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An election of little interest to the people


Election overload has taken its toll in NWP


UNP has made its presence felt and Government party candidates do not hesitate to market the war

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
in the North Western Province

The campaign for the North Western Provincial Council consisting of Kurunegala and Puttalam Districts, has entered its final stages but people continue with their respective livelihoods sans the usual excitement in the run up to an election.

Considering the elections experienced in the past, especially considering infamous Wayamba polls held in 1999, the present campaign has been a relatively silent one.

While the governing party is seen capitalising on the victories gained in the battlefront to the maximum, opposition parties have raised issues pertaining to the local economy, development and other issues that directly impact on the lives of the people in the province.

UNP Kurunegala District Parliamentarian Akila Viraj Kariyawasam says that although the government was riding high on the military victories, the people in the province are aware of the corruption and mismanagement of the governing party.

"Despite the military victories, the people in Kurunegala know the real situation as most of the soldiers killed in the battlefront are from this district. Regardless of what the government says these people are aware of the truth," he said.

He said that people in the area were also unhappy with the deterioration in several key sectors, especially education.

As for the lackadaisical approach of the people towards the whole election, Kariyawasam said they were tired of politics as there were now elections being held once in two months.

Ratnayake and Sugathadasa of Galgamuwa feel that it is time for people to think of survival before any other issue. To them, war is an excuse the government is using not to provide any relief to the people.

Traditional UNP supporters, Ratnayake and Sugathadasa feel that people in the province needed to address the issues they are faced with on a daily basis when voting at the elections. 

W.A. Somasiri, a farmer engaged in paddy and vegetable farming in Kuliyapitiya said that most people had confidence in the government due to the military victories. "People want an end to the war and are willing to bear the cost of living," he said.

Somasiri however did admit that unlike the paddy farmers, the vegetable farmers were faced with the problem of finding a market for their produce. "A kilo of brinjals is sold at Rs. 5 by the farmers, which does not even partially cover their cost," he said.

The governing party's campaign on the military victories is evident everywhere in the province, especially in the Kurunegala District, where posters and cutouts of candidates are always pasted or put up next to those commending the military victories.

However, the campaigns seem to have created quite an impact on many people in the Kurunegala District, which has an agriculture based economy. Most paddy farmers in the province have little to complain about  given that a kilo of Nadu gets Rs. 36 in the market while a kilo of samba receives Rs.40.

Although paddy farmers are somewhat a happy lot, not so the small time coconut growers.

Secretary, Association to Protect the Coconut Industry and the Coconut Oil Manufacturers, Ranjith Pathiraja says that small time coconut growers are faced with the threat of closing down their businesses due to financial issues.

He explained that while the production cost of a coconut shell was Rs. 15, it is sold at Rs. 16. "Although a coconut shell is Rs. 28 in the market, it is sold at Rs. 16 by the growers. Therefore, there are no benefits for the growers."

Pathiraja attributed as the key reason for the decline in prices the government's decision to encourage the importation of palm oil by reducing import taxes. "When the coconut prices were high, the government encouraged the importation of palm oil. Now the global palm oil price has declined, but the government has not increased the taxes, which it should have."

Due to the inability to work at full capacity, around 500,000 persons in the province directly and indirectly involved in the coconut growing process have been affected, Pathiraja said.

However, even with the rising cost of living and various sector specific issues in the Kurunegala District, the war victories would play a decisive role this Saturday (14).

In the Puttalam District where the main livelihood of the people is fisheries, the sentiment is quite different.

The main concern of shop owners in Puttalam is the high cost of living and the battle for survival.

It is also interesting to note that unlike in the Kurunegala District, Puttalam District does not have many families with members who have joined the armed forces.

"The present battle for survival plays an important role to us than the war. The forces will fight the war, but we need to survive as well," they said.

It was also highlighted that the large population of Muslims in the Puttalam District would play a decisive role in the February 14 polls.

Most Muslims who have resettled in the district following eviction from the north during the height of the ethnic conflict, do not seem to have much faith in the military gains and prefer not to return to their homes. (See box)

Considering the overall situation in the North Western Province the war in the north is likely to play a key role at the elections. However, it must also be noted that the people in the province are no longer ignorant of the larger picture and are aware of the social and economic issues they are faced with. 

Flashback to Wayamba 1999

The North Western Province or Wayamba has recorded the worst election marred by violence and mayhem in post-independence Sri Lanka.

The infamous Wayamba 1999 election is still considered to be the biggest black mark in Sri Lanka's violence riddled election history.

