With five days to the Mini General Election, campaigning has reached a peak. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe are touring the country. The PA meetings produce a larger crowd. The UNP, of course, dismisses it as a captive crowd organised and brought by supplying free vehicles and meals, but the response to the President is remarkable. Though the ruling PA's popularity rating has dropped, still the President's image is high and that may be one reason for the large crowds at PA meetings. Some voters seem to think that this being an election to local bodies it is better to support the government candidates to have their areas improved.
The UNP is ahead of the PA as far as grassroots organisation is concerned. Mr. Wickremasinghe during the last two and a half years, has certainly injected a new dimension to the Party and has been able to achieve a high degree of contact at the Provincial, District and Pradeshiya level. In fact the heat of this organisation is felt by the PA. With an initial set-back as a result of the tragic death of Nalanda Ellawala, the UNP has picked up gradually and seems to have captured a fair amount of lost ground.
The big question is whether it will be a peaceful election. Events as reported from all over the country so far, show violence is reaching dangerous propotions. Last week the government and the UNP effort brought out an appeal to the nation but it had two different aspects. It was not concentrated entirely on the elections. Its major focus was the surrender of arms. The second emphasis was on the conduct of a peaceful election.
The Commissioner of Elections has had four meetings so far with representatives of political parties. At the first meeting the PA was represented by Ministers Jayaratne, C.V. Gooneratne and Dharmasiri Senanayake. A.C.S. Hameed, Gamini Atukorale, Daya Pelpola and Daham Wimalasena represented the UNP. For some unknown reason the PA has not attended the meetings except the first one. The Elections Commissioner has had a draft of an appeal ready almost for the past two weeks. At the last meeting Mr. Hameed said it would be of no use to discuss even the draft without the participation of the PA.
The Elections Commissioner meanwhile assured the representatives of the various political parties who are contesting the elections that he would make an effort to ensure PA participation at the next meeting. He has successfully conducted the meetings and has been able to demonstrate his impartiality to all parties. The Police were represented by DIG Ignatius Canagaratnam, who has been put in charge of the elections with SSP Lucky Jayawardena. Delicate and difficult issues were discussed at the meetings and one wonders whether after the first day's meeting the Ministers thought it was politically more productive to keep away from the Elections Commissioner's customary meetings. Most of the political parties attending the meetings have complained of serious violation of election laws by the PA. A cautious Elections Commissioner, in his anxiety to ensure a fair and free election has even written to the Minister of Information about the necessity of providing some time to political parties at least to reply to charges made against them over the Rupavahini and SLBC but there were no results.
However the immediate concern of the opposition political parties is the rising incidence of election violence.
With five days more for the elections, polls-related violence has reached a disturbing 1000 mark, according to latest reports.
This clearly shows that though the main political parties contributed towards the common cause to hold a peaceful election they themselves had paid scant regard to the appeal from Parliament recently.
It also appears that these parties have still failed to put their words into action and direct the party rank and file to uphold the rule of law.
The latest incident reported involves UNP MP Pradeep Hapangama. It happened when a group of PA supporters allegedly tried to grab his revolver when the MP and his party were canvassing in the Kelaniya - Biyagama area.
According to Mr. Hapangama he repeatedly told the PA supporters that it was his official revolver which was given by the government for his own safety and that no one should bother about it. But the PA supporters allegedly made another attempt in which they succeeded, the UNP claimed. It is contended the revolver went off in the melee injuring one in the crowd.
According to Mr. Hapangama, he was allegedly blocked by several vehicles and a group of about thirty to forty people before his weapon was forcibly removed.
The state media gave a different version. They said the Police were looking for Mr. Hapangama following the incident in Galborella Kelaniya on Wednesday night.
They said the MP was alleged to have shot at a PA candidate, critically injuring him.
This was conveyed to the party leader and others when they were at a meeting with the district co-ordinators. But Mr. Wickremesinghe and others clarified the state media reports and gave their version of what took place.
