearing Shashendra Rajapaksa banners transported UPFA supporters to the President’s rally at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. The buses had been drawn from districts as far off as Nuwara Eliya and Hambantota. Thousands of UPFA supporters, sporting No. 15 caps and carrying posters handed out to them from a nearby lorry, made their way to the Wellawaya Public grounds, creating huge traffic congestions along the way. President Rajapaksa, who landed in Wellawaya after addressing crowds in Mahiyanganaya, insisted that the Government was not bribing people to vote for the UPFA. “We have ended the era of bribing the people for political gain,” he told the crowd. President Rajapaksa said his Government waged all its battles democratically. His Government had ended the era of bribing people for political gain, he charged. Polls watchers and community leaders predicted that Moneragala would see a major preferential vote battle between Shashendra Rajapaksa and another UPFA candidate, Kumarasiri Ratnayake. Ratnayake also mobilised buses for the Wellawaya rally, but most of them appeared to have been privately hired. Only UNP MP Sajith Premadasa was visible on the campaign trail on Wednesday, addressing a pocket meeting in Wellawaya close to the President’s rally grounds. Moneragala District, which saw major election violence and violations over the past six weeks, had been quiet over the last six days of campaigning, polls monitors Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) said yesterday. The election monitors also noted a rise in the misuse of public property on the final day of campaigning in the Uva Province. Community leaders believe the UPFA will see its margins reduced even in the Moneragala District, but insist the Opposition has no chance of a victory in the solidly pro-alliance district.