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4th November 2001

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The Sunday Times economic analysis

Pre -poll doles and post-poll hikes

By the economist
Lee Kwan Yew characterised Sri Lankan elections as an auction of non-existent resources. The daily announcements of concessions by the government since the dissolution of parliament render this assertion an understatement. 

In the coming weeks extravagant promises are most likely to be made in election manifestos and on election platforms. The economic consequences of this fiscal profligacy are no concern of the government.

Readers are only too aware of what happens to political promises. We are here concerned about the economic promises that distort public expenditure and ultimately heap burdens on the common man. Most of these economic promises are never fulfilled, can never be fulfilled and were never intended to be fulfilled. 

Others are fulfilled in part often with dire consequences to the public finances of the country. The Janasaviya promise of President Premadasa is the best illustration of this. The original promise was to give everyone who did not get an adequate income a monthly allowance of Rs. 2500. If this promise was kept government expenditure would have sky rocketed beyond any manageable levels. This was clear from the beginning.

When it was pointed out that the cost of the promise was unbearable, the answer was that we will do it somehow. It was a ploy to win the election and Premadasa knew fully well that a very attractive amount had to be promised to have the desired effect at the elections.

Once in power there were the various adaptations to the scheme that gave the illusion of the promise being kept in phases. Even the much-tailored down version was very costly and hardly achieved the economic objectives. The People's Alliance was not to be out done. They promised another welfare package as attractive and as costly as the Janasaviya. The Samurdhi payments are obtained from 55 per cent of the households in the country, at least statistically. This alone is sufficient proof of a lack of targeting and abuse. How a programme meant to serve the poor ends up in purchasing shares of banks and in huge deposits is another question. 

Ironically those who acquiesced in this program will be its critics now, as mud slinging at election time gains momentum. The two issues that come out of this is that election promises are reckless statements that do not take into account either the economic capacity of the government to fulfil or the economic consequences of even part fulfilling the promises. 

The second issue is the utter lack of accountability of public funds. Political parties are able to make rash promises owing to the credulous nature of our people and their being accustomed to receiving handouts from the government. 

It may not be incorrect to characterise the public perception of the role of governments to be one of doling handouts. There is also a lack of an understanding that public expenditures have to be met by the public themselves. This perception is perhaps due to the fact that very few people pay direct taxes. This fact leads to the illusion that the receivers of the benefits are not the payers. In fact this is a wrong perception as most government revenue is obtained through indirect taxes. Further, these expenditures generate inflationary pressures that result in the dwindling of real incomes, especially of the poor. The reduction in prices of a number of commodities is likely to be a temporary one. People should now be accustomed to the fact that prices are reduced before an election only to be increased after the election. Wage increases that could not be given were suddenly given after the dissolution of parliament. 

Tariffs that required to be maintained in order to reduce imports have been lowered. All these will have consequences no sooner the election is over. Then prices will rise. Surely these ploys have been used so many times that our people cannot be fooled anymore?


Chandrika's Lanka, Ranil's Lanka and Prabha's Eelam

By Susantha Goonatilake
Monday's LTTE blast reportedly aimed at the Prime Minister was a distinct signal of the Tiger not changing its stripes even after the Bin Laden attack on the US. Other sources indicate that the LTTE is working on a two pronged strategy a terrorist one and an electoral one.

The Chennai-based Hindu reported that "the TULF goes to poll with a strident pro-LTTE plank" and "with the aim of supporting the LTTE's struggle". It quoted TULF Secretary General R. Sampanthan as saying that the new Tamil parties alliance was to muster support "for LTTE in and out of Parliament and was not aimed at [only] the elections". Mr. Sampanthan said, "the Tamil struggle has reached a point where the demand for sovereignty and self-determination had become inevitable." Under the laws banning supporting Tigers and separatism Mr. Sampanthan should have been immediately arrested. But this is Chandrika's Sri Lanka with some thinking it will soon become Ranil's Sri Lanka.

The web journal Eelam Nation, reported that the Ellalan Force, a Tiger front, had circulated leaflets in Batticaloa urging all Tamil political parties to come under one umbrella. Otherwise, the Ellalan Force warned, these parties would be "eliminated from the Tamil homeland". They would "have to pay for it at the time of the election campaigns", it added ominously. The group urged the Tamil people to support politicians who represent the alliance and should avoid supporting or casting votes to other political parties. Otherwise they would be considered anti-Tamil and would be "targeted for reprimand" meaning death sentence.

Eelam Nation quoted PLOTE leader Dharmalingham Sidharthan as saying that his party was willing to join the Tamil Alliance so that they could push the incoming Government to achieve self-determination of Tamils. He apologized for the "past mistakes of its military approach against the LTTE" and declared "the LTTE is the sole representative of the Tamil people". 

He said the sharing of powers should not be the fundamental issue among the Tamil parties to discuss now - meaning the aim is not devolution; instead, self-determination or in other words a separate state. He said that branding the LTTE as a terrorist organisation should be stopped.

These reports talk about a carefully laid out plan by Tigers together with the foreign-funded lobby. The latest report of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR's)- Jaffna shows how the Tigers were recruiting children. But "oblivious to these appalling events" the "well-heeled Tamil elite were indulging in strange rituals". The National Peace Council (NPC) arranged a plush three-day "consultation" at a hotel in Nilaveli last month. Several Western diplomats were also present at this conference funded by a Japanese foundation. The decisions arrived at the conference were to serve as a basis for apparent peace. Through "carefully selected speakers", the NPC set the main message that "the Tamil people are inseparable from the LTTE and this war is to relieve the oppression of the Tamil people by the Government". The LTTE, the UTHR report notes was "using all channels of influence to replace the PA government by a UNP one. With Parliament dissolved and elections in prospect, the UNP, with help from the TULF (that is now allied to the UNP), will be pushed as the party of peace". Tamil journalists were among those active in organising this LTTE front of Tamil parties. After the elections, these front-parties would push for a ceasefire giving a respite for the Tigers. The UNP, the TULF, and the Tigers, were part of a common platform, the UTHR claims.

