Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

SRI LANKA: Country Heads Into Decisive Elections

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Jan 8 2010 (IPS) - Call it a novel election propaganda ploy.

On Jan. 1, millions of mobile users in Sri Lanka got an unusual text message amid the flood of New Year’s wishes. The sender’s name read simply as ‘President’. This was no joke by a prankster; it was a message by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It wished millions of Sri Lankans the very best for the new year, adding he had kept his promises to the nation.

Rajapaksa is heading into three pivotal weeks of his long political career, spanning over four decades. He will battle his former army commander, retired general Sarath Fonseka, at the Jan. 26 presidential elections.

The erstwhile comrades who were credited with defeating the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) only eight months back have turned bitter political rivals, making the upcoming election one of the most keenly contested since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1947.

Rajapaksa is seeking re-election on the track record of his first term, claiming he has been instrumental in ending the LTTE insurgency. Vying for another term, he said he has the chance to develop the economy.

Fonseka, on the other hand, hopes to be the first military officer to hold the highest elective post in the country on the strength of his military record. He has also been critical of the incumbent president, alleging that the country was sliding toward nepotism under his watch.

If the long Christmas and New Year holidays created a false sense of calm, within just days of the new year it was back to business as usual. The campaigns that began on Dec. 17 have heated up, giving all the signals that it was driving into a crescendo.

On Jan. 3, clashes between supporters of the two candidates were reported from Kiribathgodda town, about 15 kilometres north of Colombo, and in Nawalapitiya, a town in the central hills some 120 km from the capital. Similar incidents, albeit on a smaller scale, were reported in Negombo, another town about 40 km north of Colombo, and in the eastern town of Eravur.

On Dec. 4 last year, Police riot squads were on hand to prevent conflicts between the Fonseka supporters and those of Rajapaksa in the eastern town of Ampara hours before the retired general was to address a meeting. Election monitoring groups said that they feared the run-up was turning out to be violent. The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), the country’s foremost election monitoring body, told IPS that there were indications that the intensification of the campaigns could lead to more untoward incidents.

“The tension on the ground is likely to increase as election day nears,” Rohana Hettiarchchi, PAFFREL’s executive director, said.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), another election monitoring body, also acknowledged that violence had spiked in the first three days of this year.

“CMEV notes with concern the escalation of violence in the Presidential Election,” it said in a communiqué issued on Jan. 4. It added that it had received reports of four major incidents of election-related violence on Jan. 3. “Instances of the use of fire arms have gone up.”

Election observers said that the race between the two main candidates, Rajapaksa and Fonseka, was so close that supporters were unlikely to back down. “Both sides appear to be ready to face violence head on, which is very dangerous,” said Keerthi Thenakkon, the spokesperson for Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, an election-monitoring unit.

Police, however, say that compared to the last presidential election in 2005, the first three weeks following the handover of nominations on Dec. 17 have been marginally calmer. Deputy inspector general Gamini Navarathne, head of the police election unit, said that only 250 incidents had been reported during the current campaign compared to 280 in 2005. “There is about a 30 percent drop in (violent) incidents,” he said.

But since the campaign will not end until Jan. 24, such incidents are still likely to increase.

Concerns have also been raised on the rampant misuse of public resources for propaganda work. “The trend seems even more ominous at the current Presidential Election,” Transparency International’s Sri Lanka chapter said in a report on the abuse of public resources released on Dec. 31 last year.

“It is extremely important that the public resists the use of public resources for election purposes because it is the public who bears the cost of abuse of public resources,” added the anti-corruption watchdog.

Observers note that Fonseka’s entry as a candidate has reenergised an opposition that was looking for an alternative to counter the popularity of President Rajapaksa.

“I think he has offered a viable counter to the President’s popularity, especially within the Sinhala majority voters,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, a civil rights body. As the majority ethnic group in Sri Laka, the Sinhalese make up about 70 percent of the national electorate.

The two main opposition Sinhala political parties, the United National Party and the People’s Liberation Front, have joined hands to support Fonseka as a common candidate. The entry of the former army commander has also resulted in some never-before-seen developments. Buddhist monks, once among the core support base of the pro-nationalist political parties, have begun protesting in Colombo, both for and against the government.

During the last week of December a group of monks protested in Colombo against the alleged statement made by Fonseka implicating defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in possible rights violations in the last phase of the war against the LTTE.

“It is a very irresponsible statement by someone who was a former army commander; we want to register our protest,” said Bengamuwe Nalaka Thero, one of the protesting monks. On Dec. 28, the monks handed a letter to the United Nations, urging it and other countries to refrain from meddling in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.

As the monks marched in parts of southern Colombo, another group staged a protest in the city centre, venting their anger against the arrest of a pro- Fonseka monk. “He was taken in on trumped-up charges; this is political revenge,” said Pujitha Thero, who also took part in the protest.

The run-up to the vote has even split the main Tamil political group, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). One of its members of parliament, M. K. Sivajilingam, has come forward as an independent candidate over disagreements within the party.

On Dec. 6, the TNA announced that it was supporting Fonseka at the election. Its leader, R. Sampanthan, said that they held discussions with both candidates, and Fonseka had pledged to address the needs of those affected by the war. “He understands that there should be a political solution for durable peace in this country,” said Sampanthan.

“The TNA’s unanimous view was that the President should not receive a mandate for the second term based on his performance,” he was quoted as saying to the local media early last month. “We held discussions with him on a political solution. We are most disappointed with the manner in which he deals with the issue.”

On Jan. 26, the rest of the country will pass its own judgment on Rajapaksa’s performance.

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