For the past few years and during recent elections, the plunder or abuse of the people’s money, resources and public servants for political party propaganda work has reached criminal proportions. In addition to this plunder, there are also allegations of cyber crime or computer ‘jilmart’ to manipulate the results.
The early presidential election is turning out to be a crucial stage in Sri Lanka’s history. Until November 21, most analysts believed President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unbeatable and his family political fortress invincible. But the dramatic crossover of former Health Minister and the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena has turned the tide to such an extent that most independent political analysts believe that the results of the January 8 elections would be too close to call.
A weekend newspaper report of an opinion poll giving the Opposition’s common candidate Mr. Sirisena a 59% to 41% lead over Mr. Rajapaksa is being denied by the Government.
Whatever the outcome, Sri Lanka’s sovereign people must be ensured of their fundamental right to a free, fair and peaceful election so that they could make an informed choice. Events and signs up to now indicate the sovereign people are being denied that right.
Our sister newspaper the Sunday Times in a front-page lead story quoted trade union officials as saying more than 1,000 Colombo port workers, along with heavy equipment including cranes had been moved out to various parts of the country for the ruling party’s election propaganda work.
The port unions said this move had seriously hampered work, forcing the authorities to hire workers from a private engineering firm.
The officials of the United National Party-controlled Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya said they had made an official complaint with documentary evidence giving the names of the port employees, including maintenance men and welding technicians, who had been sent out for election propaganda work. Predictably, Ports Authority Chairman Priyath Bandu Wickrama denied the charges, while the Ports Ministry Secretary Ranjith Premasiri said he was unaware of what was happening, and would check with the authorities.
Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya – who had earlier said his hands were tied but now appears to be acting independently to ensure a free and fair poll – warned that action could and would be taken against ministry secretaries and departmental heads who allowed the misuse of public money or resources and public servants for party political propaganda. In another positive and public-spirited move, Sri Lanka’s premier legal body the Bar Association of Sri Lanka decided to give free legal aid to civic rights groups or individuals who filed action against the misuse of public money, property and public servants for party propaganda work. BASL President Upul Jayasuriya said this decision was taken in view of the growing number of such gross violations of election laws and the plunder of public funds for party work. He said the BASL itself would file action against top officials who allowed such abuse. At a time when a death blow has been dealt to the independence of the judiciary - one of the pillars of democracy - the saving grace is that the BASL is acting pro-actively on behalf of the people and their fundamental right to free and fair elections.
The Sunday Times also reported that a special Police unit under a DIG was being set up at the Elections Secretariat to act in co-operation with the Elections Commissioner when complaints are made of violations of election laws and violence. This unit has been set up on a request made by the Elections Commissioner and it would be a boost for democracy if, as done in India, the Police unit is brought under the Elections Commissioner for the period of the campaign. Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon has been acting independently, especially in the case of Police transfers and we hope he would continue to do so in the polls campaign and thereby restore a people-friendly Police service.
Another major area where there is widespread abuse of public funds and resources is the Government media -- print, television and radio. This abuse has gone on for decades, but in the past few years public money and resources have been blatantly abused to flatter a demi-god. In the coming weeks, with a sense of desperation also creeping in, the Government media are likely to blatantly violate election laws and principles of journalism. Under election laws, the State media are required to give equal coverage to major parties during an election campaign. If that is not done, we hope the Elections Commissioner will take action against them.