30 September 2014

The H-Factor in Uva

Some months ago when there was talk of Harin Fernando giving up his parliamentary seat to come forward as the UNP’s Chief Ministerial Candidate for Uva, there was one rather talkative man who pooh-poohed the notion.  ‘Just a media show – he will not contest,’ he was convinced.  He offered instead that the UNP should find ‘a suitable candidate,’ meaning that Harin was not the deal.  Well, Tissa Attanayake is not exactly the UNP even though he can be trusted not to stray from the script of Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

It’s all done now.  The UNP didn’t defeat the ruling party, but it can count a lot of victories this side of securing the council.  Improved numbers, greater enthusiasm among the rank and file when it comes to electioneering and a whopping preference return for the chief ministerial candidate all add up to a healthy performance by a party that’s been in the doldrums for years, sadly even in the context of declining regime popularity.  In previous elections, ‘regime-fatigue’ has not translated into electoral shift towards the opposition.  It’s as if the voters thought the Opposition was worse than the ruling party and went with ‘known devil’. 

There are positives and these will no doubt be inflated by regime-haters and perennial down-in-the-mouths, like Thisaranee Gunesekera’s ‘analysis’ of the Uva outcome (‘Uva: The slap and the signal’ in Colombo Telegraph).  Yes, the UPFA went down to 47% in Badulla -- down from 72% in the 2009 PC elections that is – but 2009 was about post-LTTE euphoria.  Still, the UPFA got 58% of the Badulla vote in the 2010 parliamentary election and the UNP got just 32%.  At the same time, it must be remembered that the UNP got 54% of the Badulla vote in the ‘going-out’ 1994 election. 

Uva and in particular Badulla, until recently, was as green as it gets, outside of the Colombo Municipal area.  Making too much of a percentage increase has more to do with outcome preference than anything else.  And if the less than 50% performance of the UPFA in Badulla is something to cheer, let it be remembered that the UPFA got less than 45% from the Colombo District in the Western PC election.  They still won the province and that makes for the (sometimes) crucial bonus seats.

Clearly, it was not an even playing field.  There’s the inbuilt edge for the ruling party and over and above that there was palpable abuse of state resources.  General dissatisfaction with the regime has not risen significantly and this, therefore, cannot explain the ‘UNP surge’ if you want to be generous and call it that.  There was just one thing different between ‘Uva’ and the other provinces.  A candidate. Harin Fernando.  Thisaranee slaps herself when she says ‘Harin Fernando’s candidacy had a huge impact on the election outcome’.  She is correct here and therefore contradicts all her other claims about slaps, slips and signals.

Harin brought energy into what had become a party without vim, vigor or vitality.  He showed courage and proved he was willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the party.  As Thisaranee correctly points out he did in Uva what the likes of Ravi Karunanayake, Harsha De Silva and Sajith Premadasa could have done but didn’t do in the Western and Southern Provinces.  That courage naturally activated the party faithful in the province.  A lot is being made of Sajith’s last minute fence-mending with Ranil and the cheers he got, but it is also true that Sajith came and went with his cheering squad.  Cheap politics backed by media mavericks can fool a party leadership but it won’t sway the voter – this was also proved. 

Harin showed the difference between voice-cut politicians and those who do the on-the-ground grind that’s a non-negotiable when confronting a ruling party ready and able to through all resources at you and bend or break the laws if necessary too.  He was not just a candidate with a national profile but a candidate who could be creative, who could speak and who could draw out the latent agitational and organizing energies of the party membership.  People rallied around him because he unlike others did not fight for positions but in fact gave up position, fought what is arguably a lost cause. That’s how leaders emerge.
Most importantly, at the end of the day, Harin showed that he had humility and he knew the meaning of gratitude.  He said without hesitation that he owes a lot to Karu Jayasuriya for encouraging and supporting his decision to contest and doing everything possible to make it happen. He said 'Karu Jayasuriya is the unsung hero of this victory' in a credit-where-credit-is-due observation.  He said that the Leadership Council should remain and here he was at odds with what seems to be the present position of the Party Leader vis-à-vis the Leadership Council. That’s being brave and honest. 

Harin was a factor.  A huge factor, as Thisaranee said.  He has a long way to go. He would know about peaking too early.  He would know about the need to keep the momentum, the need to remain humble and to keep to the ground even as the media spotlight falls on him. 

Harin had an impact.  How many Harins does the UNP have?  Can Harin be cloned, politically speaking?  If not, what next for the UNP?  These questions ought to sober the leadership and if they have any sense they will face them with courage, humility and realism.   Or else they’ll continue to cry ‘hora umpire’ or blame it all on ‘computer jilmarts’, and whether or not such things are true or if they are of critical importance, they’ll remain in the Opposition.