It looks like Ranil Wickremesinghe will go down like Gaddafi, hiding behind paving equipment in Sirikotha. Like any dictator, other people must suffer before him, preferably everybody.
The UNP has lost election after election, voter after voter, MP after MP. More importantly, they have lost chance after chance to improve people’s lives and seemingly even the desire to do so. Now it looks as if they may lose Colombo. They would deserve it and for once, the government’s victory would be earned.
Colombo is a majority Tamil-speaking city which has been a UNP stronghold for years. Yet for the first time in years it could quite possibly go to the SLFP. How did this happen, and why is it a good thing?
Most broadly, because Milinda Moragoda is a better candidate. He can deliver results and temper the harsh tendencies of Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The latter, while not a traditional hero of this paper, has done a rapid and effective job of cleaning up Colombo. While this has made him popular among the middle classes, he has left many voters in the wattes terrified of losing their homes.
He is thus both a blessing and a curse to Milinda. If Milinda wins, he would make execution of Milinda’s ambitious and intelligent Colombo development programme quick and efficient. However, his unapologetic bulldozing has made Milinda’s job as a candidate much harder. The hard fact is that illegal shanties will be demolished no matter who wins. While the UNP can sell fear and impotent opposition, Milinda has the tough job of selling reality. He has to sell the idea of new housing within Colombo, because the city will change regardless.
M.J.M. Muzammil is a lesser candidate, relevant mainly in his identity as a minority Muslim and a UNPer. He can deliver votes, but he offers little compelling vision and his ongoing fealty to Ranil promises a hearty ineffectiveness. While he and the UNP have delivered neither results nor even a compelling pulse of late, identity politics could be enough for them to carry the day.
Ranil is simply a curse, but the UNP remains strong in Colombo and Muzammil’s identity as a Tamil-speaking Muslim gives him a considerable advantage in this majority minority city. The UNP also looks set to leverage fear, telling people that their shanties will be demolished if they vote for the government. Of course, their shanties will be demolished anyway, without a capable mayor to temper Gotabhaya’s steel. There is actually no possibility of the UNP governing, nor do they have the capacity. This is just Ranil’s last stand before he has to dig a hole and grow a beard.
At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to votes. The UNP could traditionally carry Colombo without blinking, but they have complicated things in this election. For one, Ranil has ripped out the UNP’s eyes, brain and other vital organs and is now trying to take a dead elephant to the perahera. The UNP is now known for losing or not running, and certainly not delivering. By nominating a Muslim he may have also reduced the Sri Lankan Tamil vote, which may just sit this one out. Even the Muslim vote is not sure, since Muzammil is not conspicuously devout.
Milinda, on the other hand, can depend on a Sinhala base and government support (whether he solicits it directly or not), but he still has to fight for Muslim and Tamil votes in order to win. Of course, these racial slices hide differences in class as well. The difficulty for Milinda is that his insistence on poster free campaigns, small meetings and little strong-arming mean that he is hobbled in what is too often a race to the bottom. He simply will not go there even if he loses, which was precisely how he lost his Parliament seat.
This, however, is just the politics. It is vital to understand that the Colombo Express has already left the station. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will continue his work, rolling over anything in his path. He is not driving this train, he is the train. The only question in this election is whether we have a democratic conductor on board or whether we are stuck in the baggage compartment with Ranil’s rotting corpse.
Colombo will be a beautiful city. The question in this election is really whether it is under civilian control.