UNP picks up the pieces

As is usual after a victory, the victor carries everything before him. In this context, it was heartening to see that the victor has not lost any of his humility despite the resounding nature of his victory. Last week, president Mahinda Rajapakse paid a courtesy call on the Ven Galaboda Gnanissara at the Hunupitiya Gangaramaya, and learning from him that it was the wedding anniversary of Ranjith and Ranjini Wijewardene, the proprietors of the Wijaya Group of newspapers and close kinsfolk of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, he paid a courtesy call on the Wijewardenes as well.

After a bruisingly acrimonious, presidential election, this kind of civility between people on opposite sides of the political divide bodes well for the country. In view of his usual civility towards the opposition, it’s surprising that the president has decided to withdraw the security of all former parliamentarians. The effect of this has been that the security of all former parliamentarians of the opposition have been withdrawn, but because virtually every member of the governing party is a minister of some sort, they will continue to enjoy ministerial security until the end of the election. This is patently unfair. You can’t have a situation where the majority of the government’s key candidates have security details while the key candidates of the opposition have none and expect the playing field to be level. The former opposition MPs should have been allowed to retain their security details until the election was over, if necessary with a proportional reduction commensurate with the reduction in ministerial security details.

Hakeem & Ganesan

 Last week the UNP was busy finalizing arrangements for nominations. The party appointed a high powered committee comprising of Malik Samarawick-rema, Tissa Attanayake and Karu Jayasuriya to decide on the quotas to be given to the SLMC and the Mano Ganesan group and other alliance partners. In the crucial Colombo district, Ganesan has been allocated two slots, the SLMC will be getting one. There will be three Muslim candidates in the UNP list from the Colombo district this time with M. Maharoof, Mohamed Muzammil and Shafeek Rajabdeen(SLMC). The SLMC had asked for a slot in the Kandy district, but this apparently has been turned down. Ganesan had wanted to contest from the Kandy district, but this too has been turned down. What this shows is that the UNP which had lost control of their own ship now seems to be back in command.

 The nomination board for the UNP proper comprises of Wickremesinghe, Karu J, Tissa Attanayake, Jayawickrema Perera and Imtiaz Barkeer Markar. In the east, the UNP will be fielding candidates only in the Digamadulla district. This means that the UNP’s sole Tamil provincial councillor in the Batticaloa district, A.Sashidaran will not be a candidate at this parliamentary election. As we go to press the UNP has however been thinking of fielding candidates in the North and Vanni. Given the humiliating result produced at the Jaffna and Vavuniya local government elections last year, what purpose this is expected to serve is unknown. However, these issues will be finalized only tomorrow.

In the mentime, the TNA has been learning a thing or two from the UNP. In every district in the north and east, they have ‘culled’ existing politicians in order to eliminate competition for bootlickers and favourites. Speaking at a meeting of the UNP led Nidahase Vedikawa (Platform for Freedom), UNP leader Ranil Wickremes-inghe set the target of the party for the forthcoming parliamentary election – preventing the government from getting a two thirds majority.

 EU’s reprisals

 Last week, the European Union communicated their decision to ‘temporarily suspend’ the GSP+ trade concession under which exports from Sri Lanka can enter the 27 EU countries duty free. The suspension is to come into effect six months from now, only if the EU and the government fail to agree on certain things in the intervening period. We now have to talk of GSP+ in Buddhist-style double negatives - it’s neither really suspended nor not suspended. In its communication to the government, the EU has expressed its willingness to reconsider its decision to suspend the concession provided certain conditions are met. To the present columnist, this looks suspiciously like a ploy to keep talking until the six month grace period is over. The SL government and the EU are supposed to sit down and decide on a ‘road map’ for the continuation of GSP+. What will the road map imply? The government for its part is determined that the items on the road map should not be overly intrusive into the internal affairs of this country.

 In the past, we have seen failed politicians from the west coming to Sri Lanka and giving us lectures on what we should do here. For western politicians, official trips to a developing country are stress-relieving holidays where they can forget that they are failed and besieged politicians in their home countries. This has been the bane of countries like Sri Lanka. Now that the EU has finally communicated their decision to suspend GSP+, I believe the government should ask for a consultation at the WTO and this road map should be discussed within the WTO consultative process. A WTO consultation will also help keep the discussion within certain manageable parameters and help to remind all parties about what the generalized system of preferences is about and what it’s meant to do.

If the talks are left open ended, there is the danger of all kinds of irrelevant nonsense being discussed and the talks going round and round in circles as no Western politician has ever to my knowledge made any practical suggestions to Sri Lanka. That would also be the legal thing to do. If the government agrees to some extra-legal arrangement to discuss matters, that will facilitate the circumventing of the international rule of law with regard to trade. Sri Lanka has been one of the founding members of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the precursor of the WTO. But in all these years, Sri Lanka has never once made use of the dispute resolution process in the WTO whereas the USA and the EU have been plumbing it for all they are worth.

