Elephants do topple trees for fodder


The UNP-SLMC marriage of political convenience is at the inconvenience of the rank and file, with the best-man a A?a??E?no showA?a??a?? at the wedding

Political horse deals was the order of the day, during the early part of last week, since the deadline for nominations for the Eastern polls, was Thursday.

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There were negotiations at every nook and corner in Colombo, as the two main parties solicited the support of peripheral political entities and smaller parties to strengthen their presence in the East.

The ruling UPFA, however, failed to obtain the support of the major Muslim political entity in the East, the SLMC, but manoeuvred a split within the ranks of the party, when they clinched a deal with M.L.M. Hisbullah, capable of giving the SLMC a tough time in the East.

Hisbullah stands firm

Hisbullah, as a member of the SLMC high command, was a strong advocate of UPFA policies, within the SLMC, and tilting towards the government, when it came to the Eastern polls. Though he had several rounds of talks with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, through the good offices of his close friend Mangala Samaraweera, Hisbullah was weighing the pros and cons of the emerging situation in the East and cast his lot with the government and contest as a UPFA candidate.

Hakeem refuses to climb down from the A?a??E?TreeA?a??a??

It is a fact that Hisbullah was unstinting in his efforts to have the SLMC contest with the government. But, SLMC Leader Hakeem opposed this move steadfastly, because, in his view, the SLMC had no political future within the government. More than anything else, it was HakeemA?a??a??s contention that he and the whole SLMC would be the laughing stock of the general public, if he contested with the government at the Provincial level, having withdrawn his support at the third reading of the Budget. This is in spite of him being made aware of a precedence to this kind of arrangement. ACMC (All Ceylon Muslim Congress) Leader Saheed reminded Hakeem of a similar arrangement by the SLMC at the North Western Provincial Council, while opposing at the centre or in Parliament. In fact, he was told that, if all the Muslim political parties support the government, they would be at a greater advantage and could return a Muslim Chief Minister for the East. He was also told that Senior Advisor to the President, Basil Rajapaksa, had given an assurance to that effect. But all these were of no avail to Hakeem, who appeared to have struck a deal with the UNP, from the very beginning.

At a discussion held by all the Muslim political parties at the Parliamentary complex, Hakeem was adamant that he would not compromise his symbol, the A?a??E?TreeA?a??a??.

Hakeem jumps off the A?a??E?TreeA?a??a??

But, what happened on Tuesday was entirely different from what he professed at the Muslim party conference to explore possibilities of working together as one entity at the election. Hakeem, not only sacrificed his symbol, but decided in favour of the UNP. In other words, UNP Leader Ranil WickremesingheA?a??a??s political acumen paid dividends, bringing the UNP to the forefront at the Eastern polls, when Hakeem agreed to concede to the UNPA?a??a??s dictates.

Convincing Hakeem is not an easy task under normal circumstances. He always gets maximum out of the major political parties. One occasion he failed in this endeavour was when he clinched a deal with the UPFA government, after President Rajapaksa emerged victorious at the 2005 Presidential election. Hakeem, though not keen on joining hands with the UPFA, was compelled to do so, in a bid to save his party from being splintered into smaller factions, on account of inducements handed out to his members by the government, to join them.

Hakeem, no doubt, a shrewd politician, used all the tricks up his sleeve to stop a coalition group of all Muslim parties, even when some of the Muslim ministers said that they were prepared to resign their portfolios, if he wanted to join a coalition aligned to the UNP. Hakeem avoided all that, clinging on to the symbol issue and inviting others to contest under the A?a??E?TreeA?a??a??, if they so desired. It is now crystal clear that HakeemA?a??a??s ambivalence towards a Muslim alliance, a thought he may have had for some time. However, he was extremely cautious not to be misled by others, because he was always fearful of being booby-trapped at some point of time.

