Just days before the January 26 presidential election, campaigns by the two main candidates are fast turning out to be a comedy of errors plus a lot of hype.
A few others on the campaign trail should also be lumped into this category. For example, Ven Battaramulla Seelarathana Thera announced that he was withdrawing from the contest and would support the President. Why did he contest in the first place, puzzles many. Not that this is the first time insignificant candidates have pulled out of the contest.
For candidates like Wickramabahu Karunaratne and a few others, contesting is for a multitude of reasons. They get prominence which smaller parties would never get in the public space - platforms, media coverage and TV talks shows even though there is little impact.
The joke in town is that when Retd. General Sarath Fonseka proposes, President Mahinda Rajapaksa disposes. When Fonseka offered a Rs 10,000 wage increase to workers, there were many 'uhh's and 'ahhs'. Immediately after that, Rajapaksa said public servants will get a wage hike in the next budget, drawing similar comments.
This week when postal voting began, several government workers received a Rs 1,500 payment with its purpose not clearly stated. Some workers, while accepting it, raised the validity of making a payment in the second week of the month when all payments (even special allowances) are traditionally and as a practice made at the end of the month. Isn't this a violation of election laws?
Some other pronouncements by the two candidates have been a virtual tit-for-tat battle. In some instances Gen Fonseka's announcements about a price reduction in petrol (when elected), removal of High Security Zones in the north and a wage hike for government workers among others have been followed by swift implementation of the measures or something close to the pronouncements by the president, so much so that cynics call it the 'Fonseka thel" or 'Fonseka relief'. The opposition camp also ran a couple of advertisements saying Fonseka had already delivered on his promises ticking off boxes (denoting already delivered) on these pronouncements!
The mud-slinging and 'whispering' campaign has reached a never-before level that to still-undecided voters its difficult to make a choice amidst allegations of forged documents and signatures on alleged deals being thrashed out on public platforms, press conferences and TV talkshows. Such is the pressure to win that some Sri Lankans have been flown down specially from abroad to back these allegations.
Clearly the two candidates are making a lot of promises that may be hard to keep. Gen. Fonseka announced in his manifesto the formation of a special tribunal to tackle corruption and fraud. Not to be outdone, the President also announced that he will be setting up an anti-corruption agency. If so what happens to the Bribery Commission? Will that be disbanded?
There are also all kinds of mixed signals on the abolishing of the executive presidency. Fonseka says he will scrap the presidency while former Chief Justice Sarath N Silva, now an advisor to Fonseka, says the system will remain with limited executive powers. The President is also for clipping the wings of the executive, his comments following after his rival's promise.
On Tuesday Colombo's corporate elite went ga-ga over Fonseka and the meeting with the business community at the Cinnamon Grand. An anticipated crowd (invitees) of 600 nearly doubled as invitees brought friends, associates or simply those who wanted to see the new political star on the horizon. The retired general won many friends with his simplicity and good natured humour flanked by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe who surprised many dressed in a classy western suit.
However everyone knows that Rajapaksa is not the best friend of Corporate Colombo and in this context this show of support was not unexpected. It is not much to chew on in terms of gauging the Fonseka support base for at the end of the day. Its the rural vote that matters and that's where the President's main support lies.
On more serious issues, fears of a rising violence and a full-scale war between supporters of both the main candidates are emerging with the first election-related death being reported this week.This was clearly evident in an email poll conducted by the Business Times. Elections monitors are also reporting a rising number of election-related violence.
With the polls just 10 days ahead, very little decision-making is taking place in offices and workplaces with most plans on the back-burner until the victor is known.