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The Political Column

17th January 1999

Polls, police and postman

By our Political Correspondent

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The National Committee for Peace and Economic Development comprising top businessmen is exploring the possibility of arranging a summit between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to bring about a better understanding between the two parties in finding a solution to the ethnic and economic problems.

The business leaders last week met with a government delegation including Ministers G.L. Peiris and M.H.M. Ashraff to discuss their programme to create a better atmosphere between the two main parties.

On Tuesday, a UNP delegation led by A.C.S. Hameed met the business leaders to discuss the implementation of the Liam Fox agreement for a bi-partisan approach between the two parties to solve the ethnic crisis.

The UNP delegation comprised Ronnie de Mel, K.N. Choksy and D. Swaminathan. At this meeting, Mr. Hameed stressed the importance of building confidence between the government and the opposition before getting down to discuss details of the devolution package.

Mr. Hameed also suggested that a formal meeting be arranged between the President and the Opposition Leader to discuss outstanding issues. He said steps should be taken to ensure that disputes over the North Western Provincial elections did not lead to a complete breakdown of communication and contact between the government and the opposition. He warned that any such breakdown would be a serious setback to the initiative taken by the business leaders.

Mr. de Mel urged the business community to persuade the government to set up a multi-party monitoring committee to ensure a fair poll in the NWP. This proposal was initially made by Mr. Wickremesinghe.

When the business leaders wanted to take up the devolution package for discussion, Mr. Hameed said he felt it was premature to do so at this stage without creating a climate for such discussions. Mr.Choksy and Mr. Swaminathan also supported this view saying that the business leaders should not start with controversial issues.

Business leaders' co-ordinating chairman Lalith Kotelawala assured the UNP delegation that they would explore every possible way to bring about a better understanding between the government and the opposition. He said he would try to arrange a meeting between the President and the Opposition Leader as requested by the UNP.

Ken Balendra at this stage pointed out that the Sri Lankan economy was on the decline and the problems were increasing. He emphasized the need to find a way out of this problem. Soon after the meeting, the business leaders sent a letter to all political parties contesting the NWP elections.

It said: "It has been brought to our notice that significant incidents of violence have already erupted in the North Western Province and that all indications are that this violence will escalate.

"We view these developments with greater concern. Unless a free and fair election devoid of violence is held, not only would there be a negative signal going out to the rest of the world, vis-a-vis possible investments in the country, but also it would not help in creating an environment which would be conducive to a bi-partisan approach being taken to resolve national issues.

"We earnestly appeal to all leaders of political parties contesting the elections to impress upon each and every member of their respective organisations to desist from violence and to ensure a free and fair election."

Although peace-loving people and many organisations favouring democratic elections have appealed to the parties contesting the NWP elections, it appears that violence is escalating day by day. This has created a reasonable suspicion among the general public that there could be large scale rigging. Already, there had been instances of robbing poll cards from various post offices in the NWP. Vehicles are roaming in the night without number plates, reminiscent of the dark era of 1988-89.

As far as the PA is concerned, it is vital for it to win the elections to hold the alliance together. A defeat might trigger a major crisis in the government. If the PA wins by a narrow margin, still the government would find it difficult with its allies since they might put up their demands and conditions to keep the coalition intact. This could come mainly from the SLMC which wanted to go it alone at the NWP elections. SLMC general secretary Rauff Hakeem had assured the Opposition Leader that the party would go it alone. But the President's request prevailed and the SLMC decided to go with the PA, causing disappointment to the UNP. Hence, a defeat at the NWP elections will be a severe setback not only to the PA, but also to the SLMC which would find it difficult in the future to form an alliance with the UNP.

The SLMC's decision at the earliest stage to go on its own came in the wake of some assistance given by the UNP to save Puttalam Urban Council chairman who otherwise was to be sacked by the UNP-controlled Provincial Council. SLMC's failure to go it alone sparked off some sort of discontent among the UNP leadership who made an appeal to the people to give a mandate to form a government without any coalition.

