5th December 1999
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From the Election desk

Curtain of secrecy

The curtain of secrecy which surrounds the funding of political parties in Sri Lanka, is beginning to become the focus of large scale attention.

With party officials giving 'official explanations', the public is left with little to rely on but their own gut sense.

And for one moment in time, the reds, the greens and the blues are united, as the parties unanimously proclaim that they depend for funds on membership collections. But whether, this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth remains once again to be deciphered by the public.

Unfortunately, that segment of Sri Lanka, known as the public, is only important for a short span of eight hours, perhaps twice an year. Therefore their right to know, no matter what, has never been sacred.

As one bluey green pseudo human said in short, 'the public should not be allowed to waste our time'. But Sri Lanka is in such a poor way these days that this will only be the joke of the week, and lose the PA only about 1835 votes, although we know that it was with much smaller margins that Governments in other countries have been toppled.

While one particular political party actually placed an advertisement soliciting funds, the others which appear to have access to unlimited funds are in a position to keep the sources of their funding a secret.

Let's leave aside the political secret as to where they get their funds from. How about how much they spend on campaigning ? Nobody knows. Not even the political parties, as they continue to pretend total oblivion.

Parties don't wish to reveal who is funding them, nor how much they spend on their campaigning, probably because it might prove advantageous to their rival parties, and disadvantageous to those who fund them. 

"The left hand must not know what the right hand gives," says Local Government Minister Alavi Moulana. "There is no question of defending or depending," he says cleverly closing the chapter. Some common excuses are that party supporters in the areas where the campaigning is held spend, or individuals, well wishers, and party members pool in.

This is contradicted when private companies allegedly claim that they have to contribute towards campaign expenses in order to ensure that they survive in the rat race.

However there is another side to the mystery. Some inside sources say that MPs in power earn the money spent on campaigning by engaging in illegal activities. One such money spinner, it is alleged, was recommending liquor licences, charging lakhs of rupees from the applicant.

All's fair in love,war and polls 

By Faraza Farook, Nilika de Silva and Tania Fernando
Tactics and strategies play a major role in stealing a march over one's rivals at elections in most parts of the world, but perhaps an extreme one is doctoring a pornographic video a la Malaysia.

Sri Lanka is trying its hand at this in a big way with candidates attributing damaging statements to their rivals. A headline screeches that the Opposition Leader wants to amalgamate the Army and the LTTE forces, when actually what the man had stated in his misread manifesto "My pact with the People" was that he wanted to see that the make-up of the armed forces reflected the ethnic mix of the country.

On state television air time is used very strategically, with private stations picking up and perfecting the art. Recently Vasudeva Nanayakkara, a Presidential candidate released a statement objecting to the fact that his speech had been distorted by a state television channel with only the segments criticising the Opposition Leader being aired, whereas he had in this same speech attacked the President herself but this footage was conveniently not shown.

And what about crying foul after an alleged attack on party offices, with the latest trend of naming the rival for these attacks. It eases the job of the Police, though often the public question if it is not a masochistic attempt at gaining attention and sympathy from them through the media. Perhaps this is the modern way of campaigning-a little similar to the Munchausen syndrome by proxy (where the mother kills her own baby to gain attention and sympathy from others).

Two weeks to go, and the sky is the limit when it comes to tactics and strategies. So what will they think of to outdo their rivals? Lets sit back and watch.

Open invitation for impersonation?

On this most important day when the fate of this country may be decided why is the National Identity Card, a possession common to each and every Sri Lankan who exercises his or her franchise, not used for identification purposes? 

While National Identity Cards are essential to enter most buildings in Colombo why are they deprived of a similar position of importance at elections in Sri Lanka.

With everyone talking about alleged rigging at elections why has this simple precaution been overlooked? Is there a good reason for this ? A reason such as the awkwardness of meeting the person on whose behalf you're casting the ballot?

Many presidential candidates said it would be good to use the NIC as a form of identification, but that since there is no provision to implement it the Elections Commissioner has no authority to make it compulsory.

