Opposition outgunned

Local Government Polls in the North
Use of army, abuse of State resources stifle Opposition campaigns claim candidates
By Saradha Mohan Kumar, Pix by Augustine Fernando

The presence of the military and the abuse of State resources in the election campaigns has stifled the Opposition’s campaign in the north, political parties and election monitoring groups claimed. Of the 12 complaints filed by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) with the Election Commissioner, four were against security personnel or, persons in army uniforms, who threatened candidates and also detained the public, preventing them from attending election meetings in some areas.

“On June 16, about 50 persons in army uniforms assaulted the MPs and the public at the first local government election campaign meeting held by the TNA at Alaveddy. Nobody has been arrested as yet,” was the complaint by the party.

JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe in Kilinochchi

Among the complaints were that pro-government candidates were allowed to campaign in the same area where a TNA candidate was threatened and prevented from campaigning. Commenting on this issue, MP E. Saravanabavan said, “Mainly in Kilinochchi, the army is going door-to-door campaigning for the government. People there are not literate, and fear the army and police, who are taking advantage of this opportunity.”

He said that, in one of the areas, police told villagers that the governor was coming and everyone had to attend the meeting. The JVP which has fielded candidates in the north, also claimed that their campaigns have been hampered by the army’s presence during their campaigns.

“Whenever we campaign in the north, the biggest obstacle has been the army. When we conduct house-to-house campaigns in Jaffna and Kilinochchi, the army comes along with us. We have told them not to come, as it affects our campaign, but they still follow us. We have complained to the police about this, but they follow us”, MP Vijitha Herath told the Sunday Times.

“They claim that they are accompanying us for our security, but we are telling them not to follow us, as we cannot speak to the voters freely”, he said. Executive Director- Campaign for Free & Fair Elections (CAFFE), Keerthi Tennakoon said, “We got reports, especially from the Kilinochchi area, that the military is doing some propaganda for the government.”

However, he said that reports of army influence in other areas are allegations from Opposition parties and that, the CAFFE observers didn’t notice anything so far. Rejecting the allegations against the army, Sri Lankan Freedom Parry (SLFP) Jaffna district organiser Angajan Ramanathan said, “The army is doing their job to secure the district. There are ministers and government officials coming here for election campaigns. So, the army is providing security.”

Jaffna District TNA parliamentarian E. Saravanabawan on a house-to-house campaign in Jaffna

On a similar note, the Jaffna Government Agent (GA) Emelda Sukumar said, “I don’t think that the army is involved in election propaganda. I didn’t get any complaints.” Among the other complaints have been instances of pelting stones, dumping sewage in candidates’ houses and hanging of a dog’s head at the gate of a candidate.

A meeting was organised on Wednesday to discuss the complaints, Mrs Sukumar said. Assistant Election Commissioner in Jaffna, TNA MPs and representatives of the DIG and security forces were among those who participated at the meeting.

Mrs Sukumar said that the Election Commissioner has appointed an officer to look into the complaints and direct them to the respective authorities. The DIG and the security forces commander have promised to provide assistance, she added.

The Senior Superintendent of Police has also promised to extend necessary security to the parties to conduct their propaganda, said Assistant Election Commissioner in Jaffna A.S. Karunanithi. In order to investigate the complaints, police need more details from the complainants.

“We’ve received 10 complaints so far,” said Mr Karunanithi. “Police say they can’t take action with just the complaints received (and) they need more details to take action. They want the victims to identify the persons behind the violence.”

Criticising this police response, Mr Saravanabavan said, “If the police are asking us to identify the people who are mutilating dog heads…throwing stones and bottles into houses, it would be very difficult for any of our complaints to be successful… People are scared of the EPDP and the military. Nobody is prepared to bear witness.”

The MP cited the attack during the TNA meeting at Alaveddy, and said the perpetrators have not been identified yet. “I don’t think we can rely on the government machinery that is functioning here, and that we will receive any justice from them.”

Mr Tennakoon of CAFFE also observed that TNA candidates have been intimidated several times. He said people avoided some of the TNA meetings because of army presence.

“When it is comes to elections, political freedom in Jaffna and Kilinochchi is not ensured. Freedom of expression and speech is the key for elections down there…it is not guaranteed. It is very disturbing,” he elaborated. “There is a calculated psychological operation against the Opposition to create fear”, he said.”

There have also been several instances in which some parties flout the rules set up by the Election Commissioner, said the director. The regulations state that opening and foundation-stone-laying ceremonies, distribution of free goods and other contributions that will be favourable to any contesting party, shouldn’t be organised during the campaigning period.

Regarding the ceremonies, Mr Ramanathan of the SLFP said, “These opening ceremonies were not for elections. These were booked two or three months ago, even before the election dates were announced.”

He also refuted the allegations made by Opposition parties on election violence. “There is no such election violence as far as we know. It is a peaceful election in Jaffna… and the parties are working with the masses.”

While there are allegations against the pro-government parties on the flouting of election rules, the TNA was barred from using loud speakers last week, according to MP Saravanabavan.

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