By Thursday afternoon Mr. Hapangama who sought legal advice, surrendered to the Maligakanda Magistrate's court where he was released on personal bail, while another suspect in the same incident was remanded by the Hulftsdorp Magistrate's Court after being produced by the Police. On Friday Colombo's Chief Magistrate ordered that Mr. Hapangama be remanded till March 28, though he produced a medical certificate saying he was warded at the Nawaloka Hospital with a heart problem. The Magistrate also told Colombo JMO to check on the MPs condition.
But later on Friday, Mr. Hapangama's attorney Hemantha Warnakulasuriya urgently petitioned the High Court regarding the MPs condition. High Court Judge Rajah Fernando after hearing the plea directed that Mr. Hapangama be allowed to take medical treatment from any hospital he wished to. The High Court will take up the case again on Tuesday.
As a direct sequel to this and the Ellawala killing the government has issued specific instructions to the bodyguards of MPs and other VIPs as to how they should carry out their duties as personal bodyguards. It states
"Two security guards each have been released for the private security of MPs either from the Ministerial Security Division or from police stations. Full instructions are issued for their guidance.
* All ammunition issued officially should be kept under custody along with firearms. They are not meant to be given to another. That would be an offence. Instructions must be obtained from the OIC of the nearest police station as to any threats to the VIP's life. The firearm and ammunition issued to each, must be produced before the OIC once a month.
* No unlicenced arms must be allowed to be transported in a VIP's vehicle, or any other vehicle acompanying it without prior permission. If such arms are found on a check, one has to bear responsibility.
* The firearm must be used only for the defence of that individual in whose name it is issued, and no other. If it has been used for another's sake, one has to answer for it.
* The safety of the VIP concerned is your prime duty.
* You must be self-disciplined and behave exemplarily.
* Do not mix up your duties with police duty, and your main duty is the security of the VIP entrusted to your custody.
* Be watchful of those using firearms without a licence and bring it to the notice to the head of your unit."
But now it appears that some PA supporters are going berserk in many places flouting election laws and intimidating opponents. At the same time it must be recalled that the UNP was no better when it was in office, but what baffles observers is the breaking of the pledge given by the People's Alliance before it came to office to uphold the rule of law and restore democracy.
However at present the cycle of violence perpetrated by PA supporters and their acts of intimidation have put the UNP in an awkward position. The main fear of the UNP appears to be that state power might be used against its supporters to reduce the voter turn-out and thereby ensure a victory for the PA.
To meet this situation the UNP has planned once again to apprise the diplomatic community on the correct political bond and the unabated cycle of violence.
At the same time it is likely that all political parties, except for the PA, would meet and discuss as to what action should be taken to ensure a free and fair election.
If the present trend continues, political analysts fear that acts of violence and intimidation would rise as the election draws closer.
They think that the government would be compelled to clamp down a curfew soon after the poll is over to maintain law and order.
Senior Police officers believe this could be the only way they could control the swirling cycle of violence.
They are also of the view that the curfew has to be continued for at least 48 hours. In the circumstances the main duty of the Police would be to watch out for unruly PA and UNP supporters who could still use this kind ot situation to attack their opponents.
However acts of violence and intimidation would not do any good for the two main political parties. It will only distance the peace loving, law abiding people from polling booths which would ultimately result in a low poll. A low poll would not reflect the will of the people. It could only help the government to satisfy itself statistically.
It could later turn out to be fatal for any government in office when crucial issues such as the political package are put forward to be approved by the people at a referendum.
However, the acts of violence and intimidation unleashed by the PA supporters really show that they are losing ground in the political field after their two and a half year stint in office.
The UNP recently published some of the pledges given by the PA where it said that nearly 300,000 jobs would be given within two years.
The frustration of the people today is that the PA could not move the economy anywhere from what it was and couldn't attract enough foreign investors to generate adequate job opportunities for the young and unemployed. In short the PA is in a dilemma as far as the country's economy is concerned.