The government, though it had hiccups over HakeemA?a??a??s move, saw a positive development of sorts, in the absence of mainstream political parties with a communal branding, in the fray. It appears that they too, have strategised the campaign in such a way as to afford an alternative to the Tamils in the East to vote for any other Tamil political entity backed by the government, if they are averse to the Pillaiyan group, who are contesting under the UPFA. The EPDP and PLOTE are there to fill the gap.

Hisbullah strikes out on his own

Simultaneously, though Hisbullah was in touch with the UNP and the government on various occasions, he was never considered to be Chief Minister material by Hakeem. Hisbullah was well aware of this, and made use of the best opportunity on his way to emerging as a powerful politician from the East, striking a deal with the government, while still flirting with the SLMC. Though he joined hands with the government, he could not make a significant dent in the SLMC outfit and could only solicit little support from the SLMC membership active in the East. However, he managed to secure the support of one former Muslim, MP Thawfeek (Thabeer) and another former SLMC National list, parliamentarian Azeez from Pottuvil.

At the final session of the SLMC High Command held on Monday night, just prior to the meeting with the UNP to finalise issues, Hisbullah too participated actively, though his agenda was something else. The SLMCers now believe that Hisbullah was there up to till the last moment, to ensure that the SLMC-UNP marriage doesnA?a??a??t take place.

Hakeem was not too bothered with what has taken place, since a majority of the members are still with him, and by nature, it appears that he is more comfortable with the UNP, rather than any other political party. And finally made it happen by agreeing to contest under the UNPA?a??a??s A?a??E?ElephantA?a??a?? symbol.

Undoubtedly, it was a victory for the UNP and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was able to clinch the best deal that brought the UNP to the forefront.

Marital woes even before the honeymoon

It was also decided at this meeting of the A?a??E?High CommandA?a??a??, that the SLMC should vehemently oppose any UNP attempt to include its Eastern convener, Naushad A. Majeed, into the Digamadulla district list. Naushad was handpicked by UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to lead the Digamadulla electoral district and was the prospective candidate for Chief Minister of the East, as far as the UNP was concerned. However, Naushad right along maintained the position that he would pave the way for Rauff Hakeem, if he was willing to contest the Chief Ministerial slot. A decision by Hakeem to contest the Chief Ministerial slot would put Naushad in an advantageous position, since he is next in line to succeed him from the Digamadulla electoral district.

When the SLMC delegation arrived at the UNP LeaderA?a??a??s Cambridge Place office on Tuesday morning, Wickremesinghe immediately summoned Naushad to be present at the meeting. At the very outset, a lawyer by the name of Faiz told the UNP Leader that they had come with both good and bad news. Wickremesinghe asked Faiz as to what the good news was. He said that they would allow the UNP to nominate all six Sinhala candidates for the Digamadulla district. But, for Wickremesinghe, it was not good news. He said that he was prepared to lower this number, depending on the situation, and said that Digamadulla should produce more Muslims. Thereafter, he queried as to what the bad news was. The reply came from Nizam Kariappar, who said that, in their opinion, the UNP should not nominate any Muslim member to any of the three districts. Wickremesinghe disagreed.

Best foot forward

The government is steadfastly moving to arrest the deteriorating political situation in the east, after the surprising move by three leading SLMCers to contest under the UNP banner.
On Nominations day itself, the UPFA put up a big show in Ampara, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, to offset the effect of the SLMC move.

The government is confident of making it in Batticaloa, since an SLMC stalwart, Hisbullah, has joined hands with the government to contest the elections.
At the same time, at ThursdayA?a??a??s nominations, two political parties A?a??a?? the EPDP and the EPRLF A?a??a?? had their nominations rejected in Trincomalee and were contemplating challenging the decisions of the Elections officers there.

EPDP Leader and Minister Douglas Devananda told this column that, as he saw it, the ground situation was becoming volatile and both parties stood an equal chance of getting elected.
He also said that, although his nominations in Trincomalee were rejected, he was quite certain of securing at least two seats in Batticaloa.

