Mud, elections and presidential advice

Election fever is beginning to rise in this holy month of Poson. Jumbos are butting one another in a frantic effort to revitalise their party by effecting changes at the helm in time for the PC polls due in August. But, their struggle is a self-defeating exercise at this juncture.

The internal strife of the UNP could not have come at a better time for the government beset with numerous problems, to which it doesn't seem to have solutions. Rathu Sahodarayas are also in disarray following a debilitating breakaway and a humiliating defeat in the East last month. So, the run-up to the PC polls will see these three parties try every trick in the book to enhance their performance.

The substance that they usually use for this purpose is 'mud', which they liberally sling at their rivals. Perhaps, the politician who has faced the worst ever vilification campaign during elections is former President Chandrika Kumaratunga after her return to the SLFP's fold in the early 1990s.

When she entered the 1993 PC polls fray, the UNP let loose its propaganda hounds on her. Even a liquor licence that had been obtained for a restaurant she and some others managed was used against her. It was claimed that she had got that permit for her personal use! Advertisements to that effect were splashed in the government newspapers. But, in the end, she not only won that election but also went on to become Prime Minister and President within less than one and a half years!

In 2001, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was at the receiving end of a government sponsored character assassination campaign. One's gorge rose at the shameless conduct of the government propaganda lackeys who fabricated so many things about him. He braved that malicious campaign and became Prime Minister. But for his appeasement of the Tigers, which strengthened the hands of his rivals and alienated the public from his party, he could have become President easily. He, lured by wily Tigers, cooked his goose in style.

In 2005, President Mahinda Rajapaksa came under a ruthless character assassination drive which had the blessings of even some leaders of his own party. He was called many names. But, he won the presidential race!

Thus, it may be seen that mudslinging doesn't pay in politics. A vilification campaign may provide some public entertainment but it cannot sway the voting public.

That may be why President Rajapaksa told his Parliamentary group the other day to desist from unleashing personal attacks and target the policies of their rivals in the PC polls campaign instead of their characters. He reportedly made this exhortation at Monday's meeting with his MPs, some of whom waxed eloquent on the private lives of some JVP front liners in the hope that they might get the go-ahead from their boss to vilify the JVP leaders on the campaign trail. One of the government group members is reported to have said really nasty things about the JVP stalwarts––which we refrain from publishing––much to the amusement of his colleagues. But, the President interrupted and asked him who in politics had a moral right to cast the first stone. (Did he feel sorry for the Sahodarayas, without whose support he would not have been able to win the presidential election?)

That 'mud' begets 'mud' and brings about acrimony in politics is a truism. Elections in this country have turned out to be no holds-barred slanging matches, which serve little purpose for the public who seek solutions to their burning problems. Such attacks only help boost massive political egos of all hues.

President Rajapaksa was right in urging his team to stop personal attacks. (A wag says if they follow his advice, they may have to stop speaking altogether.) But, we bet our bottom dollar that they will forget his advice at the first sight of a microphone. Wasn't it in President Rajapaksa's presence that Minister Mervyn Silva stooped to the level of questioning a rival's paternity in Matara last December? Thereafter he stormed the Rupavahini Corporation demanding to know why his speech had not been telecast in full. The rest is history. If only the President had told his MPs to behave much earlier!

It is not only personal attacks that government politicians must give up. They must be asked to stop physical assaults and kalu thel (burnt engine oil) attacks on their rivals as well. Goons led by a ruling party politician descended on a JVP protest recently at Arachchikattuwa injuring several persons. The following day, a demonstration against that attack prompted the government thugs to throw kalu thel at JVP members. The police, true to form, looked the other way.

Abuse of state property, election violence, rigging etc. are as bad, if not worse than, personal attacks on political rivals. We will be made witness to a plenty of such flouting of election laws within the next few weeks with the government determined to bag the North Central and Sabaragamuwa PCs by hook or by crook. It cannot afford to lose them, as a defeat will trigger a chain reaction. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that government politicians will behave whatever the President may say.

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