There are few signs of improvement in the economic sphere, with most of the development projects still waiting to get off the ground due to lack of finances.
At the same time there are discrepancies in awarding government tenders. One such tender is the award of the tender to reclaim 18 acres of land at Sapugaskanda coming under the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.
The Cabinet memorandum presented by Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte states:
Reclamation of 18 Acres of Land at Sapugaskanda
" A new Mini Installation at Sapugaskanda is proposed to be built under the Petroleum Tank Restoration Project funded by the Asian Development Bank for the storage and distribution of Diesel, Kerosene and Furnace oil.
A suitable land in the vicinity could not be found by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). Therefore, CPC was compelled to reclaim the 18 acre abandoned paddy land owned by CPC in close proximity to Sapugaskanda Refinery. This reclamation work is estimated to cost Rs. 150 million and project funds will be utilised for this purpose.
"This project is programmed to commence in May 1997. In order to expedite the award of this contract of reclamation, CPC has invited quotations from two State Organisations viz. Sri Lanka Land Reclamation & Development Corporation (SLLRDC) and State Development & Construction Corporation ( SD & CC).
"The S.D.C.C. has initially quoted Rs. 175,675,000/- which was brought down to Rs. 138,100,000/- after subsequent negotiations. S.L.L.R.D.C. has quoted Rs. 138,112,500/-. The Chairman of SD & CC has confidence that they could complete the work safisfactorily in a period of 07 months.
"The payments will be made on actual work carried out and the contract will be on measure and pay basis, subject to ICTAD General Conditions of tender and specifications prepared by the CPC.
"This project has to be completed expeditiously. In view of above, the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers is sought:
1. For the deviation of the normal tender procedures and restricting the tender to State Organisations who are at present eligible to handle this type of earth moving work.
2. To award the tender to SD & CC on the rates quoted at an estimated cost of Rs. 138,100,000/-
3. To pay an advance of 10% contract sum or Rs. 10 million whichever is less.
4. For the payments for the contract to be on measure and pay basis on the rates quoted and on actual measurements."
The Cabinet has apparently approved Minister Ratwatte's proposal on January 22, but several questions are raised about the manner the Tender was awarded.
The main question is to what experience the State Development and Construction Corporation has in land reclamation whereas the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation is considered a specialised institution for the job.
The other question raised is as to why the Land Reclamation and Development Corporation was not permitted to make a counter offer as was permitted to the State Development and Construction Corporation.
Anyway, most of the Ministers or others in the government's hierarchy are not concerned about the matter since the elections are round the corner.
The PA is determined to win and it believes it has the capacity to do so in Colombo and elsewhere.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga told her Ministers and members that they should win and not give lame excuses if they could not perform well.
Recently, she made a point to summon all heads of state media institutions to tell them that they had failed in their endeavour to push the government's case through the state media.
She has apparently told the media heads that the campaign has to be intensified in view of the reports reaching her daily.
The President appeared to be a little disturbed about a report where it said that it would be difficult for the People's Alliance in Colombo and the Dehiwala - Mt-Lavinia Municipal areas.
It has also been revealed that the government was not so happy when the Lake House papers published a statement by UNP's Karunasena Kodituwakku protesting against a Mahapola exhibition at Kaduwela.
Minister Kingsley Wickramaratne has personally telephoned the Lake House Chairman to express his displeasure over the matter. Later he made a complaint to the President.
As this coloumn pointed out earlier, this election would act as a barometer for the government to assess its performances.
The idea behind the local government election is to determine, as to whether they would fare well at a referendum to push the political package to solve the ethnic crisis. However political analysts point out that if the government could secure a majority of the local councils it might go for a snap Parliamentary General Election seeking a mandate to change the Constitution to introduce the political package.
But if the UNP comes a close second, the government's prospects of pushing the package through would look gloomy, unless otherwise the UNP extends its co-operation wholeheartedly which is very unlikely in the present context.
But whatever the outcome may be, the President is contemplating to shuffle her Cabinet. She has indicated this to her ministers on several occasions, but not directly.
