Tomorrow, Monday December 8, the Elections Commissioner will accept nominations for a virtual mid-term Presidential election scheduled for a month hence. The country will then see more of the same or more of the same. The UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights states; “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority [...]


This crucial election, make it “genuine”


Tomorrow, Monday December 8, the Elections Commissioner will accept nominations for a virtual mid-term Presidential election scheduled for a month hence. The country will then see more of the same or more of the same.
The UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights states;
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of governments;
this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall
be by universal and equal suffrage”.
The Constitution (Supreme Law) of the country states (Article 93);
“The voting for the election of the president of the Republic …… shall be free, equal and by secret ballot”.

Not that the UN Declaration on Human Rights is taken too seriously in this country by the powers-that-be; nor for that matter the Republic’s Constitution; but the UN Declaration has two points in it — one is that those elected respect the wishes of those who elected them (when in office), and the other is that elections must be genuine. The Sri Lankan Constitution says they must be free, which is close to genuine, and both say they must be equal — in that the playing fields must be level for the incumbent and the challenger.

For now we shall only refer to elections being genuine, or free because whether governments respect the wishes of the people who elect them is a completely different subject best left for another day. This week, the Elections Commissioner announced that three international observer groups would be invited by him to monitor the January 8 elections.

Nondescript as they are, the invitation to international observers has been an affront to a country that boasts universal adult franchise for more than 80 years and to a Department that once had an unimpeachable record of impartiality and efficiency. It won the confidence of the victor and the vanquished, and the voters across the board. Somewhere down the line, in more recent years, that record has been in question. At the last presidential election, the then Elections Commissioner went ‘missing in action”. He then went public to complain of “pressure” and “harassment”. Up to date no one except himself – and a few others, knew what happened to him during the count. It shattered the image of the Department.

When governments changed regularly post-Independence, there were few reasons to accuse the Elections Department of siding with the ruling party. It is when the ruling party stays for extended periods that the Department comes under the microscope.

International observers are basically a waste of time. They come unprepared and unaccustomed to the local ‘politricks’. They must rely on Government logistics to get about and ultimately, they can make a bad situation worse by issuing a certificate that the election was “reasonably free and fair”, legitimising a flawed poll.

The recommendations of local monitors, far more familiar with the goings-on from day one, and even those of the former Elections Commissioner to the Parliamentary Select Committee have largely been ignored. The onus, therefore, is on the Elections Department, from the highest to the humblest official, to ward off these pressures that their former head spoke of in 2010, and infuse greater confidence in the millions of voters of a free and genuine poll, that international observers can never infuse.

Take the high road
Good roads are vital for modernising any country, especially one emerging from decades of conflict as Sri Lanka is. Roads connect the people with each other, as they have linked the people of the North with those of the South today. They help get them to destinations without squandering valuable time enroute. And they facilitate rapid movement of perishable produce to consumers, thereby helping growers and exporters.

An added bonus is that roadblocks have disappeared with the end of the war. Connectivity is increasing at a rapid pace and this is enhancing lives, trade and economy. It was Ranasinghe Premadasa, the late President, who jumpstarted the process of road building during the United National Party’s third term in the post-1977 market liberalisation. Today, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has prioritised this sector as never before.

From village to town to city, roads are getting a facelift -but at what cost? Increasingly, the monies allocated by this Government to build those gleaming, macadamised roads are being called into question. And not just the highways; available information about village roads shows that construction costs have inexplicably leapt ahead while inflation (single digit, as the Government boasts) has not.

Bafflingly, some of the best roads in the country have been built in areas with the lowest populations or traffic movement. When there is a scarce pool of resources for road development, experts are called upon to conduct empirical studies regarding the areas that should receive immediate attention. That was done in Sri Lanka but their advice has not been followed.

Today, there are expensive asphalt tracks in places that will not see a corresponding growth in traffic for many more years. Maintenance is not cheap either. Take the Hambantota district. The RDA’s China Development Bank (CDB) Proposed Roads Project (PRP) Phase II envisages the construction of 117 kilometres of road in the areas of Beliatta, Walasmulla, Tangalle, Narandeniya and Weeraketiya. The estimated cost, for which approval has been sought from the Treasury, is Rs.15.4 billion. This works out to an average of Rs.130 million per kilometre for B class roads on flat, rolling terrain with traffic volumes of less than 2,000 vehicles a day. It is no wonder that the figures are being queried.

The bigger roads are even more expensive. Astronomical amounts have been expended on building highways. In the campaign for the 2015 presidential election, this has become a veritable Achilles heel for the Government. More and more of President Rajapaksa’s opponents are attacking him on corruption and roads are high on the list.

To make matters worse, there has been no convincing explanation from the Government about why projects such as these are so expensive. The open tender process is no longer employed. Prices and quality are not compared, and the best options not chosen.

Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera’s explanation is that the amounts for bigger projects are all vetted by a Cabinet-appointed Tender Committee after which Cabinet approval is sought. He also says these ventures are carried out on export credit which comes with conditions — including the company to which a contract should be awarded. Therefore, the Government has no choice. But this isn’t necessarily true.

Mr. Jayasundera also claimed that for projects below US$ 15 million, the Government has called for local tenders. This includes the Northern Expressway projects which were awarded to local contractors. What he declined to say at the breakfast meeting between editors and the President (at which he gave this half-baked explanation) was that none of those contracts was handed out on the basis of an open tender process.
If the Government wants to counter credible allegations of widespread corruption, the least it could do, is to do so with facts and figures. Anything short of that will not convince anybody.

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