With the presidential election campaign now on first gear, there have been newspaper reports on the removal of illegal propaganda hoardings, posters and other material on public display. The police were awaiting provision of funds by the elections department to hire labourers for this work, we are told. Such funds, apparently, are now forthcoming. Why should the taxpayer bear the cost of this work? Those who erected these hoardings or disfigured other people’s walls with election posters should be required to clean up their mess. The principle of ``Polluter Pays’’ is well established in matters relating to environmental protection though, sadly, not in our country. Such laws must surely be enforced here. This is a good time to get a handle on this matter because all manner of posters, not just election propaganda, have for too long defaced city walls and the concerned authorities have done precious little about it. With a parliamentary election to follow the presidential contest, a rash of posters countrywide is assured and the tab for removing them will lie on the taxpayer rather than those seeking election by doing the dirty.
We often see ``Stick No Bills’’ signs on freshly painted walls but these are inevitably ignored with all kinds of posters advertising this and announcing that obliterating them. Young hoodlums driving their parents’ cars in the dead of night, armed with paint spray cans, specialize in sign writing on walls in quiet residential areas. Some of their scrawls are lewd, others proclaim the names of well known schools to which these vandals presumably belong. We cannot for the life of us imagine why the school heads don’t do something about such behaviour. Maybe the victims don’t complain out of the conviction that remedial action is not just improbable but plain impossible. It can, of course, be argued that there’s nothing to prevent a rival school’s name being used by such wall writers. But some investigations and deterrent action is very much in order.
As the election gets closer, campaign rhetoric is inevitably getting more strident. Allegations are being traded with the voter called upon to decide who deserves more credit for liquidating the LTTE, the president or the general. It was only a few months before May that the two men marched to the beat of a single drum and both appeared together in those ubiquitous hoardings that have been a signature of the Rajapaksa administrations. Thereafter Sarath Fonseka was sidelined and, as his resignation letter clearly implied, he appeared to have lost the trust of the president. Whether this was because a coup was suspected, as stated in some quarters, or whether Fonseka was contacting or being contacted by political elements hostile to Rajapaksa, is still an open question. According to what is being said at present, he seems to have been in touch with the JVP even while he was in uniform.
It is ironical that Mahinda Rajapaksa who right throughout his political career demonstrated a distinct genius for making friends made an enemy of Sarath Fonseka, a powerful enemy to boot. The president is now hinting darkly about some ``wrong appointments’’ he made. It is clear he doesn’t mean vermin. Elements as disparate as the UNP and the JVP, who played a major role in the president’s previous election victory, have got together in an effort to use Fonseka to dethrone Rajapaksa. Mangala Samaraweera, who managed the Rajapaksa campaign in 2005, is also an eminence grise in the new combination focusing on corruption as the campaign moves on. This is a malady that is nothing new to this country, growing exponentially with succeeding governments and mounting public expenditure. The bigger the development projects embarked upon or the war expenditure, higher the commissions made by various functionaries – political and official. Business toadies cultivating the power elite have also done very nicely, thank you. No recent government, past or present, can credibly claim clean hands on this score and the only question is who’s worse. The tragedy is that public opinion has not been strong enough to demand better standards from our leaders and we seem to be sinking deeper into the mire.
Thanks to the election we are getting our loaf of bread three rupees cheaper than before with the cash-strapped government foregoing its tax on wheat grain. More goodies are likely as Election Day approaches. Our memories being notoriously short, many of us may have already forgotten how we enjoyed a bread price reduction like this one as a previous election approached, only to have it restored after the votes were counted and a new government ensconced in office. General Fonseka is on public record promising a Rs. 10,000 a month pay hike to the public service. He says that he will find the necessary funds by saving on wastage elsewhere. The public service, as it is, is already bloated with a fat slice of the country’s GDP utilized to meet its salaries and pension bills. Undoubtedly public servants, like the rest of the population, must contend with an impossibly high cost of living. What this country desperately needs is a leaner, more productive and, yes, better paid public service. Offering blanket salary increases all round in the hope of winning votes and an election is not the answer.
With the war over, it makes economic sense that the armed services are cut down at best or at least held at their present strength. But no, we are told that they must be increased to guard against another challenge from the LTTE or whoever emerging in the future. Few will buy that argument. Too powerful a military will always be a threat to democracy. We are too small a country to stand up to external threats as we saw in 1987 when our forces were close to finishing the LTTE in Vadmarachchi and the country was treated to the infamous parippu drop. The military must quickly revert to its previous role as an internal security force although no room for the kind of terrorism that bled this country white over nearly three decades must be permitted.
Meanwhile let us have a free and fair presidential election on Jan. 26 and thereafter at the parliamentary election that will follow. President Rajapaksa deserves credit for standing up to the massive external pressure that enabled the war victory at the immense cost of blood and Treasure. General Fonseka’s role in that victory was not minor but whether that makes him fit to assume the highest office in the land is another question. There is undoubtedly a yearning in the country for change where political establishments serve the people rather than themselves. Fonseka, no doubt, is the best candidate the opposition could have fielded against a formidable president seeking re-election. There’s only a month more for us to see which way the papadam will crumble.