They stressed that it should be passed as a law in Parliament.

After experiencing the large scale rigging that took place at the Provincial Council elections early this year it doesn't take anyone much intelligence or imagination to realise that the records set at these polls will only be bettered, given that there is no way to ensure that a person who presents himself at the polling booth is the rightful owner of the vote he seeks to cast.

It's high time someone proved that this is not an invitation for large scale vote rigging.

How is it that those in power are blind to this?

Roping in artistes for election campaign to ensure victory at polls

By Faraza Farook
Political parties have now set their eyes on artistes to ensure their victory at the forthcoming Presidential polls and are putting forward attractive promises to promote the arts.

The two main contenders, the PA and the UNP are, using various election strategies to draw the attention of artistes.

While each party is throwing allegations at each other that the artists are being used as a marketing tool to draw votes, the artistes themselves are only looking for a party that would further their interests.

Some artistes told The Sunday Times that these election pledges were often far from reality once the polls concluded.

"They seek our support just for the season, once the election is over, that is the end of the relationship," said one artist. Prominent actor Ravindra Randeniya who at a recent press conference with his colleague Anoja Weerasinghe pledged to support the UNP said, they have lost faith in the ruling party.

Poster campaigns, banners and press advertisements will be out this week calling all artistes to extend their support to the UNP, he said. 

A meeting has also been convened for Wednesday (8) at Shalika hall to which all artistes are invited to discuss working towards a common goal.

"We are working towards achieving our goals or proposals for the development of art and not to foster election propaganda," says Mr. Randeniya. 

The artistes had talks with Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe after his party approached them for their support at the forthcoming Presidential elections.

"We wanted them to present concrete proposals towards the development of the arts and for the people involved in it if they are to gain our support," Mr. Randeniya said. One of the proposals made by the artistes was to recognise them as professionals entitling them to benefits enjoyed by any other professional. Mr. Wickremesinghe has agreed to draw up a scheme to implement the proposals, Mr. Randeniya said.

"He has agreed to our proposals in principle and included it in his manifesto 'My pact with the people', he said.

The Opposition leader has also promissed to set up an Arts University where one could obtain a recognised degree in any chosen artistic field. The artistes are confident that the UNP proposals which they say are 'very beneficial and attractive in the long run' will encourage more people to enter the field because there is hope.

Meanwhile another group of artistes have pledged their support to the PA.

This group of artistes who met Dr. Sarath Amunugma and other PA supporters last Wednesday were of the view that Mr. Wickremasinghe gave little or no prominence to artistes. 

Dr. Amunugama alleged that the UNP was using artistes as a tool to draw more crowds at election rallies.

He said the PA avoids using artists as a 'marketing tool' because it had much respect for them.

However, only time will tell if the promises put forward by the parties will see the light of day.

Ministry letters allegedly put Samurdhi Niyamakas on the prowl

It's a curious kind of comedy

The run up to the December 1999 Presidential elections sees electoral fun and larks being played with public servants to a level of sheer pig-headed blatancy. Take two letters which have been recently issued from the Ministry of Samurdhi, Youth Affairs and Sports to all Samurdhi Niyamakas, showing the worst kind of electoral manipulation of public servants in a pre electoral campaign. The first letter addressed to all Samurdhi Niyamakas and signed by the Minister S.B. Dissanayake is on official note paper of the Ministry.

Headlined "Distribution of a Special Letter by the President From House to House", it instructs all Niyamakas to engage in open electoral campaigning for the People's Alliance candidate and present President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Descending to a curious kind of comedy moreover, the letter goes on to specify the manner in which this ought to be done, directing that the Presidential letter ought to be ceremonially handed over to households by the Niyamakas dressed in appropriate clothing and in keeping with certain cultural traditions. The Niyamakas are instructed to look on themselves as special representatives of the President when performing this task.