Mr. Wickremesinghe made this announcement at the UNP convention held in Kataragama in December. If by any chance, the UNP makes it by a narrow margin or with a comfortable majority, the SLMC's future as a strong political party will begin to diminish, especially outside the North and the East since the NWP would be a trend-setter thereafter for the UNP. In that sense, the NWP elections would be crucial for all the parties in the fray.

Using all state media for government propaganda while the other parties were not given an equal opportunity to use the state media also came up for discussion at the important meeting of the UNP.

A.H.M. Azwer said the UNP should complain against President Kumaratunga's use of the state media to carry out election propaganda. Mr. Azwer believes that it is a violation of election laws and urged the party leader to take action.

But Mr. Wickremesinghe was not interested. He said it would be better for the UNP, since the people would not take the President seriously when they see her on TV. The President at several meetings made remarks about the UNP's inability to run a government saying that they could not even run a tea kiosk properly. Analysts believe that this sort of remarks would help the people to guage the President's incapability more than the UNP's incapability.

Up to now the UNP had made more than 150 complaints to the police while the PA had made around 100. There had been 15 incidents of shooting, 83 assaults, 90 threats and acts of intimidation and over 50 incidents of michief and four cases of arson in the NWP. Religious dignitaries are striving hard to maintain peace and order in the province. The Bishop of Chilaw initiated discussions among the candidates to ensure a violence-free poll in the Puttalam district. Other religious dignitaries, especially Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha also appealed to the people over a private television channel to be calm and to use their freewill on the day of the election. The prelate also appealed to the parties to desist from violence so that the people could use their votes freely.

If a free vote is ensured, the North Western Provincial election will act as a political barometer which should indicate to the PA and Opposition where the country is heading politically.

The meeting called by Chilaw's Bishop Frank Marcus Fernando became a bit volatile when some of the PA MPs charged that the Bishop was trying to "do politics" in the area. But the Bishop emphasized that he had no political role at all but was seeking a peaceful election for the well-being of the people. There were several other Cabinet Ministers at the meeting who also joined the PA parliamentarians in accusing the Bishop. Whatever it may be, the clergy, both Buddhist and Christian, will form a special monitoring committee to ensure a violence-free poll.

The Norochchalai issue where the government is trying to build a coal-fired power plant off Kalpitiya is going against the PA in the Puttalam district. Bishop Fernando has led the campaign against the plant. He had earlier campaigned against the setting up of the Voice of America relay station in Iranawila in Chilaw. He was then fully backed by the PA. But here when the Bishop has expressed his opposition to the Norochchalai plant he is seen as an adversary of the PA.

Bishop Fernando's mission is quite different. He emphasized in no uncertain terms that he had no role to play as a politician. But it is for the benefit of the people. When the PA politicians headed by Eusus Peiris kicked up a row with the Bishop at the meeting, the UNPers who were there headed by John Amaratunga remained silent. The PA's point of view was that the Catholic Church should not get involved in issues such as Norochchalai which affect the people of the area. The Norochchalai issue is likely to go far now. It would take the same dimension of the Iranawila issue and the PA stands to lose most of the Catholic votes in Chilaw over the Norochchalai issue.

The latest incident in the Wayamba is the merciless assault of chief ministerial candidate of the new left alliance Patrick Fernando allegedly by PA supporters at Padeniya in the Nikaweratiya area on Wednesday night. Mr. Fernando was returning after addressing three meetings with NSSP leader Wickremabahu Karunaratne when they were confronted by a gang. Mr. Fernando is now undergoing treatment in hospital.

The attack on the JVP allegedly by some PA supporters is also viewed with concern. Analysts believe that the government should not push the JVP back to square one where they would resort to gun- culture again. They said now that the JVP had joined the mainstream of politics, it should not be harassed and victimised.