At a recent meeting, Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake volunteered to give away his media portfolio to anybody who liked to take it.
Mr. Senanayake, a moderate man, thinks that media is too much of a burden for him. His main complaint was that he was at the receiving end of heavy criticism though he tried his best to do a good job of work.
In another polls-related development Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike has moved to put off the Avurudu Pola" organised by the Women's Front of the SLFP in view of the elections.
Mrs. Bandaranaike, in a letter to all the participants at the first meeting has informed her intention to put off the pola.
But some believe that it has a direct link with the dialogue President Kumaratunga had with the Prime Minister at a subsequent Cabinet meeting.
It may be recalled at this meeting the President who walked up to the Prime Minister queried as to why she (the Prime Minister) summoned the Women's Front meeting without her.
"I am also a woman and I am the President of the country."
The Prime Minister listened carefully to what the President said and replied that she (the Prime Minister) was the party President and she would summon such meeting as and when required.
Mrs. Bandaranaike also said that Sunethra, her elder daughter was a member of the SLFP and explained that she was appointed to lead the "Avurudu Pola" not by her but by the people who were present at the meeting.
Meanwhile the campaign for the Mayoralty stakes in Colombo seems to be hotting up with both the PA and the UNP making a relentless effort.
UNP's Mayoral candidate Karu Jayasuriya addressed a series of meetings with others who matter in the city.
At a meeting held at Mattakkuliya the most popular candidate from Colombo North Lilantha Perera had some misunderstanding with Mr. Jayasuriya when he openly criticised Mr. Jayasuriya's supporters for pasting the Mayoral candidates posters above his.
Mr. Jayasuriya snapped back and said that it would be taken up at a different forum and that it was not the place to talk about such matters.
Subsequently Lilantha Perera was summoned to the Party Office to give him a warning that he should know how to behave in front of party leaders.
Mr. Jayasuriya also had very successful meetings at Colpetty recently where he addressed a large gathering of Muslims.
There he said Omar Kamil would have to bear a lot of responsibility if the UNP is elected to run the city Council. The UNP on Friday also announced that its Deputy Mayor would be a Muslim in a bid to attract Muslim votes in the city as against the SLMC which is doing well in Colombo.
The SLMC also held a meeting at the Borella residence of the SLMC's Colombo campaign manager M.M. Zuhair MP to support its candidate T.K. Azwer. Minister M.H.M. Ashraff presided over the meeting.
Meanwhile in another polls-related incident Nauzer Fowzie, the son of Minister A.H.M. Fowzie had run into some problems when he visited the Henamulla camp at Madampitiya.
The people there told him not to enter the area but when he entered despite their warning they almost took him hostage.
However when Minister Fowzie was informed of the development he sought the assistance of the police to escort his son back to safety.
Not only the Fowzies, the Mohameds are also facing similar problems when people close to Mohamed refused to work for his candidate Imtiaz who is contesting under the PA.
One such person is Hussain Mohamed's own peon working at the Oman Airways office which is run by the Mohamed family.
The peon had apparently told him that he would not support the candidature of Imtiaz even at the loss of his job, at Oman Airways.
The Mohameds who were not very happy over the UNP's attitude in getting one-time BNP front-runner Azad Sally to contest under the UNP, fell out with the UNP resulting in the defection of one-time UNP Mayor Hussain Mohamed to the PA.
Hussain Mohamed took some of his supporters to the PA while the majority remained with his father M.H. Mohamed who still continues to be with UNP though there had been some differences with the hierarchy.
Though Hussain Mohamed's defection appeared to strengthen K. Ganeshalingam's position as head of the PA backed independent list, there are many problems surfacing from the PA list. Some don't want to canvass for or back Mr. Ganeshalingam.
After all they pose a very pertinent - question if we are fighting against the corrupt UNP administration in the Colombo Municipal Council, how could we make Mr. Ganeshalingam leader of our group, since he headed the UNP administration of the CMC for quite some time?
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