The spectre of election violence raised its ugly head last week with an attack on the United National Party (UNP) campaign in Colombo North. Party supporters were sprayed with bullets in broad daylight on a Poya Day, leaving two persons dead. It was the first incident of its kind in this election.
The attack has led to more questions than answers. Initially, Minister Ravi Karunanayake blamed the rival United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) for the violence. However, later reports suggested that the incident was the result of rivalry between underworld gangs.
Although Karunanayake attempted to dismiss that theory, his cause was not helped by two UNP Colombo district candidates, Sujeewa Senasinghe and Srinath Perera who seemed to confirm speculation about an underworld clash. Investigations are ongoing but nothing definite has emerged.
This incident underscores the potential for violence at this election. Ironically, it appears that the safest region to conduct the poll is the North and the East which was the theater of armed conflict for over thirty years. Campaigning in those provinces has been mostly peaceful.
On the plus side though, this election is being fought on a more level playing field. The abuse of state resources – which reached unprecedented heights at the presidential election – is much less. The Opposition has also been receiving much mileage in both state and private media, unlike before.
Armed with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which is now in force, Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya has been able to crack down on errant politicians. Blatant violation of election laws, such as displaying cut-outs which was a common in previous elections is on the decline.
The Police and the judiciary have been able to crack down on errant politicians. The UPFA’s Lakshman Vasantha Perera has been remanded. Senasinghe, who is also the Deputy Minister of Justice, has been summoned before courts. A few months ago, this would have been unheard of.
These events, however, do not guarantee a free and fair election. The major political parties have responded by going on a spree of campaign promises. There is little discussion about how these promises would be funded. The name of the game has been to entice voters, no matter how.
For the UPFA, its main attraction has been former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though rejected by the nation seven months ago, UPFA candidates have realized that they need to rely on Rajapaksa’s mass appeal to ensure their re-election. Hence, they even defy President Maithripala Sirisena to do so.
The UPFA’s campaign has picked up momentum since Rajapaksa declared his candidacy and was grudgingly granted nomination by President Sirisena. Its prospects are better now compared to a few weeks ago when it appeared the party would contest as two separate entities.
While the UPFA has been able to retain its loyalists – mostly the ‘hard-core’ Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) vote – floating voters and youth who voted for President Sirisena are unlikely to change their sentiments. If at all, Rajapaksa leading the UPFA campaign is a reason not to do so.
Meanwhile, the UNP is trying to cobble together a coalition that will win them an absolute majority. It is in alliance with groups as diverse as the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and a few dozen civil organizations whose support was crucial in January. Although many predict the UNP to emerge as the single largest party after the poll, it only has itself to blame if it does not obtain a working majority in the next Parliament. Its performance in the last seven months – albeit handicapped by a Parliament that was not co-operating – has been found wanting.
There can be many reasons for its undoing, but none more compelling than its conduct over the Central Bank bond scandal. This negated every promise it made of a corruption free government and planted seeds of doubt in the voters’ minds, which the Opposition has exploited.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) will be hoping that the debacles affecting the two major parties will result in a windfall for them. The JVP has always been big on displays of support but this has never translated into seats in Parliament. Whether that will happen again is the big question.
The Tamil National Alliance meanwhile is appealing to the more radical sentiments of the Tamil community, asking for federalism. They must know that it is a demand they will not get, but they have to appear strident to their electorate to gain some leverage in the legislature.
The stage is thus set for an enthralling election in less than ten days. There will be plenty of twists and turns until then and the party which commits the least blunders during that period will emerge the winner. However, a hung Parliament is very much a possibility on Tuesday after the next.