Among the many incidents of violence and mayhem reported at the 1999 Wayamba elections was when in Puttalam a UNP polling agent who refused to budge from his desk was mercilessly assaulted allegedly by PA supporters and a politico from Colombo who reportedly went there to stuff the ballot boxes.

In another incident, armed gangs kidnapped a younger brother of a female JVP polling agent on the day of the elections. More than four JVPers were abducted. Almost all the JVP polling agents were sent to Kurunegala leaving the party's then chief ministerial candidate Bimal Ratnayake in a helpless position.

According to reports following the election, it was revealed that out of a total of 830 polling stations in the Kurunegala District, 141 had been attacked during polling hours. In the Puttalam District, out of 300 polling stations, 71 had been attacked, making the total 212.

Also from three other polling stations, nine ballot boxes had been hijacked while being transported to the counting centres, and some were found burnt.

Following reports submitted by senior presiding officers, the Elections Commissioner had said he intended making an order canceling the polling at three polling stations of which the ballot boxes did not reach the counting centre and that he intended rejecting 47,000 votes that were suspected of having been stuffed into ballot boxes.

However, the Elections Commissioner later changed his stance and said he did not intend annulling the polling of the centres that had been raided by armed gangs.

UNP's K.N. Choksy at the time had pointed out that 212 out of a total of 1130 polling stations constitutes 18.5 per cent of the total poll and argued that it was adequate enough to cancel the entire election. He had said the officers of the Elections Commissioner's Department had detected 48,000 votes in stuffed ballot boxes, but there could have been much more.

Choksy had reportedly demanded that the entire election be declared null and void and that results must not be announced. The JVP had also supported this view.

The Elections Commissioner however went ahead and announced the election results.

At the same time a UNP supporter from the Kurunegala District had filed a fundamental rights application requesting the Supreme Court to grant an interim order directing the Elections Commissioner not to gazette the results and also to make a final order after the hearing, declaring the elections null and void and directing that fresh elections be held.

The Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Ranjith Deeraratne, S. W. B. Wadugodapitiya and Asoka Gunawardene granted leave to proceed but did not grant the interim order directing the Elections Commissioner not to gazette the election results.


Muslims prefer to stay put in Puttalam

A large number of Muslims evicted from Mannar and Jaffna by the LTTE during the height of the ethnic conflict have settled down in the Puttalam District. They too will be casting their votes at the provincial election.

These Muslims after having lived in temporary shelters for a long time are now in the process of rebuilding their lives in land plots allocated to them in Puttalam.

Although the war is now nearing an end, these people say that they do not wish to return to their homes in the north, as they had little or no faith on the permanency of the military victories achieved.

"What's the point in going back? If it happens again we will have to return and then we won't even have this piece of land," they say.

Naleem who was evicted from Mannar 19 years ago says that he arrived in Puttalam after the army had brought him and his family to Kalpitiya.

Naleem works at the saltern for a daily wage ranging between Rs. 250-300.

"We prefer to stay. We have now built a house and our children are schooling here," he said. He expresses doubts on the ability of the forces to hold on to the land that has been captured by the government.

"Without a permanent solution, we do not have confidence to leave," Naleem said.

Hameed, who has also lived in Puttalam since 1997 said he preferred to stay here.

"Even if we go, we will have to come back. We are not sure of the situation there," he said.

According to him, almost every Muslim who was evicted from the North, preferred to stay back in Puttalam.


'Await record victory' - UPFA's Athula Wijesinghe

UPFA chief ministerial candidate, Athula Wijesinghe says he is confident of "a record victory" at the North Western Provincial Council elections.

The campaign of the ruling UPFA is aimed at promoting 'development in the south along with the humanitarian efforts in the north.' "We want the people to know that the government while liberating the country from terrorists was also engaged in development projects in the south," he said.

According to Wijesinghe, the massive support shown by the people towards the UPFA election campaign was a definitive indication of the landslide victory it would record come February 14.

Referring to the problems faced by people in the province, Wijesinghe says that since everyone's main focus was on liberating the country from the terrorists, they had expressed their desire to make certain sacrifices.

Referring to issues raised by farmers about the delay in receiving subsidised fertiliser and the problems faced by the small time coconut growers, the chief ministerial candidate denied there was a delay in farmers receiving the subsidised fertiliser, adding that the current price for coconuts was good for the growers.

Responding to allegations of misuse of public property in the election campaign of the ruling party, Wijesinghe said that they were baseless allegations leveled by the opposition parties. "The opposition members who have alleged misuse of public property by the ruling party are also misusing public property. The vehicles they use, especially for election campaign work are also public property," he said.

However, Wijesinghe expressed confidence in winning the election given the successful military operations in the north that are aligned with development projects in other parts of the country.

