Rajapaksa voters' darling in south SL
"He is a southern man," people of the south say, when asked why they prefer him to his principal rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the opposition United National Party (UNP).
"We have not had a Southern person at the top of Sri Lanka since Dahanayake was Prime Minister ages ago. Even Dahanayake was only a caretaker Prime Minister for a short while," pointed out Sunimalee Gunasekara of Beddagama, a small town off the southwestern coast.
W Dahanayake, from Galle in the deep south, was a caretaker Prime Minister between 1959 and 1960.
Dahanayake was a simple, homespun, southern man, and Rajapaksa from Belliatta, also in the deep south, is seen as reflecting the values and style of Dahanayake. Rajapaksa's instant acceptability to the common man in terms of his background, dress code, and demeanour, is the second factor, which endears him to the people in the rural outback of the south.
Rajapaksa is always in the Sri Lankan national dress, a white full-sleeved shirt worn over a white sarong. In addition, he wears a long, reddish-brown sash around his neck to give him a trademark. Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, is always in western attire, which gives him a corporate-urban image rather than a native Sri Lankan one.
"This country has been ruled by the English educated elite for long. Why not give a different man a chance?" is the other question that the voters ask.
Surprisingly, federalism, or the threat of division of the country on ethnic lines was not a major issue in the Hikkaduwa and Galle belt in the south this correspondent visited last week.
Very few said that they are voting for Rajapaksa because he would not divide the country either by giving the Tamils an independent "Eelam" in the Northeast, or an autonomous province in the region by changing the present unitary constitution to a federal one.
Wickremesinghe was also not seen as a person who would divide the country, though he was committed to implementing the Oslo and Tokyo Declarations calling for a federal solution.
"Neither candidate will divide this country," was the common refrain, except among those influenced by the ultra nationalistic Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), who mentioned this as a key issue.
Again surprisingly, the voters did not attach importance to the fact that Rajapaksa was a quintessential Sinhala-Buddhist, the majority community among Sri Lanka's 20 million people.
In the initial stages of the campaign, the media and political pundits drummed up Rajapaksa's Sinhhala-Buddhisthood in opposition to Wickremesinghe's Westernised (Christian) culture.
Stung by this, Wickremesinghe had quickly neutralised this propaganda by making promises to Buddhists and interacting with Buddhist priests publicly.
Anyway, as it turns out, the "threat" to Sinhala-Buddhism is not a major issue in the deep south. Here the contest is between a southerner and a non-southerner.
The Marxist JVP is a major influence in the region, that being their traditional base. The suited and booted staffers in several resorts on the southwestern coastline are for Wickremesinghe because his peace plank and pro-western policies are expected to bring in western tourists. But the staff in the lower rungs of the hotel industry seems to have been influenced by the JVP. The latter are firm supporters of the JVP-backed Rajapaksa.
One of them even went to the extent of saying that western tourists would flock to Sri Lanka no matter who was in power, because they were attracted to its sunny weather and beaches.
"They will come even if Prabhakaran (the LTTE chief) is ruling Sri Lanka. All that the western tourists want is peace. And both candidates have assured the people that they will not start the war again," said Weerasekara, who works in a hotel on the Galle and Matara road.
This brings us to another reality in the south. Few believe that the country will go to war and defeat the terrorist LTTE if Rajapaksa becomes President. Also few believe that Wickremesinghe will meekly surrender to the LTTE and give it an independent Tamil Eelam in the northeastern part of the country on a platter.
"No party wants war and no leader will divide the country," is a constant refrain among the Sinhalas in the south.
Bread and butter issues, the economy, unemployment and sky rocketing prices are major concerns. But these are stressed mostly by voters who are backing the UNP. In the south, these are less in number than those who are backing the SLFP/JVP combine. SLFP/JVP supporters do not deny the existence of these issues, but say that if Rajapaksa is given a chance, he will bring prices down and give employment to people.
When it was pointed out to them that as the incumbent Prime Minister, Rajapaksa had failed to hold the price line or provide employment, his supporters would say that he was not allowed to work by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who had been gunning for him for long.
Communication skills are playing a key role in the campaign in the south. While Rajapaksa is seen as a good communicator with the appropriate people-friendly body language and voice, Wickremesinghe is not.
Rajapaksa's speeches, as indeed his campaigners', are couched in simpler terms. "People get bored if the speakers dole out percentages and statistics," observed a UNP election worker.
However, Rajapaksa will not be able to rely solely on his being a southerner to win the November 17 elections. Indeed, bread and butter issues are agitating the people.
The Marxist JVP's insurrection of 1988-89, which affected the South badly, was founded on the bread and butter issues of the day. This is the reason why Rajapaksa came out with oodles of giveaways in his 90-page manifesto. He said that every farmer family would get a pickaxe free. He even went to the extent of offering journalists the right to import vehicles duty free.
The UNP, which is essentially a party of traders and businessmen, both small and big, has a large vote bank in the south. Undoubtedly, Rajapaksa, the "southern man" has a distinct advantage over Wickremesinghe the "outsider". But the latter is by no means a washout. In fact, all the pre-election surveys predict a close fight.
(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)