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Winners and losers


President Mahinda Rajapaksa has scored a magnificent victory giving the lie to claims made in some quarters that Tuesday's presidential election would have a photo finish. The President romped home winning 58 per cent of votes, the highest an incumbent has ever polled in this country and bagging 16 out of 22 electoral districts. He has surpassed himself in style! In 2005, he managed to get a meagre 50.29 per cent of votes to win the presidency.

Many questioned President Rajapaksa's wisdom when he opted for a re-election bid prematurely. But, he was confident of his popularity. Unable to face a presidential election, the wily JVP and UNP leaders lured the former army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who had an axe to grind with the President, into the fray. Having made a virtue of necessity, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe boasted that he had wrong-footed the President by pitting Fonseka against him. The government was no doubt somewhat rattled by the Opposition's move initially but the UNP, the JVP and Fonseka obviously underestimated the President and overrated their strength. The Opposition lacked a clear vision. The JVP hurriedly rummaged through its political attic and retrieved its threadbare slogan––'Abolish the Executive Presidency!' Fonseka offered himself as a political hit man and the UNP and the JVP cobbled together an alliance to achieve a short term objective––rallying people for ousting President Rajapaksa. That proved to be a huge political miscalculation on their part.

After euphoria died down, Fonseka found himself in an unenviable position. While trying to promote himself as the man who won the war, he had to muster the support of the very forces that had gone all out to scuttle the country's war a few moons back. His attempt at running with the hare and hunting with the hounds did not go down well with the public. Worse, he did not have anything other than his desire to dislodge the present government to offer to the electorate. His campaign cry, "Believable Change", may have had some appeal to the public initially but with the passage of time people became jaded.

Fonseka's election campaign was totally mismanaged in that people had him saying the same thing ad nauseam day in day out. When he felt that he was running out of steam, he took to making promises which not even the most optimistic amongst us wanted to buy. He pledged a pay hike of Rs. 10,000 each to all public servants in a bid to secure their support. But, workers did not fall for it hook, line and sinker as evident from the postal vote results overwhelmingly in favour of the President, who undertook to increase their salaries only by Rs. 2,500 each. Fonseka should have been told by someone that 'old birds are not caught with chaff'!

Another blunder that Fonseka made was to join forces with the TNA and let himself be influenced by the Diasporic Tigers albeit indirectly, who are looking for an opportunity to revive LTTE terrorism. In so doing, he ruined his patriotic credentials as well as his prospects of winning; he lost the sympathy of southern voters who abhor terrorism. The government made a great deal of political capital out of an alleged deal he had struck with the TNA.

Fonseka's propagandists blundered by causing his campaign to peak prematurely. They could not sustain its momentum thereafter for want of new issues to market. Crossovers from the government may have given his campaign a tremendous boost but finding more and more defectors proved to be problematic following the Sapphire Scandal, where an alleged attempt by the UNP to lure a ruling party MP with a bribe into defecting was exposed. Thereafter, desperation turned Fonseka and his backers more and more aggressive and their campaign became rather negative.

Fonseka’s threats to senior military officers that they would be court-martialled for what he termed 'engaging in politics', his promise to throw some of his rivals into jail in the event of his victory scared many people away. The way he handled the Hicorp allegations and the derogatory language he used on the person who made them cost him a lot of votes. What really marked the beginning of the end of his presidential campaign was his claim that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had ordered the army to kill surrendering LTTE leaders during the final battle last May.

Thus, it was only natural that his political blitzkrieg turned out to be a grand flop and he and his Opposition mentors had a pratfall. The UNP and the JVP will be wheelchair bound indefinitely!

Meanwhile, people have re-elected President Rajapaksa not only because they appreciate his leadership for the war that crushed the LTTE but also because they prefer political stability to a change at this juncture. The government must not mistake the popular mandate the President has secured for people's willingness to tolerate corruption, waste, abuse of power, political violence etc it stands accused of.

President Rajapaksa ought to put his house in order.

~ The Island ~


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