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Wickremesinghe lurches to the right

A week before Sri Lanka’s Presidential election, both leading contenders are aggressively courting the Sinhala nationalist vote, with trips to the northern conflict zones to meet with troops and adopting patriotic slogans.

In a surprise move, Ranil Wickremesinghe, hitherto seen as the de facto choice for Sri Lanka’s minorities given the stridently Sinhala nationalist platform adopted by his rival, Mahinda Rajapakse, has also shifted sharply to the right.

Last week Wickremesinghe, the former Premier who signed a ceasefire and held talks with the Liberation Tigers, flew to the former war zones in the northern Jaffna to meet with Sinhala soldiers on Thursday.

Ranil Wickremesinghe visiting the Palaly base complex last week. Photo Sunday Leader

Rajapakse, the present Premier, followed with a tour of his own on the following day, Friday. Both leaders stayed within the confines of the military’s High Security Zones (HSZs) and did not travel into the town or peninsula to meet the Tamil residents.

Both adopted patriotic slogans as they spoke to some of the forty thousand troops garrisoned in the northern peninsula.

Rajapakse reiterated his commitment to a united Sri Lanka, declaring he would sacrifice everything to end the war, “except my motherland.”

“No one can wage a war and divide this country,” Rajapakse said.

Wickremesinghe vowed to strengthen the armed forces and to seek international assistance in this regard, adding that his peace process with the LTTE would in no way betray the nation.

Whilst Rajapakse has, from the outset, taken a stridently Sinhala nationalist line, signing electoral pacts with the radical Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) and the hardline monks’ party, the JHU.

Analysts had seen Wickremesinghe, however, as courting Sri Lanka’s minority voters – from the Tamil, Estate Tamil and Muslim communities – through a pro-peace campaign.

However in the past few days, his United National Party (UNP), has also taken strong Sinhala nationalist positions and Wickremesinghe has reportedly been attending campaign meetings alongside the Lion flag.

In a blatant sop to Sinhala nationalism, UNP stalwart Milinda Moragoda, one of Wickremesinghe’s close confidantes, this week spelled out how his party had sought to weaken and undermine the LTTE whilst being engaged in peace talks with the movement in 2002 and 2003.

In an interview with the English language Daily Mirror newspaper, Moragoda claimed credit on behalf of the UNP for engineering a split within the LTTE through the peace process whilst at the same time keeping the movement locked in via an international security net and also claimed credit for the sinking of LTTE vessels during the peace talks.

“There was so much [naval] activity and with the help of the international intelligence network that we had set up, our navy managed to intercept several LTTE arm ships,” he said. “But we hardly heard about such interceptions after the UPFA came into power.”

The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which toppled the UNP-led one in April 2004, is headed by Premier Rajapakse.

Rejecting accusations by the UNP’s critics that the party had strengthened the LTTE through the peace process Moragoda instead said the party had fostered fissures within the LTTE, referring in particular to the rebellion against the organisation’s leadership by its former eastern commander, Karuna.

Moragoda’s comments have stirred a hornet’s nest amongst the Tamil communities, with newspapers lambasting the UNP. One of the Estate Tamil parties which had among the first to swung behind Wickremesinghe has said it is reconsidering its position.

Analysts say that with barely a week left before campaigning closes, the UNP runs the risk of not making sufficient inroads into Rajapakse’s Sinhala nationalist vote bank whilst alienating the Tamil vote.

Some point out that the UNP’s party machinery may not be a match for the highly discipline and effective cadre based organisation that the JVP is deploying in the Sinhala rural areas.

“[Wickemesinghe’s] party machinery is still stuck, as the Colombo-centric operatives manning his campaign refuse to see what’s happening (or not happening) in the hinterland,” the Sunday Times’ political column said.

“He would have had no problem in winning if he was to face Rajapakse and the SLFP machinery. But with the JVP youth out in their numbers, in rain and sunshine, at day and in the night, the UNP campaign seems to have placed over-reliance on their US$ 5 million advertising campaign.”

An analyst with the Hindustan Times, P.K. Balachandran, points out that Rajapakse has the advantage of novelty, which Wickremesinghe’s recent lurch to the right cannot erase.

“The Sinhala-Buddhist voters believe that Rajapaksa has not had a fair chance to prove himself though he is the Prime Minister and had been a minister for long. They think that Wickremesinghe had been given a chance between 2002 and mid 2004, when he was Prime Minister, but he had failed miserably to deliver.”

(Comment) What is the LTTE up to? [Nov 9, 2005]

(Comment) Today's UNP is no exception, [Nov 9, 2005]

(Feature) Hopefuls’ flying visits to Jaffna enclaves. [Nov 9, 2005]

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