In any other country, the Western ambassadors at this meeting would have been called before the Foreign Office and asked for explanation. The NPC leadership would have been immediately arrested for supporting the Tigers. The NPC actually should have been arrested long ago. Tiger journals had reported that the NPC had proposed in 1995, removing all Sinhalese settlements from the North East. Another Tiger journal had shown the NPC marching in Geneva under the Tiger flag. But this is Chandrika's Sri Lanka with some thinking it will soon become Ranil's Sri Lanka.

And while these were going on, Chandrika was in London and Ranil in Tamil Nadu and Delhi, both drumming up support. Chandrika gave three muddled interviews to the BBC missing a golden opportunity to compare the Tigers with Bin Laden and the attack on the Central Bank and Katunayake with the attack on New York and the Pentagon. 

And Ranil? It would have been interesting to see what aspects of the UNP's pro Tiger policy as claimed by the UTHR he was discussing. And this was at a time when the one terrorist attack on the US's sovereignty had galvanized the entire West. This is but Chandrika's Sri Lanka with some hoping, it will soon become Ranil's Sri Lanka.


17th Amendment to stop malpractices

The politicians as well as the state officials who act in disregard of the fundamental law of the land do not appear to have realised the serious consequences that they might have to face.
By Victor Ivan
At a general election, an individual or a private institution has the right to help a party of his choice. However, a government official or a government institution has no such right at its level. What the government officials and government institutions must do is to be politically silent and inactive and allow the people to elect a government of their choice. 

One of the main objectives of the 17th Amendment was to put a stop to this malpractice. Although the 17th Amendment has been adopted and it has become part of the law of the country, it has not been possible to achieve the aims of the law on an independent election commission.

After the government announced the election, it increased the salaries of the government servants and the pensions. 

It made the temporary employees of government institutions permanent. Thousands of teachers were given promotions on the specific ground that they had been politically victimised.

Although the Elections Commissioner has informed heads of all government institutions that the resources of departments, corporations or statutory bodies must not be used for the benefit of any party or to the detriment of any party, this institution has been disregarded by many heads of government institutions, and the government party politicians have been permitted to use the resources of government institutions at will. All the media of the state are functioning as mouthpieces of the PA disregarding the principles of the 17th Amendment.

The IGP rejected the request made by the Elections Commissioner to cancel all the police transfers made by the IGP after the election was announced. What the IGP said was that, as he was the administrative authority of the police, he alone had the right to transfer police officers. The Elections Commissioner thereafter accepted the IGP's interpretation.

Although the IGP is the chief administrative officer of the police, the Elections Commissioner has the right to prevent him taking any administrative action that might make an undue effect on the election at election time. The IGP says that there were a large number of transfers before the 1994 election too, but there was no shouting about it at that time. In 1994 there was no 17th Amendment. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that it has not been possible to establish a Police Commission.

Under the Police Commission that will be established under the 17th Amendment, the IGP's powers to effect police transfers and disciplinary control have been taken away from him and vested in the Police Commission. All the political parties agreed to the enactment of such a reform because there was a general recognition that the IGP as a rule has had to function as a political tool of the executive. 

At previous elections, in areas where there was violence some high ranking police officers functioned as tools of local political leaders of the government party, and the IGP took no effective action at all to control the situation. What it showed was that the IGP's conduct at elections had not been impartial. 

The role being played by the chief of the government's media institutions is similar to the political role being played by the IGP. Instead of objecting to the Election Commissioner's directives in public as the IGP did, they follow a policy of refraining from following those directives. Their excuse is that directives aimed at them alone cannot be just. 

It will be desirable to have a policy frame work incorporating principals that all mass media must follow at elections.

However, although a private media institution has the right to act for the benefit of a party of its choice, a government mass media institution has no such right. For instance a private TV institution can work for the UNP and another can work for the PA without contravening the election laws. 

However, no state media institution can work for the benefit of one party and to the detriment of another party. The state media should follow a policy of total impartiality. The reason is that, unlike the private media the state media are an institution of the public and are run on public funds. 

There can be no doubt that the autocratic conduct of the IGP and the chiefs of the state media institutions serve the government's purposes. What it shows is that the PA government which functions as a care -taker government until the end of the elections, as well as the President, is prepared to follow the principles of the constitution including the 17th Amendment which was passed with her own support, which may be considered to be the fundamental law of the land. It is no simple offence. That offence alone would suffice to invite an impeachment against the President. The IGP and the state media are under the President's direct control. 

The politicians as well as the state officials who act in disregard of the fundamental law of the land do not appear to have realised the serious consequences that they might have to face. 

The politicians who use the movable and immovable properties belonging to the state, a state corporation or a statutory body for political purposes, as well as the state officials in charge of those properties who permit such action on the part of the politicians, can be found guilty of offences of corruption coming under the election law as well as offences under the law relating to bribery and corruption.

A person found guilty of such offences can be sentenced to rigorous imprisonment and be deprived of civic rights. 

The writer is the Editor of Ravaya



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