He said that he did not field candidates in Ampara following an understanding with the government.
He said that he was wholeheartedly supportive of the UPFA government for trying to democratise and install a civilian administration there.

But he said that the scales were even after Rauff HakeemA?a??a??s decision, which he described as a good move by the Opposition.
However, he pointed out that the government would do its utmost to secure all three districts, despite the hiccups here and there, due to the TamilsA?a??a?? dislike for Pillaiyan as a political entity in the east.

He also said it was more likely that the TNA would carry out a silent campaign for the UNP in the east.
Meanwhile, the government is trying to verify whether the three TNA candidates, who were LTTE sympathisers, had been included in the UNP list for Trincomalee, to attract the Tamil voters.

It looks like the Eastern elections are going to be quite interesting politically, and, at the same time, there could be violence in the run up to the elections.

It is the fervent wish of the people of all three districts, that the two major political parties should exercise extreme caution when dealing with people, while canvassing and during political meetings, to ensure those events donA?a??a??t become violent.

Thereafter, Wickremesinghe asked Naushad for his comments, observing that both parties had not gauged their respective strengths within the districts, and that the UNP, in any case, intended to field three Muslim candidates for Digamadulla, two for Batticaloa and another three for Trincomalee. However, when the SLMC delegation countered that they had been made to understand that the UNP would not nominate any Muslim candidate to any of the three districts, Naushad said that the discussion could not be proceeded any further, if that was their position. At this point, Ranil Wickremesinghe intervened to say that there was no such understanding between them. However, as a concession, Wickremesinghe said he could field two Muslims in Digamadulla instead of three. Nevertheless, Wickremesinghe said that his decision to nominate Naushad A. Majeed as the UNP candidate for the Digamadulla district, was not negotiable.

During the course of the discussion, the UNP Leader learnt of HisbullahA?a??a??s decision to join the UPFA. At once, Wickremesinghe told Hakeem, A?a??A?Look, I told you there is something like thisA?a??A?. But, neither Hakeem, nor the others, showed any signs of surprise or of being affected by HisbullahA?a??a??s decision.

The most contentious point of the meeting was when Basheer Cegu Dawood vehemently opposed the UNP move to nominate one Latheef, considered a top UNPer from Eravur, to Batticaloa. For a moment, all were stunned by BahseerA?a??a??s opposition towards Latheef and wondered whether it was a move engineered by the government to disrupt the UNP-SLMC alliance, because they were well aware of BasheerA?a??a??s connection to a powerful minister who crossed over to the government from the UNP, but, Wickremesinghe moved swiftly to diffuse the situation by shifting Latheef from Batticaloa to Digamadulla. BahseerA?a??a??s explanation to justify his opposition was that a popular university teacher from the same area, is earmarked to contest as a nominee of the SLMC. Hence, LatheefA?a??a??s nomination would cause a severe problem for both candidates, as far as preference votes are concerned. His contention was that both members would not stand a chance of being elected, if Latheef contested in Batticaloa. However, his contention doesnA?a??a??t hold water anymore, since Basheer himself had decided to contest the Batticaloa district, along with the university teacher he was referring to.

The MuslimsA?a??a?? Judas

At this stage, the meeting adjourned abruptly, with Hakeem indicating that he had to get back to the high command with the ideas put forward by the UNP, while expressing his wish to meet with the UNP again the same evening.
Though he had an uphill task before him, Hakeem convinced the A?a??E?High CommandA?a??a?? without much trouble, conceding two Muslim candidates to the UNP in Digamadulla, three in Trincomalee and one in Batticaloa, while the SLMC will have eight in Digamadulla, three in Trincomalee and two in Batticaloa. The rest would be Tamil and Sinhala candidates nominated by the UNP. He told the A?a??E?High CommandA?a??a?? that he was compelled to concede a slot in Digamadulla for his one time A?a??E?High CommandA?a??a?? member Naushad, who he said was sincere in his disposition and did everything possible to accommodate the SLMC.

