The ludicrous rise of cardboard, paper ‘protectors’

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya, Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

With just a month away for the Parliamentary general elections, politicians are so busy promoting themselves that they seem to have forgotten not only existing laws but also about peoples’ right to live in a non-intrusive and pollution-free environment. From a politician’s standpoint however the run-up to polls is usually a crucial period during which the average voter becomes king.

The country’s roads, buildings and vehicles are used as media for political advertisements. These advertisements which are predictably loud and often remarkably absurd make it impossible for the average voter to ignore. It is quite another story that the average voter’s importance recedes almost immediately after D-day even as millions of tax-payers’ hard-earned money is wasted in undoing the advertisements.

So, it was election carnival in Colombo last week. Readers familiar with the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) member R Dumindha Silva would have noticed his posters, hoardings and banners in almost every nook and cranny of the city.

Even those unfamiliar with the young politician would have found it difficult not to chance upon him smiling - benevolently at either children or the elderly – from huge hoardings near Townhall for instance. “The man who thinks about people,” as his hoardings scream, could also be seen in umpteen posters standing alongside President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a pink shirt. Silva of course wears colours such as white in what appears to be his designer outfits in many other advertisements while prominently displaying his well-toned biceps.

A politician from the UPFA hinted that candidates such as Silva spent hundreds of millions in campaigns. If you travelled around town to study political advertisements last week, you would safely estimate that Silva had the largest number of posters. A good amount of money from the public exchequer would be necessary to clean them. Silva - the “pride of Colombo district” - as his swanky election website says, really seems to be “thinking about people.” Former parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa of the National Freedom Front (NFF), you would think, should have been modest in terms of promoting himself, because he is said to have emerged out of nationalist Leftist politics.

Weerawansa’s huge black and white portraits alongside busy Colombo roads instead look like they have been designed by well-paid executives of a professional advertising agency.

While Weerawansa is neither a model nor a film star, computer software seems to have been liberally used to glamorise him for the advertisements. Poised as “protector of mother Lanka,” Weerawansa’s close-ups do not betray any flaws on his skin and his beard is perfectly trimmed. The golden coloured “panchayudha” pendent serving as the centrepiece of the advertisement might make it aesthetic but Weerawansa’s message is confusing. A social scientist suggested that Weerawansa may have likened himself to Prince Panchayudha who according to Sri Lankan folk legend was an ancient protector of the motherland. Also, according to Indian mythology, the Sanskrit term close to “panchayudha” symbolises five weapons of war. That Weerawansa sees himself as the ultimate warrior in a post-war nation is quite telling. But his rivals take him less seriously as some have removed the syllable “n” from the word “panchayudha.” Translated from Sinhala language, “pachayudha” then becomes “weapons of lies” in English.

Other advertisements – less pretentious than Weerawansa’s but equally ridiculous – were plastered over walls in the city. United National Party (UNP) member A. J. M. Muzammil for instance had his posters marked in the party colour green with the message “all the way 4 you.” While it could be gauged that the candidate’s number is four in the list of party nominees, his larger message – if any – remained unclear. His party colleague, M. Maharoof contesting as number 16, calls himself the “poor man’s friend.” Barring this unimaginative cliché, he seems to have found little to speak of. Pre-poll infighting within the UNP echoed in campaigns of some party members such as Sujiva Senasinha whose posters said that he “never betrayed the party.” Former UNP parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake’s advertisements went a step further. “He protected us (people) and the party,” his posters said.

Foreign Minister and UPFA candidate Rohitha Bogollagama’s supporters have placed a massive hoarding of him in Maradana with an inevitable message “he won over the world for the country.” With Western nations continuing to make occasional noises over the Government’s alleged conduct in the final stages of war, the jury is still out on Bogollagama’s diplomatic skills. Bogollagama’s cabinet and party colleague Trade and Commerce Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s message on his hoardings along traffic dividers all over the city, said that he “provided iron strength to the Mahinda Chintana.” Probably hounded by the high cost of living and unable to rein in whopping inflation, Gunawardena could not come up with anything better than a reluctant victory sign as shown in his pictures. SLFP’s Mervyn Silva of course had his picture juxtaposed between two larger images of President Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa on hoardings. “He has won the confidence of the country’s leadership,” a huge hording of his, in Peliyagoda, said. Mervyn perhaps cannot stand on his own ground even during elections.

Outside Colombo, the politicians’ street party continued. Former Deputy Minister of Live Stock, K.A. Baiz who is contesting from the Puttalam district and accused in cases of attacks on opposition members called himself “a brave leader who could carry out his task.” Plantation Minister Milroy Fernando who is also contesting from the same district said in his posters that he is “a man who lives among us” suggesting that others do not live with the voters and only come for votes during elections. Provincial Council member Arundhika Fernando who is also contesting from the Puttalam district called himself “the hope of people of Puttalam district.” Hope was the catchword in central Nuwara Eliya where UNF candidate and current mayor Chandana Lal Karunaratna in his posters said, “tomorrow’s hope.” Minister of Public Administration, Sarath Amunugama, contesting from Kandy has pledged “employment for all youth” raising questions as to why the same policy was not implemented when he was in power. S.B.Dissanayaka contesting from the Kandy district is using the slogan "trust," raising questions about whether he could be trusted after he suddenly quit the UNP and joined the SLFP.

Elections also promote small businesses such as those who produce cut-outs and other campaign material. A Nugegoda-based company for instance charges Rs 32.50 for every square feet of an 18,000 feet tall cut-out. But larger cut-outs make the rates further competitive.

Now the law. Parliamentary General Election Act (1981), Section 74, says, “During the period commencing from the first day of the nomination period of an election and ending on the day following the day on which a poll is taken at such election, no person shall, for the purpose of promoting such election display (a) in any premises, whether public or private, any flag or banner except in or on any vehicle that is used for the conveyance of a candidate at such election.” According to the law, a candidate cannot use handbill, placard, poster, drawing, notice, photograph of a candidate, symbol or sign on any place to which the public have a right of, or are granted, access except in or on any premises on any day on which an election meeting is due to be held in that premises. The law further says that people who violate could be punished with a month’s imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of Rs 100.

And, finally. According to officials of the Elections Department, Rs 11 million has already been given to the Police to remove political advertisements. Another Rs 11 million will soon be sanctioned. This Rs 22 million could have been used in areas such as education or healthcare, but do politicians care?

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