The Political Column

1st October 2000

Dubious role of police in the run-up to polls

By our Political Correspondent

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Official statistics on election-related violence appear to be proving police inaction to curb the ugly incidents that make the democratic exercise of franchise a mockery.

By midweek, election-related incidents reported to the Police Election Secretariat had shot up to around 600, most of them being reported from Matara, Badulla, Chilaw, Kandy, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Negombo. The UNP had made 254 complaints, the PA 220 incidents and the JVP 74.

These incidents also point to a fact that clashes are taking place not only between members of rival parties but also among members within a party an unfortunate scenario in a proportional representation voting system.

In the PA camp, for instance, there was a clash between Minister H.B. Semasinghe and North Central Province Chief Minister Berty Premalal Dissanayake. Then there was a fight between Minister John Seneviratne and Deputy Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi. The latest row was between Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Deputy Minister Dilan Perera.

Of late we have been hearing people say that they are fed up with politicians whose main interest is coming to power. Adding to the public frustration and disgust is the latest trend in campaigning mobile units with loudhailers which have become not only a public nuisance but also a major cause in creating traffic jams.

In Negombo recently, the mobile units of two PA candidates caused a half hour traffic jam. The logic behind the mobile unit campaigning is that if people cannot come to where political meetings are held, then political meetings should go to where people gather.

The voting system has set politicians on a mad race for power. It has given rise to selfish motives in politicians and it shows how people could become ruthless in achieving what they want. Excesses committed by the so-called supporters of politicians on their rivals and sometimes on their own colleagues have to be stopped forthwith. The police have shown little interest in this regard, probably due to political pressure.

In many instances, police inaction has frustrated people who expect the law enforcement authority to act independently and impartially at all times. Though Police Chief Lucky Kodituwakku has repeatedly said the police will strictly enforce the election laws, many people allege that police turn a blind eye to excesses by PA supporters while acting ruthlessly against PA opponents.

One such occasion was the JVP rally in Matale. The JVP accused the police of assaulting and killing party activist A. D. Sirideva. The party alleged that Mr. Sirideva was kicked in the face by a senior police officer after he was shot on his thigh. The party also alleged that he was taken to hospital some 45 minutes after the incident.

But the police have a different story. They say it was the JVP supporters who first attacked the police. It is said that generally police officers offer similar stories to justify their excesses.

The President has promised an independent inquiry but it is yet to be known who would be holding this inquiry. The JVP, a party, which took arms to capture power, has denounced violence and entered the democratic process. It should be given every encouragement to be in the mainstream of democratic politics. The party is backed by a substantial section of the people, especially the youth who should not be provoked to resort to arms again.

In a related development, the Court of Appeal last week directed the Samurdhi Authority to give an undertaking that its officers would not be deployed in election work. This court direction follows a petition filed by UNP chairman Karu Jayasuriya, General Secretary Gamini Atukorale and Ravi Karunanayake. They cited Samurdhi Minister S. B. Dissanayake, his secretary and several others as respondents.

Opposition politicians allege that Samurdhi animators had been used to enhance PA's prospects at the upcoming elections as they had been allegedly used during the past elections. However, the government has denied these charges.

The Court, however, was able to persuade the parties concerned to come to a settlement after the respondents gave a firm undertaking that Samurdhi officers would not be deployed in political activity.

The Samurdhi Director General tendered an apology to the Court for their failure to comply with a similar undertaking given to the Court just before the last presidential elections. As directed by the Court the Director General undertook to send instructions to all Samurdhi managers and animators, asking them not to engage in political activities except as permissible under the Establishment Code. He also undertook to instruct them that they should act independently, fairly and without favouring any political party or supporters and candidates of any political party.

However, this did not settle the acrimonious politics of the PA and the UNP. Minister Dissanayake commenting on the court order said no Samurdhi employee took part in political activities in his or her capacity as a government employee a remark that has created doubts among the people as to whether he has tried to mitigate the Court order and engage Samurdhi animators in political activity.

Such actions tend to diminish the effect and authority of the settlement that was reached in Court. However, even if the Court sets out guidelines on the deployment of state employees during the time of elections, there is no mechanism to screen and supervise effectively as to whether the court order is implemented. Thus many observers ask whether the court direction has any effect in preventing the deployment of Samurdhi animators on political activity.

Political parties campaigning for the forthcoming general elections seem to be engaged more in slinging mud at each other than explaining policies.

The PA is carrying out a smear campaign against the UNP, linking it with the LTTE. The UNP on the other hand slings mud at the PA, saying it has accommodated former North-East chief minister Varatharajah Perumal, who once made a unilateral declaration of independence, in the national list. Both parties are talking more on each other's LTTE links than on actual policies. Policies are largely confined to the printed manifestos.

However, the UNPers say the PA leadership is apprehensive of a possible UNP victory. They say the PA is taking various measures to prevent this. One such measure is the warning sent out by PA media coordinator Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi to the independent media accusing them of political bias. Another measure is the arrest of prominent UNPers. Milinda Moragoda and Bodhi Ranasinghe were arrested on the forged passport issue. Rohitha Bogollagama, the UNP candidate for the Kurunegala district, was arrested on a bomb throwing incident alleged to have taken place during the presidential elections last year.

Though the government has said that Mr. Bogollagama was on a warrant for a long time, the police did not take any action for nine long months to arrest him. Thus many analysts believe the motive behind the arrest was politically linked.

Nobody would say that the government should not enforce the law. If Mr. Bogollagama has committed any offence, he should have been arrested soon after the complaint. It is a known fact that Mr. Bogollagama went before the Supreme Court on a pre-emptive action to avoid arrest some months ago. At that stage, the Attorney-General said there was no case against Mr. Bogollagama. But strangely, the police have found fresh evidence to arrest him during election time.

In another development, the National Unity Alliance's co-leader, Rauf Hakeem, was not sworn in as a minister with the same portfolios held by the late Minister M. H. M. Ashraff. Of course, there was a dispute over the interpretation of the constitution which said that if a minister dies, resigns or removed after the dissolution of parliament, another minister could be appointed to take over his duties. Mr. Hakeem was not a minister of the government. The counter-interpretation in support of his appointment is that since parliament has been re-summoned, Mr. Hakeem could be appointed a minister.

At present, it appears that NUA is not so happy with the government over the manner the party leadership was treated following the death of Minister Ashraff. However, the party is putting its act together by throwing its weight behind Mr. Hakeem to obtain the maximum number of seats for the NUA. The party is now relying heavily on people like A.J.M. Muzammil, the controversial political intermediary, to launch its campaign on the electronic media, especially in Colombo.

Mr. Muzammil delivered the party's first TV speech on Monday. It was the same speech Mr. Ashraff helped him rehearse a day before he died in the helicopter crash on September 16.

Meanwhile, suspended SLMC member M.M. Zuhair appeared along with PA politicians at a foundation laying ceremony at Muslim Ladies College. In the presence of Minsters A.H.M. Fowzie and Alavi Moulana, Mr. Zuhair defending the government said that even if the UNP won the election, it is the President who would appoint the cabinet as she could hold up to 50 per cent of the portfolios. Mr. Zuhair's PA links were further strengthened when he was included in a PA delegation that met European Union election observers.

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