If the first letter was not bad enough, the second letter that has come to the attention of this column is measurably worse. Here, the headline reads "Responsibilities entrusted to Samurdhi Niyamakas during election time" and goes on to state that all Samurdhi Niyamakas have been entrusted certain election duties by the Minister of Samurdhi and the Deputy Minister of Defence, Anurudha Ratwatte. 

All Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Members of Parliament and organisers are requested to provide every facility necessary to the Niyamakas for the carrying out of these duties. Significantly, they are directed to ensure that the Niyamakas do not "participate in any other kind of political activity during this time period" and are further notified that as these Niyamakas have been given electoral duties in places away from their homes, on no account should they be recalled to their respective places of residence. The letter also directs that all Samurdhi banks be kept functioning during this period, come what may.

To the most credulous government apologist who looks at these letters and asks the question "So what is wrong with them?", the answer is "Plenty". At best, they point to a blatant subversion of the role of Samurdhi Niyamakas who are public servants paid out of public money. Taken at its worst, such directions issued by the Minister of Samurdhi focuses fears on what the exact role of the Niyamakas would be during the coming elections and what, indeed, are these "electoral duties" that they have been specifically entrusted with? 

The letters receive publicity in the wake of the Sri Lankan public being warned of a Samurdhi 'hit force" by a group of senior public servants who have banded themselves together into a national Vigilance Movement for Free and Fair Elections. This group has reportedly pointed out that all Niyamakas, numbering two per each Grama Sevaka division, are being mobilised for the obstruction of the election campaign of opposition candidates by promoting intimidation, violence and thuggery. They anticipate that the Niyamakas would be in the forefront of forcibly taking over the polling cards of those likely to vote against the government, removal and disfigurement of posters supporting opposition candidates and collecting information of those on voter lists but not alive or abroad for the purposes of impersonation. The group has cautioned that Samurdhi funds would be used for this purpose and that the Niyamakas have been directed to undertake these activities outside their own areas so that they would not be identified.

The fears voiced by them are borne out by the second letter in particular issued by the Minister of Samurdhi, which confronts one with certain questions. What is the role that the Deputy Minister of Defence could have in defining these "electoral duties" of the Niyamakas? Why the direction to keep the Samurdhi banks functioning during election time at all costs? Why the direction not to recall the Niyamakas to their places of residence during election time due to their being entrusted various duties elsewhere? Given the whole tenor of the two letters, it is highly advisable for the Minister of Samurdhi to enlighten the public as to what exactly is meant by his issuance of these letters. If the answer is the obvious, the Minister should speedily disabuse himself of the notion that such action is justifiable in the name of electoral politics. 

Approximately three weeks back, this column commented on a recent judgement of the Supreme Court which unequivocally warned that Samurdhi Niyamakas cannot be used for political propaganda or other work of the government as they were officers engaged in rendering services to the public, for which they were paid out of public funds. As such, they could not be commandeered to work for one political party alone.

"_the use of resources of the State, including human resources, for the benefit of one political party or group, constitutes unequal treatment and political discrimination because thereby an advantage is conferred on one political party or group which is denied to its rivals" .", a Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Fernando, Wadugodapitiya and Gunesekera ruled.

In that case, the dispute concerned the suspension of a Samurdhi Niyamaka for expressing views contrary to those favourable to the political leaders of the Peoples Alliance in the backdrop of a electoral campaign of a forthcoming Pradeshiya Sabha elections. The fact that action had been taken against the Niyamaka in this manner was affirmed by the Court to be in "probable derogation of the fairness and equality of a pending election to a representative body forming part of the democratic structure of Sri Lanka".

In this instance, the letters in question have been issued by none less than the Minister of Samurdhi and are applicable to all Samurdhi Niyamakas, compelling them to engage in electoral campaigning for the Peoples' Alliance regardless of their individual political beliefs. In this backdrop, if the Minister of Samurdhi continues to indulge in conduct that amounts to such open disregard of a caution issued by the highest court of the land, it can only amount to political arrogance of the highest degree. Given the tenor of thought of the present administration however, this cannot really come as any peculiar surprise.

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