A lawyer by profession, Wijesinghe hails from a political family. Wijesinghe's father was a teacher and was involved in Leftist politics.

Following his initial education at his village school, Wijesinghe entered Maliyadeva College, Kurunegala for O/Levels and Nalanda College for A/Levels.

He then entered Law College although he was selected to the Vidyalankara University in the science stream.

Explaining his childhood in a political family, he said that during his young days he had witnessed his father being politically victimised by the then UNP government.

It was the suffering endured by his father that had pushed Wijesinghe to enter politics.

In 1978, Wijesinghe became the secretary of the Sri Lanka Nidahas Lawyer's Association.

In 1980, he took oaths as an attorney at law and also entered active politics.

He contested the local government elections in 1997 and became Bingiriya Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman.

He entered the North Western Provincial Council in 1999 and was appointed chief minister in 2001, which post he held till its dissolution in December 2008.


'We will address the real issues' - UNP's Shamal Senarath

UNP chief ministerial candidate, Shamal Senarath says that the party's aim is to address the real issues faced by the people in the province and to return 'exemplary leaders' to the provincial council.

He said that the provincial council has so far been unable to address issues related to several key sectors. "During the last two councils led by the PA, the heath and education sectors have seen a drastic decline."

Senarath said that most schools in the area lacked teachers and resources while some schools had excess teachers. As for the health sector he said that the province has recorded a high number of Thalassemia patients as well as those suffering from kidney disease.

"Even certain institutions under the council have been closed down," he said.

According to Senarath, there was no need to base a provincial election campaign on the military victories as they belonged to the whole country and not any particular party. "By marketing the military victories as the main election campaign for the provincial council shows the governing party's bankruptcy. A provincial council election should not be based on military victories. Unfortunately, that is the only marketing tool for the government," he said.

People in the province according to Senarath are now aware of the truth.

The UNP has so far held meetings in all the balamandalas in the Kurunegala District under Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya. Meanwhile, zones comprising 10 polling booths have been formed and meetings have already been conducted with each zone under Jayasuriya's leadership.

Senarath said the party is now in the process of holding pocket meetings and a house-to-house campaign.

Senarath received his primary education at Narammala Mayurapada Junior College and then at Nalanda College, Colombo from grade six to A/Levels.

He entered the Law faculty of the Colombo University in 1986. However, when the universities in the country closed during the 1988-1989 insurgency, Senarath entered politics.

With former President R. Premadasa introducing the concept of ensuring that 40% of contestants be youth, Senarath contested and entered the Alawwa Pradeshiya Sabha in 1991.

In 1993, he was elected to the second North Western Provincial Council under the guidance of U.B. Wijekoon.

During his 15-year stint in the council, Senarath has performed the roles of leader of the house, opposition whip and opposition leader.


'People cannot be hoodwinked' - JVP's Nimal Herath

JVP chief ministerial candidate, Nimal Herath says that while the people commended and support the military victories in the north, they are now aware of the government's plan to cover up its inefficiencies by it.

Herath says that February 14 would be a decisive date as the country was now at political crossroads and it was vital to make the correct turn that would get the country on the proper track. "The government has to show how sincere it is in its patriotism."

He accused the government of misusing public property to the maximum. He said that with the elections drawing near and people moving towards the opposition parties, the governing party was misusing public property.

"Media has been suppressed and the state media is being manipulated in a manner where no other message but that of the government is being taken to the public," he said.

According to Herath, although the Alliance government was using military victories, people are now aware of the real plight of the country.

He said that the JVP was continuing with its campaign to reach out to the people and amidst various difficulties due to state action, the party was in the process of going from house-to-house. "We have also organised a series of meetings at village level with party seniors," he said.

Herath says that the election on the 14th would not be a free and fair one, but hoped it would be the day that gives the JVP the strength to fight for people's rights.

Herath was educated at the Giriulla Maha Vidyalaya and Mahasen National School, Nikaweratiya.

Since 1980 he has been an active member of the JVP and functions as the chairman of the party's Nikaweratiya committee and is the Nikaweratiya electoral organiser as well.

In 1997, he was elected as a member of the Nikaweratiya Pradeshiya Sabha.

Herath was elected to the North Western Provincial Council in 2000.


North Western Provincial Council polls 2009

Gazette in which dissolution was announced - 1579/2 of 8.12.2009

District          Polling           Registered           Members
                    divisions           voters             to be elected

Kurunegala    14                   1,171,881              34

Puttalam          5                    489,852                16

Total              19                   1,661,733              50*

*Excluding two bonus seats


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