And they’re off!

With nominations closing yesterday for the election of Sri Lanka’s twelfth parliament, the country will once again be in the throes of an election campaign that will hopefully lead to stability. While proportional representation has been roundly denounced by President Kumaratunga and her People’s Alliance for a number of years now, the country has not yet had an explanation why the system was very much part and parcel of the draft constitution she presented to parliament in August 2000. CBK who knows when to flash that dazzling smile of hers, also knows (sometimes) when to keep her mouth shut. So we had a stiff upper lip on that one, just like the other one where she said nary a word about those transitional provisions for abolishing the presidency, complete with the full present term for herself. That was also part of the selfsame draft.

So PR it will be this time round too. It has been abundantly proved that no landslides, such as those we have often seen in our post-Independence history, are possible or likely under this system. But let us not forget that some of those landslides brought tyrannies of absolute majorities such as those of 1970, which swept Mrs. Bandaranaike and her United Left Front allies into power, and J. R. Jayewardene’s five sixths deluge in 1977. The arrogance and the we-will-do-as-we-will attitudes demonstrated by both those governments would be remembered by older people while today’s youngsters will be blissfully ignorant of what too much power does to politicians.

We came tantalisingly close to having those much demanded independent commissions to ensure that elections are free and fair and that those in the seats of power do not abuse the resources of the state to ensure their perpetuation in office. But that was not to be. The government was brought down, by a conspiracy we are told, funded by bank defaulters and bookies who were to be brought to book by the JVP-backed probationary government. If the PA wanted to lynch the defaulters owing billions to the state banks, they had all of seven years to do so. The truth is that the default book grew fatter under the new dispensation and we have Prof. G. L. Peiris going public on how his efforts to amend the Banking Act to enable the names of such miscreants to be published were thwarted on the argument that such measures would place the state banks at a disadvantage.

Despite all the lip service, the people do have grave doubts on whether this election is going to be better than the last one. Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake, armed with new powers under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, has vowed to do his best. But how good that would be only time can tell. Already we have the IGP taking the stance that police transfers, including more than 60 made after the election was declared, was his business and not the commissioner’s. What the elections chief is going to do about that one, we must wait and see. But one thing the incident reveals is that the IGP and his boss, from wherever he takes his orders, are clearly not going by the spirit of the law. If its letter is to their advantage, that’s the way they are going to play the game. And anybody who does not like it can lump it, so there!

The Public Administration Ministry, unlike the IGP, appears to have fallen in line with the Elections Commissioner’s directive with regard to pre-polls transfers. There’s already a test of strength on this score with the Samurdhi boss refusing to comply with a transfer order made after the election was declared. Whether that worthy will find her office all locked up and access denied to her, as has been done before under somewhat similar circumstances, we must wait and see. The way that democracy is practised in this country of ours, we will be extremely surprised if somebody who is perceived as a loyalist of S. B. Dissanayake is allowed to run the Samurdhi show at election time without let or hindrance.

The JVP, judging by what was said at the Sugathadasa Stadium on Friday, is going to punch both the greens and the blues. But, of course, the country knows very well that it will tilt towards the PA at it did so recently, if it holds the balance of power. The JVP leadership has already bared a potent campaign line that the Tamil parties can keep the UNP "on probation" on behalf of the LTTE in the event of another kind of deadlock. That could be a convincing argument if the election is going to be fought on racist lines and that, sadly, will be the case at least on the part of some of the contestants. The government has been trying its damnedest to smear the UNP with the Tigers right from the word go. There is every indication that this will gather momentum as the campaign gets into top gear.

With the stakes as high as they are, it will be a forlorn hope that the old game that both the UNP and SLFP have played in their time, of accusing the other of selling the Sinhalese down the river to the Tamils, will not be played this time despite the clarion calls we’ve heard about a joint appeal to the LTTE to get the talks going. If punters on the Colombo bourse are accurate forecasters, then there is no doubt at least at this stage of the race that Ranil Wickremesinghe is going to be the winner. But a lot can happen between now and December 5, which happens to be the sixth anniversary of the fall of Jaffna. CBK thinks that was her lucky day. Prabhakaran will, of course have other thoughts and whether the LTTE will seek to influence the course of this election as he did at the last presidential election with an attempt on Ms. Kumaratunga’s life, we will know soon enough.

And as we pointed out in this column last week, the president who win or lose will continue to sit on the throne, has given herself nearly a month to manoeuvre with the first sitting of the new parliament set for January 1, 2002.

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