A complex verdict

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The fractured verdict in the Provincial Council elections in Sri Lanka appears to have upset the calculations of the ruling People's Alliance.

THE April 6 elections to the five Provincial Councils - Western, Central, North-Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa - in Sri Lanka have produced a result that is complex in many ways. Overall it indicates a clean sweep by the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.), which polled the largest number of votes. The prevailing system of proportionate representation has, however, made the P.A's majority in four of the Councils rather narrow. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led P.A. enjoys an absolute majority only in the North Central Province, where it won 19 of the 33 seats. It may be able to cobble together an alliance with some Tamil parties and secure a slender lead in three Councils in the highlands; in the Western Province, which includes Colombo, it is not in a position to secure a majority even with the help of minority parties in a hung Council. Although it won only 26 of the 58 seats in the Central Province, the P.A. can put together a legislature group of 34 members with the support of eight representatives of Tamils of Indian origin. Likewise, in Uva and Sabaragamuwa, where it has won only 17 of the 34 and 22 of the 44 seats, it can manage to have razor-thin majorities with the help of a Tamil representative in each Province.

In the Western Province, in the country's largest Council, the P.A. faces bleak prospects as it has won only 46 of the 104 seats, and cannot hope to achieve a working majority with the help of just two members belonging to the Tamil and Muslim communities. It is to be seen whether the Opposition will allow the administration to function smoothly. Frantic negotiations are on between the P.A. and other parties in order to ensure the smooth functioning of the Council. Talks are also on between P.A. leaders and upcountry Tamil leaders on the modalities of power-sharing in the highland Councils.

THIS complex state of affairs has thoroughly undermined the impact of the P.A's five-nil victory. But for the narrow victory margins, the P.A's performance could have been deemed impressive for two reasons: first, it was the United National Party (UNP) that was in power in all but the Western Province, and second, the P.A. Government in Colombo, elected in August 1994, is now in its last lap, with elections expected to be announced any time after August this year. In view of the anti-incumbency factor in the national context, many analysts had predicted a massive swing of votes against the P.A. Several pollsters had predicted that the UNP would win three Councils in tight contests. Instead, it appears that the anti-incumbency factor was at work at the Council level against the UNP.

There was, however, near-unanimity of opinion that if the polls were free and fair, the margins of victory for either side would be extremely narrow. This part of the forecast has proved true. The P.A. won 53.39 per cent of the votes in the North-Central Province, while the UNP won 39.46 per cent. In the Western Province, it was an even contest, with the P.A. securing 43.68 per cent and the UNP 43.23 per cent. In the Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, the P.A. won 43.17 per cent, 44.88 per cent and 47.82 per cent respectively, while the UNP won 40.10 per cent, 43.98 per cent and 44.85 per cent.

The narrow difference in vote-shares was reflected in the tally of seats. Under the system followed in the provincial polls, the party that garners the highest number of votes in a Province gets two additional or bonus seats. In the April 6 elections, the P.A. won 10 bonus seats. Before the allocation of these seats it had 120 seats and the UNP 112. Including the bonus seats, the P.A's tally rose to 130 in a grand total of 273. The break-up of seats prior to the allocation of bonus seat was: North-Central - P.A. 17 and UNP 12; Western - P.A. 44 and UNP 44; Central - P.A. 24 and UNP 23; Uva - P.A. 15 and UNP 14; and Sabaragamuwa - P.A. 20 and UNP 19.

Roadside posters of President Chandrika Kumaratunga during the campaign for the April 6 Provincial Council elections.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

CRITICS of Ranil Wickremasinghe, UNP leader and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, argue that he lacks the charisma of his chief adversary President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and that he is incapable of leading the party to victory. Wickremasinghe's attempts to reform and modernise the party has angered the old guard. Subtle moves have been afoot to replace him with either former party secretary Sirisena Cooray or Karu Jayasuriya, the newly elected Opposition leader in the Western Province. Normally, a defeat in all the five Provincial Councils would have considerably weakened the position of the UNP leader. The fractured verdict in which the UNP appears to have lost only by a short head has, however, prevented this from happening. In fact, it has even kept alive the hopes of a UNP renaissance under Wickremasinghe.

The provincial polls attracted a great deal of attention because they were expected to provide a clue to the pattern of voting in the future. Had the UNP won a handsome majority, the writing on the wall would have been clear for the P.A.. The SLFP's political allies in Parliament would have started deserting the Government and the UNP would have gained in confidence. Besides, being in control of the provincial administrative apparatus would have helped the UNP in the parliamentary or presidential elections.

On the other hand, a victory for the P.A. would have bolstered its image and President Kumaratunga would have called for an early presidential election, which she could win in such a context. Thereafter, it would have been possible for the P.A. to conduct parliamentary elections and gain a significant majority. However, now with the recent polls throwing up neither victors nor losers, the situation is not conducive to decision-making on these issues.

With the two main political formations more or less evenly placed, it is doubtful whether the P.A. will call for early elections. It may be content to complete its term in office, in the meantime attempting a breakthrough on both the political and military fronts vis-a-vis the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Also, it is likely to introduce a series of populist measures with an eye on the elections. In any case, the P.A. Government is likely to take decisive measures on this issue only after the elections to the predominantly Sinhala Southern Provincial Council take place. Filing of nominations for this crucial round of elections will begin on April 22.

Sections of the state-controlled press have been publishing glowing accounts of the P.A's victory in the Council elections and predicting that on the basis of this, Chandrika Kumaratunga would emerge winner in the presidential election. The truth, however, is somewhat different. In spite of winning the largest number of votes, the P.A's performance leaves much to be desired. This assessment is based on two factors.

