Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Infighting perks up dull campaign in the south

- By Kasun Warakapiti­ya

Political parties have slowed down their campaigns but the pandemic has not reduced sparring over preferenti­al votes.

While election monitoring groups say campaignin­g is taking place without violence, internal disputes over preferenti­al votes were externally visible, said Manjula Gajanayake, the National Coordinato­r of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV).

The Galle District was calmer than most others, with less electoral enthusiasm. The Sunday Times witnessed only some small meetings, with limited participat­ion.

Eligible voters in the Galle district total 867,709 – an increase of 8,960 from last year. But there are only nine candidates to be elected.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna ( SLPP) held the most meetings. There is competitio­n between SLPP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party ( SLFP) members within the SLPP alliance. Even so, the rivalry is mild when compared with other districts.

Health advice is being strictly followed, said SLPP District Organiser and Cabinet spokesman Ramesh Pathirana.

Election Commission rules were also being observed, he said, including limitation­s on propaganda such as posters, cutouts and the exhibition of pictures and numbers of candidates. Much house- to- house canvassing was being carried out.

Mr. Pathirana said the SLPP campaign was based on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mandate and security, to ensure attacks such as the 2019 Easter bombings never happen again.

The United National Party (UNP) and its offshoot, the Samagi Jana Balawageya (SJB), are focusing on the economy. UNP District Organiser Vajira Abeywarden­a said the government had failed to protect the home economy during the pandemic.

The UNP will not clash with the breakaway SJB, Mr. Abeywarden­a pledged, adding, “The election result will be answer enough”.

SJB Galle District Organiser, Gayanatha Karunatill­eke, said most candidates were finding it difficult to promote themselves without being able to put up posters.

The Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB)’s organizer, Nalin Hewage, welcomed the Election Commission’s strict rules against cutouts and posters. He said the party wanted to be “a voice for the people in parliament”.

The election campaign in the Matara District is also dull due to pandemic restrictio­ns but there is a spark of rivalry within the SLPP, with young candidates competing against each other.

One such contest has Rajapaksa relative Nipuna Ranawaka pitted against Kanchana Wijesekera.

It is claimed that those who held positions in the former government before later joining the SLPP, s u ch as Lakshman Yapa Abeywarden­a, have been sidelined by other SLPP members.

Mr. Abeywarden­a said the people of Matara wanted to see an improvemen­t in the economy as the pandemic had hit their earnings. They wanted jobs and a developmen­t plan.

The SJB planned to hold 750 pocket meetings, said Matara District Organiser Buddhika Pathirana, adding that after taking over the post following former district leader Mangala Samaraweer­a’s withdrawal he had received the backing of all supporters.

Mr. Pathirana was concerned that the low turnout at pocket meetings could see a similar result at the polling booths.

UNP District Leader Gayan Sanjeewa Hewawellag­e said the party was unfazed by two members, Hewa Walimunige Premarathn­a and Bamunawita Gamage Chandana Priyantha, recently making the decision to join the SLPP.

“Those who vote for the elephant symbol will stay with the elephant symbol,” he said.

“We do see that the Election Commission’s strict rules are an issue as new, underprivi­leged candidates cannot effectivel­y campaign as a result.”

SJB District Leader Sunil Handunetti said there was violence and intense rivalry for preferenti­al votes within parties in Matara.

Political par ties in the Hambantota District have also slowed down their campaigns due to COVID-19 restrictio­ns. The SLPP, SJB and JJB have cut down the number of daily meetings.

The area is the stronghold of two Rajapaksas: both Namal and Chamal are contesting from the same team.

Infighting within the SLPP is plainly evident, observers said. Candidate Mahinda Amaraweera had been excluded from SLPP meetings. He was not even invited to gatherings presided over by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, The Sunday Times learned.

Minister Amaraweera said he did not see other candidates as a threat but as fellow- aspirants. “I am not even remotely connected to anyone and have always worked for the party’s betterment,” he said.

The UNP has fielded senior candidates in the district, including Kadukannag­e Ananda Kularatne, Siril Patabendi and Athula Senaratne.

SJB District Organiser Dilip Wedaarachc­hi said the SLPP was offering inducement­s to voters and the Election Commission and police were “turning a blind eye” because strongmen from the ruling party were contestant­s.

SJB candidate Sisira Wahala Thanthri agreed, saying ruling party contestant­s were bribing voters with dry rations.

He maintained that intra- party rivalry in the SLPP was a “gimmick” to get more votes for Mr. Amaraweera and Namal and Chamal Rajapaksa.

(Additional reporting by Gamini Mahaduara, Rahul Samantha and Krishan Jayaruk)

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