 The government should not be misled by the apparent flexibility of the EU. Finally the government has to answer to the people and they should not take the political risk of agreeing to extra legal discussions with the EU. If they are dumped at the end of six months, they should not come before the people and say "We were duped!". It’s the duty of the government not to be taken in by dissimulation. Play safe, and do the talking within the WTO – leaving no room for regrets. If after consultations within the WTO, they rule against Sri Lanka (which is highly unlikely) then the government will at least be able to tell the public that the suspension of GSP+ is a decision backed by the WTO and that they did their best, but failed to retain it.

The important thing is not to allow things to go by default. On the other hand, if the EU dumps them after these informal extra-legal talks about a road map, they will have only themselves to blame. Remember what happened to the UNP government of 2001/2004 after they refrained from impeaching the then Chief Justice Sarath N.Silva in the mistaken belief that he would be ‘flexible’ and cooperative? Remember what happened to S.B.Dissanayake after he pleaded guilty to a contempt of court charge in the mistaken belief that he would be let off lightly?

I have read both reports on Sri Lanka prepared by the European Commission as a prelude to suspending GSP+ and I cannot figure out how any developed democracy can use such reports to pass judgment and to execute a punishment as well. When dealing with such people, it helps to be careful. Obviously, for political reasons, the government would want to avoid making a public scene about GSP+. Even to meet this purpose, asking for a WTO consultation is the safest option. The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation hedging deal which caused great embarrassment to the government was referred to international arbitration and thereafter disappeared from the public radar. Likewise, if this GSP+ mess is to be kept clean and clinical and free of complicating digressions and unwanted public scrutiny, the WTO consultative process is undoubtedly the safest option available to the government.

Electoral gonpaat

 On Monday, Wijedasa Rajapakse accompanied Anoma Fonsekan to the Navy Headquarters where defeated candidate Sarath Fonseka was being detained in order to obtain his signature for the election petition. Once the signature was obtained he came straight to Karu Jayasuriya’s house where Ravi Karunanayake was waiting with a team of lawyers to finalize the documents. The much touted election petition was handed in last week. Having read the petition, the present columnist was left wondering about the future of elections in this country. On the one hand, we have this proliferation of non-serious candidates who come forward at presidential elections leading to the ridiculous situation where the ballot paper is 18 inches long. Then there are the non-serious objections to the result of that election. Every newspaper in the country has by now commented on how the ‘computer fraud’ theory has been dropped from the election petition. So the ‘computer jilmaat’ hysteria has ended up as a gonpaat. Added to all this is the vexatious litigation that seems to routinely follow an election.

 It should be noted that the relief Sarath Fonseka’s election petition seeks from the supreme court is not a re-poll. When people in this country hear the term ‘election petition’ what comes to mind is the election in a given electorate being declared null and void and a by-election being held. However, what Fonseka’s election petition seeks is not a re-poll but a declaration by the supreme court that Fonseka was the winner of last month’s presidential election - no less! The grounds on which they appeal for the supreme court to overturn the result of that election, centre around three main claims – intimidation during the run up to the election, treating voters with food and drink, and bribing voters. One thing that you realize is that an election petition is ipso facto one sided. In an election petition, the petitioner does not feel obliged to include a confession about his own wrongdoings. Set against the bigger picture, an election petition is therefore, by its very nature, only a half truth.

 When it came to threats and intimidation, the opposition candidate outdid all prime ministerial and presidential candidates since independence put together. Compared to these roarings from the opposition platform, there was no such open intimidation directed at anybody by Mahinda Rajapakse. Even when it comes to the acts of violence, which are supposed to have influenced the election, those perpetrated by Fonseka’s side have obviously not been included in the list of incidents in the petition. The most noteworthy exclusions are with regard to the most serious form of election related violence of all – election related killings. 

There were four fatalities reported by the elections monitoring body PAFFREL in the pre-election period Hambantota 1, Kurunegala 2, and Puttalam 1. The Fonseka petition mentions only one of these - a killing in Wariyapola, near Kurunegala, where an opposition activist died in an attack while putting up posters. The other fatalities find no mention in the petition. The death of a woman in Weeraketiya was undoubtedly the fatality that got the most publicity in the run up to the election. However the Fonseka camp may not have included that incident in their petition because her next of kin are adamant that she was a supporter of the UPFA and the witnesses could thus create problems for the petitioner. The Fonseka petition makes no mention about the other two fatalities in Puttalam and Kurunegala either. Since none of these people died in LTTE attacks, does this silence regarding three of the four fatalities mean that the petitioners accept that the opposition too has been killing as many people (or more, depending on where one places the Hambantota incident) as the government? The Fonseka petition mentioned a fatality in Matale where a man was found done to death on the railway tracks. But this incident finds no mention in the election monitoring reports as election violence. It’s highly unlikely that an election related killing would have gone unnoticed by the elections monitoring organizations.

Micro vs. macro

 An incident in Kalawana in Ratnapura where a truck belonging to a Fonseka supporter was merely stoned finds mention in the petition, but not the instance in Polonnaruwa where a double cab was damaged and overturned by an opposition mob. Images of the Polonnaruwa incident and the overturned double cab were broadcast widely over the TV channels and has stuck in people’s minds. Imagine a situation if the victorious candidate himself was legally allowed to initiate litigation of his own claiming that he should have won with a majority of 2 million and not 1.8 million if not for the violence and intimidation emanating from the other side! At the micro level, meaning the village and individual level, there is no doubt that the government side did practice intimidation in the pre-election period.