PRIOR to the introduction of proportionate representation, Sri Lanka followed, like India, the "first past the post" system. Instead of a radical overhaul of the system, the system of proportionate representation was merely superimposed on the existing structure. Although elections were district-wise, each electoral district in turn was a conglomerate of electoral divisions that corresponded to the earlier single electorates. This was for administrative convenience. Political parties played along and began appointing organisers on the basis of electoral divisions. In the 1994 general elections, the P.A. won all but one of the southern "Sinhala" electoral divisions. In the April elections, of the 95 electoral divisions in the five Provinces, the P.A. won 61 while the UNP won 33 and the National Union of Workers (NUW) one. The significance of the result is that 10 Cabinet Ministers and three Deputy Ministers "lost" the electoral divisions they were assigned to as organisers. They included "war" Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte (Senkadagala) and "devolution" Minister G.L. Peiris. The fact that Cabinet Ministers are slipping on their home turf does not augur well for the P.A.

Secondly, the prospects of a P.A. sweep in an envisaged presidential election are not bright. In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga scored a grand 63 per cent vote on a national basis. This comprised 50 per cent of the Sinhala votes and 13 per cent of the minority votes. If the Tamils of the Northern Province were able to vote in large numbers, she would have got 70 per cent of the vote. The recent polls indicate that the P.A's share in the south is only around 45 per cent as against the UNP's 43 per cent. It is rather unlikely that the minority communities will vote for Chandrika Kumaratunga, in view of the ongoing war and the consequent hardships. Thus, she may not garner 50 per cent of the votes on the first count as required in a presidential poll.

The Council elections have also brought into sharp focus the growing rift between the minorities and the Kumaratunga Government. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and the Up Country People's Front (UCPF), which represent Tamils of Indian origin, are components of the P.A. Government, with their leaders S. Thondaman and P. Chandrashekaran holding office as Minister and Deputy Minister respectively. Yet both parties refrained from contesting under the P.A. banner as Tamil sentiment in the plantation areas did not favour the ruling party. The UCPF contested alone and won two seats. The CWC, in association with 19 Tamil organisations, formed an umbrella organisation called Inthiya Vamsavali Makkal Perani (Indian Origin People's Front). In view of a legal dispute over its election symbol, the cockerel, the CWC adopted the peacock symbol of the NUW. The Front won nine seats (the CWC won eight and the Democratic Workers Congress one) in four Councils. The CWC's strength has been reduced to eight from 17 mainly owing to its association with the present Government. Yet, the Tamil representatives are now sought after by the P.A. to form an administration.

The situation is true of Sri Lankan Tamils too. Unlike Tamils of Indian origin, they are concentrated in sufficient numbers in Colombo and its suburbs. In the April polls, the voting pattern of Sri Lankan Tamils fell into four categories: voting for the UNP, abstaining from voting, rendering their votes invalid, or voting for the New Leftist Front. Since the CWC contested under the banner of the Indian Tamil Front, Sri Lankan Tamils did not vote for the party. But their support for the UNP was evident from the large majority of preference votes received by chief UNP candidate Karu Jayasuriya. The New Leftist Front won only one seat, and that too in Colombo. The victory is attributed to the Tamils' support for Wickremabahu Karunarathne, who has consistently stood up for their rights. The unusually large number of invalid votes and the comparatively low voter turnout are also attributed to the attitude of Sri Lankan Tamil voters.

Ranil Wickremasinghe, Leader of the Opposition, voting in the elections.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The situation is somewhat similar in the case of Tamil-speaking Muslims. In the 1994 elections, the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress was with the P.A. In the recent Wayamba provincial polls, there was considerable pressure from the rank and file on the party leadership to contest independently. But its leader, Ashroff, decided that the party would contest on a common list with the P.A.. None of the Muslim Congress' candidates was returned (the system of proportionate representation entails voting for a party's list of names and then indicating individual preferences). The Muslim Congress contested on its own in Kalutara district of the Western Province, and along with the P.A. in other areas. The Congress won just one seat in the Province. Also, the P.A. lost electoral divisions that were under the purview of senior Muslim Ministers such as Fowzie and Alavi Mowlana.

It is clear from the results that the minority communities are getting alienated from the Government. The P.A. cannot hope to ignore this development as it is the minority vote that propelled it to power in 1994. The fact that the Tamil parties, despite their reduced strength, are still able to play the kingmaker further underscores the importance of the minority vote.

Another phenomenon was the resurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). This ultra leftist organisation contested in all the Councils and won 15 seats. By winning eight seats in the Western Province, it proved that it had made deep inroads into Gampaha district, the stronghold of Chandrika Kumaratunga. If the JVP is willing to align itself with the P.A. or even the UNP, then a viable administration is possible. But the JVP has announced that it will neither support any party nor adopt a case-by-case approach towards the issue. The crux of the matter is that the JVP has arrived on the national scene as a third force.

Ironically, the Provincial Council scheme, which was introduced primarily as a device to realise the aspirations of the Tamil people, is defunct in the North-Eastern Province while being functional in the south where no demand was raised for devolution of powers. The scheme is yet to prove its worth to the Sinhala people. Provincial elections continue to be perceived as an instrument to ascertain the public mood rather than as a tool of development. The fact that the P.A. Government, which is committed to greater devolution, is in control of most Councils may bring about an attitudinal change towards them. Already some Cabinet Ministers are preparing to take over as Chief Ministers. It remains to be seen whether the Provincial Councils will use the powers devolved to them to usher in meaningful development in their respective spheres of control.

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