Mon, 27 May 2024 Today's Paper

Will the approaching elections be free and fair?

11 May 2024 12:00 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


What is the significance of the Election Commission’s (EC) announcement on Thursday that the next presidential election would be held between September 17 and October 16? It is a well-known fact to those who know the relevant Article of the Constitution. It would have only been relevant if the EC had announced the exact date for the election.

Goodies and freebies 

Although President Ranil Wickremesinghe has not declared his candidature for the forthcoming Presidential election, it is clear he has commenced his election campaign through vote-catching activities in various sectors, providing the voters with various goodies and freebies. 
If we are going by a recent communication by the election monitoring body, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) to the Elections Commission (EC), what is shameful in this exercise is the President’s party, the United National Party (UNP) using public funds for these activities, abusing the powers of the President’s office.
Apart from the Aswesuma project which apparently comes under the “social safety net” of the economic recovery programme sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government has initiated a plan to distribute 20 kg of rice to 2.7 million low-income families since last month. The ‘Urumaya’ programme initiated by President Ranil Wickremesinghe and already underway aims at providing freehold land rights to two million individuals. The President also announced last November that nearly 50,000 families will be granted ownership of their urban houses in 2024 and the programme was launched last month. 
The government has allocated 14 billion rupees for people without homes in the plantation areas, out of which 10 billion rupees had been allocated for 89 Divisional Secretariat areas to construct 10,000 houses, according to Minister Jeevan Thondaman. The Cabinet last month also approved a proposal to provide sanitary napkins free annually to 800,000 poverty-stricken female students studying in the most remote and isolated schools. These may be some of the programmes that the PAFFREL had referred to as vote-buying initiatives. 

Misusing state property

The poll monitoring body on May 3 had said that the government was misusing state property at a time when a crucial election is only a few months away. PAFFREL Executive Director, Rohana Hettiarachchi said that these initiatives are costing billions of rupees to the tax payer.
“The government has allocated 10 million rupees for each Divisional Secretariat area for development activities. The funds will be used at the discretion of the governor of the province. The governor is the representative of the President and it is obvious that this is an endeavour aimed at the election. The government spends billions of tax rupees as well as enormous physical and human resources of the state for its election propaganda activities,” he had accused. 
The PAFFREL has urged the EC to address these government-run political promotion programmes disguised as development projects, occurring while the Local Government (LG) elections have been called and the Presidential Election is expected to be announced soon. In a letter addressed to EC Chairman R.M.A.L. Ratnayake, the PAFFREL Executive Director pointed out that even though the LG election has been postponed indefinitely, the election has not been cancelled, meaning that the pre-election laws are still in effect.
The EC that met on May 7 had observed the points raised by the PAFFREL and had written to the Secretary to the President, Saman Ekanayake, requesting him not to involve any politician in such development project implementations. However, the President and the leaders of the government are extremely unlikely to take the concerns of the EC into account, since these activities are carried out with the full knowledge of their unfair impact on the results of the forthcoming Presidential election.
However, this is a tricky issue for the Opposition parties. Despite the undue advantage that is to be possibly gained by the two ruling parties, the UNP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) through these so-called development and relief programmes being very clear, their opposition to the programmes would reflect badly on them. However, the impact of these programmes might not be so favourable to the ruling parties as happened before, given the realization of corrupt politics by the people through the discourse on the current crisis and the resultant public uprising witnessed in 2022.      

Brownie points 

Meanwhile, the unending oft-repeated chest-thumping by the President and his party that it was only he who had dared to take over the country when it was facing an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 and that he has been able to salvage the country economically are also aimed at earning brownie points ahead of the
Presidential election. 
It was not a matter of courage or international connections as the President boasted in Parliament on Tuesday that prompted him to take over the premiership when Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign as the Prime Minister on May 9, 2022. But it was the understanding that had been built then between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe that emboldened the latter to grab the opportunity to gain what he failed to gain at the last General election and what he was not sure of gaining in the rest of his lifetime.  On the other hand, Gotabaya Rajapaksa too preferred him over others, due to the dealings between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksas since the beginning of the Yahapalana Government. 
Sri Lanka had obtained IMF assistance 16 times before 2022 and for the 17th time President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had already initiated talks with the international lender when the Aragalaya broke out. With the experience in the previous IMF programmes, Wickremesinghe would have known that the country would be able to manage the crisis with the new IMF deal, until at least the next national elections. Thus, he took over.
It must be recalled that not only Wickremesinghe, but also Sajith Premadasa, though with a brief hesitation, did come forward to accept the premiership when Mahinda Rajapaksa humiliatingly bowed down to the countrywide agitations in May 2022, after the attack by his supporters on peaceful protesters in the GotaGoGama in the Galle Face Green.  However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa informed Premadasa that he was too late.   

Open challenge 

Similarly, NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in June 2022 threw down an open challenge to President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to make way for his party which he said would run the government with the assistance of a 15-member Cabinet which would be appointed from the existing Parliament. It must also be recalled that Dullas Alahapperuma contested the Presidential election held in Parliament on July 20, 2022 amidst the crisis. Only the SLPP among the main political groups did not dare to take over, despite it having the majority power in Parliament.
The current economic respite where there are no queues for fuel and cooking gas is nothing but the direct result of the borrowings of foreign exchange from the IMF, International Financial Corporation (IFC) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) after the IMF programme was put in place. Ironically, despite him having ruined the economy, it was Gotabaya Rajapaksa who brought the IMF into the scene this time in March 2022, two months before Wickremesinghe joined the government. 
Rajapaksa also appointed overseas firms, Clifford Chance and Lazard as legal and financial advisors for the IMF programme in Sri Lanka. Besides, he appointed the Sri Lankan officials such as Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardena who are authorized to deal with IMF officials. In short, it was a machinery that was set up by Rajapaksa that is in
operation now. 
However, we are not yet out of the woods. The IMF would only assist the country in managing the current financial crisis temporarily through its reforms and facilitation of obtaining foreign debts. It is up to the Sri Lankan leaders to find ways and means to create an export-oriented economy that would help reduce external borrowings and repay the existing and future loans, averting a future crisis. Nevertheless, only time will tell if the government’s propaganda machine can gradually take over the intelligence of the masses.   


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  • ANNECUNT Saturday, 11 May 2024 06:08 PM


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