At the presidential elections we saw that the government practiced micro level intimidation while the opposition practiced macro level intimidation, issuing threats from the public platform and having them broadcast on a daily basis through the TV channels. The macro level intimidation of the joint opposition far outweighed and frightened the voter to a much greater extent than the micro level intimidation of the government. Besides, the micro level intimidation of the government has only a few witnesses in the immediate vicinity whereas the macro level intimidation of the opposition had the whole nation as witnesses in the form of TV audiences. Besides, virtually every election has had the kind of micro level intimidation mentioned in the Fonseka petition and to a much greater degree. If the result of an election is to be declared overturned on that basis, then, it may become necessary to overturn the results of virtually every past election in this country.

One feature in this election petition which may not have found mention to the same extent in any other election petition of the past is the offence of ‘treating’ which means giving free food and drink in the hope of getting the recipient either to vote for the donor or to get the voter to refrain from voting for a particular candidate. In a different era, people used to talk about how votes could be purchased from ignorant people with just a packet of cooked food and a bottle of arrack or a parcel of dry rations. Is the same kind of thing possible today? And even in the past, did people really vote on the basis of such ephemeral and paltry gratifications? The Sinhala people in particular are known to take whatever is offered and to do their own thing anyway. From colonial times Sinhala people took the goodies offered by the Christian missionaries but remained Buddhist in secret.

Be that as it may, the treating mentioned in the Fonseka election petition relates to people being fed at Temple Trees or the presidential residences in Kandy and Anuradhapura. Each such batch of people says the petition, had a minimum of 3,000 people. One of the things that strikes one in reading the list of such events held is the sheer stamina displayed by the president. On many occasions, two such mega feedings had been carried out per day. Whether this was lunch or dinner or light refreshments and tea is not mentioned in the petition. In the past, when people spoke of ignorant people bartering their votes for a packet of cooked food and a bottle of arrack, they didn’t mean the social elite or even the village level elite of teachers, aryurvedic physicians, government servants and the like. The people who were supposed to barter away their votes for a packet of cooked food were deemed to be the poverty stricken, uneducated, ignorant, and even lumpen elements in society – especially the urban and rural underclass. But in the Fonseka petition, the people who are supposed to have bartered their votes for a meal are almost exclusively middle class and above.

‘Buth packet’ votes

 Among the people said to have bartered their votes for a meal are the businessmen of the North Central Province, and the professionals of Kandy! Almost the entire pancha maha balavegaya has been included in this meal for votes accusation. Aryurvedic physicians on the 31st December, School principals and teachers on several days, various categories of workers and trade unionists on several occasions and so on. It’s not surprising that the election petition does not seek a re-poll, because once these categories of people get to know that they have been included among those who are supposed to have bartered their votes for a meal, they are really going to be angry! What really takes the cake is the assertion that by these acts or treating, people were prevented from electing the candidate they preferred, namely, Sarath Fonseka. Among the people who are supposed to have actually preferred Fonseka but had been persuaded to vote for Mahinda Rajapakse in exchange for a meal, are dissidents from the UNP, and those connected to Tarunyata Hetak! It will be interesting to see how the petitioners prove that Fonseka was the preferred candidate of such people.

In this country, it’s customary to offer refreshments to whoever comes to one’s house. At seminars and other such gatherings it’s customary to give the participants refreshments. It’s not practical to hold gatherings without providing refreshments to participants. Where do customs and human needs end, and ‘treating’ for election purposes begin? Do we seriously believe that some short eats or a packet of rice will affect the voting choices of the categories of people who were summoned to the presidential residences for meetings? The parliamentary election is now on and almost all candidates feed all those who come to their homes. Some have 24 hour kitchens running within their premises. Is this also to be considered treating? If the campaign kitchens of the parliamentary candidates are filmed and photographed by the elections department, we may end up without a parliament to meet on the 22nd of April.

The first item under the bribery section in the election petition is the Rs. 2,500 pay hike for government servants. If the pay hike is accepted as a bribe by the court, the question is whether it will have to be shelved? Another question that arises is that even the promise of a bribe is an offence of equal magnitude in terms of the election law. So if the Rs. 2,500 pay hike was a bribe, then Fonseka’s promise of a Rs 10,000 pay hike becomes a ‘promise of a gratification’. Does the defeated candidate get off Scot free simply by virtue of the fact that he has been defeated? Among the other items included under the bribery charge is that members of the Civil Defence Force were granted permanency of employment. Is permanency of employment, a basic right, or a form of bribery? It is after all this same government that elevated the humble ‘gambatta’ to Civil Defence Force status, gave them a new uniform and better weapons and improved their whole outlook. The question is whether permanency in employment can’t be construed as an expression of gratitude for services rendered to the country by this category of defence personnel? Why people refer to this kind of thing as vexatious litigation is obviously because the issues are so vexing!

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