And so, we are going to see the spectacle of two more Provincial Council elections next month. Campaigning has begun in earnest and in Galle, a ruling party cavalcade has run over innocent road users. The provincial fiefdoms that have been created by the Provincial Council system — even if Police powers remain with the [...]


Political pantomime for PC circus


And so, we are going to see the spectacle of two more Provincial Council elections next month. Campaigning has begun in earnest and in Galle, a ruling party cavalcade has run over innocent road users. The provincial fiefdoms that have been created by the Provincial Council system — even if Police powers remain with the Centre — allow ruling party members to run amok.

What difference does it make anyway to have these powers in the Centre if they are vested with the political authority of the ruling party? The caravan goes on. None of those responsible for those deaths has been booked. The whole country sees the most flagrant violations of laws by those contesting, while helpless hapless policemen are used as labourers to tear posters from the walls and the back of buses instead of apprehending the culprits.

Rs. 1.2 billion they say is the estimated cost to the public purse for the elections in just two provinces — Southern and Western. This is the official figure trotted out, not counting the untold amount of undeclared funds (or ‘black money’) that will be thrown around by candidates, especially from the ruling party to win these elections.

If the way funds were disbursed in the recently concluded North Western Province and Central Province polls is any indicator, then the Southern and Western provinces are also in for a windfall of undeclared wealth while the Commissioner General of Inland Revenue and the Elections Commissioner pretend not to see what is happening.

Soon after the conclusion of the Central Provincial Council elections, this country was rocked by an unprecedented scandal that involved no less a personality than the Prime Minister. It was an attempt to smuggle in heroin — the biggest single consignment in South Asian history – using his good offices. Initial investigations revealed that a foreigner, a Pakistani national, involved in the heroin trade, spent lavishly for the Prime Minister’s son’s election campaign. The son in fact topped the list with the most number of preferential votes and made a claim for the Chief Ministership of the province.

In the North Western Province it was a similar story with the son of a Minister whose dealings with the import of material used in the liquor industry have long been the subject of public suspicion. This not only proved beyond any doubt that undeclared sources of income bankrolled some candidates, but that the Government’s inaction on such matters made a mockery of the Elections Commissioner’s headline grabbing statements asking for candidates to declare their assets and of clean elections.

Provincial elections are nothing but a test of strength for political parties; to hell with whether they serve the purpose of devolution of political power to the periphery. These elections are what by-elections to Parliament and Local Government elections used to be in yesteryears; elections that tested the popularity of a Government mid-term. There are no by-elections anymore and local government polls have been relegated to an unimportant role in the scheme of things.

The current campaign was launched on Independence Day by the President himself. In his address to the nation, half of which was devoted to the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva, President Rajapaksa whipped up nationalistic fervour portraying himself as the Protector of the Nation and Defender of the Faith. As the country knows, an anti-Sri Lanka resolution is before the UNHRC and a stiffer one is to be introduced next month when it meets.

By a happy coincidence, the elections to the two Councils will be held the day after the UNHRC sessions and the Government expects to ask the International Community — a euphemism for US–backed Western nations — and India, to go stuff themselves with that resolution — the people of this country are with the Government, unequivocally.

That seems to be the Government’s campaign slogan; that Imperialist forces are at the gates and they need to be defeated. The Opposition on the other hand is asking the people to vote against this Government that is taking the country towards a new El Dorado of casinos, heroin and prostitutes on the one hand, and illegal bucks stashed away by powers-that-be from unsolicited Government tenders for projects financed by kick-back fuelled Chinese loans, on the other.
Nary a word by either side on the efficacy of the Provincial Council system as a means for devolving centralised political power nor of the ‘white elephant’ it has proven to be since it was forced down Sri Lanka’s throat by India in 1987.

After much not-so-gentle persuasion by the ‘International Community’ led by India, or was arm-twisting more to the point, the Rajapaksa Government eventually capitulated, agreeing to set up the Northern Provincial Council last year. But the ‘International Community’ is still not impressed. It says this Council has not been empowered. That is partly so when one sees the Council passing a damning resolution against the Government asking for an international war crimes tribunal yet unable to transfer the Chief Secretary of the Council because Colombo is ignoring its demand.

The quality of candidates coming forward, blinded by the plums of office on offer at the taxpayers’ account nearly turned the forthcoming elections into a veritable tele-drama. Valid questions were asked why actresses turned wannabe politicians, porn stars and others were being discriminated against when the national legislature had its share of drug dealers, chain snatchers, commission agents and thugs in its midst.

The Government no doubt is paying for its vacillation and procrastination in introducing an alternate system of decentralisation of power. In sheer single-mindedness to centralise power, it forgets to break the mould and have a system more appropriate for efficient administration at the provincial level.
The District Council system with some changes was overlooked, or not looked at all because it was something the UNP introduced. Maybe too, the Government did not want to rub India on the wrong side — which it has done anyway now. The result is that the status-quo remains. In the South, these Provincial Council serves neither man nor beast. In the North, it is a simmering pot of ethnic tension on the boil.

The core issues of what devolution of power were meant to be is only a by-product of these costly elections. What these Councils mean to the people they are meant to serve seems irrelevant in the political pantomime that is being performed out there.

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