Not only the peace-loving people, the clergy also believes that the JVP should not be pushed too much and compel it to resort to violence as a mode of liberation. Ven. Sobitha Thera made this point in a recent TV interview. The JVP, too has made many complaints to the police and its main complaint to the Election Commissioner was that its complaints are not being entertained by the police.

The robbery of poll cards and other incidents of violence had prompted the Election Commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, to summon a meeting of all parties. At this meeting, UNP General Secretary Gamini Athukorale accused the PA of planning to unleash violence and intimidate the UNP block voters on the night of January 24 to confine them to their houses. Mr. Athukorale alleged more than 2000 vehicles had been deployed in the Kurunegala and Puttalam districts for this purpose. He claims that the Katunayake Airport taxi service was playing a prominent role in this connection.

IGP Kodituwakku who was present at this meeting made a note of all this and Mr. Dissanayake after considering the present situation directed the IGP that policemen should accompany postmen who are distributing poll cards to the people.

The IGP agreed. This is the first occasion in the Sri Lankan political history that the police are accompanying postmen to distribute poll cards. Meanwhile, poll monitoring groups are keeping tabs on incidents.

In a separate incident but connected to the Wayamba polls, Minister S.B. Dissanayake had summoned the PA organisers in the Anamaduwa area and told them that after the PA victory D.M. Dassanayake representing the Anamaduwa area in Parliament, would come back to the area not as an ordinary MP, but as a Deputy Minister.

In Mawathagama, PA supporters allegedly made an attempt to abort a UNP meeting. The OIC Mawathagama allegedly harassed two bodyguards of Mr. Wickremesinghe while they were going in a vehicle to co-ordinate security arrangements for the UNP leader. They have produced their police identity cards but the OIC had ignored them and carried out a thorough check of the vehicle and even removed the dashboard to see whether weapons have been concealed there. Finally, the OIC in charge of Mr. Wickremesinghe's security had to inform the ministerial security division in Colombo of the incident to secure the release of the police officers taken into custody by the Mawathagama police. It is alleged that the police officer in charge of the Mawathagama had acted indifferently towards the UNP when he got involved in a heated argument with the OIC in charge of Mr. Wickremesinghe's security. However, the UNP sources said they held a successful meeting in Mawathagama with a large crowd attending and cheering the UNP leader.

As a part of the exercise to win the NWP elections, Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera summoned a meeting of all state media heads including the editors of daily and weekly newspapers.

Most of the editors of English dailies were not present. But Mr. Samaraweera made out a case for the PA for those who were present. At the outset, he said that the UNP has no right to talk about violence. Then he turned to a New Law Report and read out chunks to substantiate his claim. The report was handed over to him by Lake House Chairman Aloy Ratnayake. It appeared that Minister Samaraweera was annoyed over the Lankadeepa lead story published last week where the newspaper talked about theft of poll cards from a post office.

Mr. Samaraweera said that newspapers were giving undue publicity, making big issues out of small ones. Thereafter, he said the UNP was not doing anything in the NWP and he could not even see a single green flag. It appears that they are in deep slumber, he said.

Newton Gunaratne, a journalist of the Ravaya, and a former PA member of the Western Provincial Council said, that the UNP campaign appeared to be a success, since they are doing a house to house campaign identifying the target.

But the UNP campaign could not be more effective than the violent and volatile election campaign allegedly launched by the PA in the province.

The UNP campaign also has picked up during the past few days with more top rung UNP members joining Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Hameed too joined last week and addressed a series of meetings along with the leader. Mr. Hameed concentrated more on the Muslim areas in the province while former BOI chief Rohitha Bogollagama co-ordinated and liaised with Mr. Wickremesinghe to put their compaign on the right track.

With one more week to go for elections, it appears that the contest between the PA and the UNP is being keenly fought.

However, the fervent hope of the peace-loving people is to see an election where the people are allowed to exercise their will freely.

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