Blinkers for the Muslims

Soon after the forenoon meeting with the SLMC, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met with a delegation of British Parliamentarians in his office. He made it a point to get the Muslim delegation, who were about to retire for another A?a??E?High CommandA?a??a?? meeting, back to his office and explained to the British Parliamentarians, the predicament of the Muslims in the East, after which the meeting ended. Wickremesinghe, by his action, had been able to convince the Muslim delegation in particular, and the SLMC in general, that he was more concerned of the problems they are facing in the East, due to various political developments there.

By Wednesday, things changed once again. The UNP became anxious, in the absence of a communication from the SLMC. For a moment, they thought their marriage to the SLMC was over and that the SLMC wanted to go alone in the East. The UNP became very worried, since this was exactly what the government wanted to do. By evening, Rauff Hakeem appeared before Ranil Wickremesinghe to convey their decision to resign from Parliament and contest the Provincial Council election under the UNP banner. Hakeem had addressed the High Command, after he agreed with the UNP. Though the SLMC felt that the deal with the UNP was not very much in their favour, they decided to take up the challenge under the prevailing circumstances. Hakeem told the High Command that this was a make or break situation for the SLMC, emphasising the need to win the election, in order to entrench the SLMCA?a??a??s political power among the people of the East. Consequent to the latest development and HakeemA?a??a??s decision to contest on the UNP list, the UNP had to change the entire nomination process and prepare new sets of papers with the inclusion of top SLMCers on top of the list. Accordingly, SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem decided to contest Trincomalee district while Party Chairman Basheer Cegu Dawood chose to contest Batticaloa and Party General Secretary Hasan Ali moving to Digamadulla.

Pawns in a power grab: East

Though Hakeem has taken up the challenge, it would be rather difficult for the SLMC to fight a government that has invested heavily in men and material in the area. Firstly, the government liberated the East from the clutches of the LTTE and deployed a heavy contingent of security personnel to maintain law and order in the face of imminent threats from the LTTE and thereafter, launched a massive development programme branded A?a??A?Sun Rise Region DevelopmentA?a??A?. With all this in place, are the people willing to reject the governmentA?a??a??s candidates contesting under the UPFA banner? Given the circumstances, it is not only a challenge to Hakeem, but to the government too. If the people in the East reject the government and elect the UNP instead, it would be a severe indictment on the government. On the other hand, Hakeem, who has resigned from Parliament, to take up the challenge, has to prove his mettle as a worthy leader, if his party is to survive in the East.

Staying alive, politically

However, Hakeem has a way out, to remain in the mainstream of politics, in the event he is rejected by the people in the East, since two of the members who resigned were nominated from the National lists of the UNP and the SLMC. Both parties are likely to keep these two slots vacant, until the conclusion of the Eastern elections, to enable two of them to return to Parliament, if the need arises. In there view, in a worst case scenario, they would secure at least the position of Leader of the Opposition, which is also of considerable value to them. Hence, Hakeem can return to Parliament, along with another who resigned from Parliament, in the event of a total rejection by the people in the East. The man who gained most from this whole exercise is none other than Naushad A. Majeed, who could be swearing in soon, in place of Hakeem. Naushad and the UNP, who were adamant that he (Naushad) should contest Digamadulla electoral district, had to take up a new challenge of being a Member of Parliament succeeding Hakeem. Hakeem had to sacrifice one of the two (either the Provincial Council or Parliament) for Naushad. He opted to contest the Eastern polls amidst showers of praise by many who described it as a bold political step.

Hakeem would have felt that it was essential to contest and win at the Provincial Council, in the face of a growing personal political threat, especially after the governmentA?a??a??s move to grab a few fellow members of the SLMC, including Hisbullah.

All in all, political analysts conclude that the Ranil-Hakeem combination in the East as being a formidable power block, which has caused problems for the government. Others are of the view that the government is already on the back foot and very selective of its political moves. However, at the same time, some others think that Hakeem has taken a calculated risk, as far as Muslim politics is concerned.

source: Delivery Mycelex-g

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