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Strengths and weaknesses of the campaigns

Big turnouts at election rallies do not necessarily mean election victories. And this has been a bitter lesson learnt by the country’s principle parties – the UNP and the SLFP over and over again. However, convincing those who gather at rallies of one’s ability to govern the country is very much part of the electoral strategies at Presidential elections.

Three weeks ahead of the crucial polls, with the two main candidates fiercely bracing for the last lap of the game with full steam, the strengths and weaknesses of the two key campaigners have come to the fore.

One of the noticeable features in the campaigns could be now seen in the form of the contrasting degree of eloquence and the vigour of speakers at the respective election platforms.

There is an obvious dearth of young eloquent speakers at Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse’s rallies. Perhaps with the exception of a few JVPers including Wimal Weerawansa, of course the contents of the speeches notwithstanding, the Premier seems to be still surrounded by the same run-off-the-mill speakers of the SLFP.

With the anti-incumbency factor still largely to his disadvantge, the failure to project new faces and new slogans to the campaign with young leaders, is fast making Rajapakse’s rallies largely monotonous.

What makes the situation worse is the decision by the JVP and the JHU not to be on the same stage at the same time. This has deprived the electorate of an opportunity to listen to forceful speakers who could appease the nationalist vote base like Champika Ranawaka, Udaya Gammanpila of the JHU along with the JVP firebrands, even in predominantly Sinhala areas like the South and North Central Provinces.

The JHU appears to be largely running a solo campaign while the JVP seniors are seen on and off on the stages of Rajapakse, depending on the presence or absence of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

One of the most persuasive orators in the SLFP camp, Minister Mangala Samaraweera has restricted himself largely to Colombo, being the key strategist of the Prime Minister’s Presidential campaign. As a result party strongmen like Maithripala Sirisena, Susil Premayantha and Nimal Siripala de Silva – all representing the old school - appear to be omnipresent at Rajapakse’s rallies.

And this old guard is juxtaposed with the likes of Hemakumara Nanayakkara, Kabir Hashim, Imtiaz Barkeer Markar, Sajith Premadasa and perhaps Dayasiri Jayasekara, the key speakers of Wickremesinghe’s campaign.

Surely the two campaigns look outrightly asymmetrical.

What comes with the younger team of speakers of the UNP are new ideas, more credible arguments and a message for the youth and also for the not-so-young.

Injecting young blood to the election platforms remains mandatory for Rajapakse if he is to make his case more convincing, and if this is not possible, at least Mangala Samaraweera should be made a regular speaker in order to at least partly offset the deficiency.

As for the performance of the two Presidential candidates on their own platforms, Rajapakse’s speeches have been the more forceful while Wickremesinghe’s have been the ones rich in content.

Though blessed with a strong and a well-modulated voice, the Premier seems to have miserably failed in the task of getting his message across to the audience mainly due to his outrageous disregard for the content. It seems that the bulk of the electorate now knows the contents of his speeches by heart because of their repetitive nature.

Impromptu speeches are surely not his forte. As to why the Prime Minister cannot better prepare for his campaign speeches is a question that everybody asks.

Is it because he is so sure of his victory that he cares less about what he speaks? Or is the Prime Minister of the country having a problem in getting the services of a good speech writer? One wonders where his advisers are when the Premier stumbles at election platforms in this most unexpected manner.

With almost all private TV channels now backing the Opposition Leader and with a penchant highlight the weak points in Rajapakse’s speeches in their news bulletins, the status quo surely does not augur well for his campaign.

On the other hand, Wickremesinghe who is known for his relatively weaker style in presentation and who, in fact sounded a little diffident at the onset of the campaign, for some reason – confidence or practice or both – is showing signs of a comeback.

From what was featured during news bulletins, the Opposition Leader’s speech at the rally held in Bingiriya last Sunday appeared forceful and convincing – quite in contrast with the ones he made at the onset of his campaign. Whether he would be able to maintain the same standards is yet to be seen.

As state and private television channels cover almost all major rallies, the weaknesses and strengths of the speeches have become crucial since television has become a decisive factor in mustering the support of the floating voters and also making or breaking the convictions of traditional voters.

The UNP, though, at times appears to be overexposing its candidate, given the speed at which television advertisements are carried, is running a fairly effective campaign especially at dislodging the arguments of the key rival.

However the UNP camp is displaying a high degree of complacency – that media alone can do miracles for them. In their zest and zeal for the media campaigns and mass rallies or wholesale politics, the UNP seems to devote less and less time to another vital aspect of electoral politics – the grassroots campaign.

With three weeks for the election, Wickremesinghe is yet to get the party’s grassroots election machine in place. The UNP campaign strategists appear to be repeating the same mistake they made in April 2004, blindly holding on to the belief that urban politics and media campaigns alone would assure a victory for them. And this is despite the fact that the rural population still accounts for 70% of the total population.

By the time Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse kicked off his campaign he had the added bonus of a readymade grassroot network – the JVP. Besides, being the incumbent Prime Minister, he also has access to several local level institutional services of which he seems to be making use of, though subtly.

The UNP is yet to learn the importance of retail politics at grassroots level. As a result, despite the promises for farmers and unemployed youth, the party continues to appear smug, urban and perhaps even elitist for many rural voters.

While Rajapakse is largely banking on the rural vote, especially in the Southern, North Central and Uva Provinces, he seems to have largely neglected the East, especially the district of Ampara.

While the UNP along with its Muslim allies is emerging very strongly and is also assured of the TNA vote there, in the majority of the areas of the Ampara district there are no traces even of a campaign by Rajapakse’s camp.

The three cornered fight for the district organizer’s post between Ferial Ashraff, A.L.M. Athaullah and Cegu Izzadeen has had a catastrophic impact on the Prime Minister’s campaign in the district that the UPFA clinched at the 2004 elections with nearly a 35,000 majority by securing 111,747 votes.

With the total number of votes by the UNP, the SLMC and the TNA which contested separately at the last election amounting to 174,217, reducing the margin of defeat in the district worst hit by the tsunami is indeed a challenge for the Prime Minister. And giving up the campaign due to internal squabbles surely is not the solution.

Mutur and Seruwila in the Trincomalee district are areas largely neglected by the organizers of Wickremesinghe’s campaign despite the Opposition Leader’s recent visit to the area. The UNP appears to be quite sanguine about the fact that the Tamils would bail them out in Trincomalee and Batticaloa quite forgetting the importance of the margin of victory.

What both sides appear to have forgotten is that rather than as to who would win a district or an electorate, what matters most at this Presidential election is as to how to minimize the damage or enhance the victory margin in the island wide results. Therefore each vote even in the most negligible electorate counts.

The truth about Presidential polls is that one may win the majority of the electorates but still run the risk of ending up the defeated candidate.