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Results of polls will shape Govt. policy on vital issues

low voting mark the election

ST Political Editor
= Monitors say widespread violations of election laws and violence marred polls
 = HR groups hit out at Govt. report to UNHRC, Minister Samarasinghe now likely to go to Geneva
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The UPFA government’s popularity, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, will be measured today by an unusual yardstick — the outcome of yesterday’s polls for Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provincial Councils.
The main thrust of the government has been to demonstrate, both here and to the outside world, that despite criticism on a multitude of issues, the UPFA continues to enjoy the confidence of the people. Towards this end, the alliance’s seven-week campaign, where an entire cabinet of ministers had been deployed, was to ensure that it win a larger volume of votes, perhaps higher than previous polls.

There is little doubt that victory is on hand for the ruling coalition in at least Sabaragamuwa and the North Central provinces. Whilst a similar win cannot be ruled out in the Eastern Province, there is also the strong likelihood of a hung council with a strong edge for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The plum in the three polls yesterday is the one for the East. Barring the predominantly Tamil speaking north, the only other area in the country with a large minority concentration is the East. The voter strength is divided roughly in equal parts of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. That it is the first polls after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas over three years ago adds significance because the Government’s reconciliation efforts are yet to get under way. A convincing victory there could be interpreted also as an endorsement of UPFA policy on Tamil issues. In equal measure, a defeat would deliver a different message.

A hung council will naturally mean a lot of political horse trading. With the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), an alliance partner of the UPFA, fielding its own candidates, the issue could become more contentious. Many questions arise. Will the SLMC back the UPFA or choose to close ranks with the TNA in forming a council? On the other hand, will the SLMC relent and make amends with the UPFA? The polls campaign has seen some bloody clashes with government backers engaging SLMC factions in cut throat battles. The bitterness of the UPFA leadership was reflected by Minister Dullas Allahapperuma. He declared publicly that his ministerial colleague and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem said one thing to the cabinet and another to voters in the East. He was alluding to Hakeem’s remarks that some mosques had come under attack under the UPFA Government, a charge which President Mahinda Rajapaksa bluntly refuted during the polls campaign in Muslim-dominated Kinniya in the Trincomalee district. The polls outcome in the East notwithstanding, Hakeem’s own political future with the UPFA also becomes a critical issue.

New fissures have developed at the highest levels of the UPFA over matters relating to polls in the East. Some top rungers have questioned the wisdom of allowing SLMC and even the smaller National Freedom Front (NFF) to field their own candidates. This has split the UPFA votes. Speculation over the issue has heightened with the departure from Sri Lanka of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. He was in charge of the polls campaign in the East.

The polls are also a test of strength for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It is fielding candidates for the first time after a major split occurred in the party.

More than 3.3 million voters were eligible to vote at yesterday’s poll to elect 114 (108+6 bonus seats) members. Of them, 44 are for Sabaragamuwa, 33 for North Central and 37 for the Eastern Province. Some 100,000 officials and 21,000 police officers were deployed for duty. The largest number of eligible voters, 1,401,794 was from Sabaragamwa whilst East came second with 1,033,872 and North Central third with 900,872.

A disturbing feature of yesterday’s elections was a series of allegations by opposition parties that the UPFA misused state resources. They alleged that there were violent attacks on opposition candidates and supporters and claimed that Police in some areas were backing the UPFA by their inaction. These charges were underlined in a letter TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan wrote to President Mahinda Rajapaksa with copies, among others, to Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya.

The allegations he made included:

= Candidates and supporters of political parties opposed to the UPFA – the ruling party — and vehicles in which they travelled have been attacked.

= Certain personnel claiming to be intelligence personnel have questioned persons engaged in electoral activities on behalf of political parties opposed to the UPFA — and warned them that they could face unpleasant consequences after the elections.

= Certain persons identified as the “Blue Brigade” have asked for the polling cards of voters, inspected the same, and warned them that they could face unpleasant consequences if they did not support the ruling party.

= Various development activities have either been commenced or declared opened and made functional after the receipt of nominations in the different districts by highly placed persons in the UPFA.

= Official vehicles have been used for electoral activities and official personnel have been used, sometimes without their free consent for electoral activities by highly placed persons in government corporations.

= Events could occur that would dissuade persons inclined to vote against the UPFA from exercising their franchise, that the voting could be manipulated and that the counting could be manipulated.

Presidential spokesperson Bandula Jayasekera did not react to the accusations made by Sampanthan. “Every day, the President receives hundreds of letters. He returned to Colombo only on Thursday night after the polls campaign. We have to check whether such a letter has been received,” he told the Sunday Times.

Rohana Hettiaratchchi, Executive Director of the People’s Action Front for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), a body that monitored the polls, said that “illegal use of government property and funds including deployment of officials for promotional campaigns” was the highlight of polls related offences this time. He said 112 such complaints were received. The illegal use of government property was mostly reported from the districts of Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Kegalle and Ratnapura. Added Keerthi Tennekoon, Executive Director of Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), another body that monitored the polls: “Most of the violence has been directed against candidates and supporters of the SLMC. It is the UPFA supporters who have been accused of those incidents.”

He told the Sunday Times that Akkaraipattu (in the Ampara district) was the worst hit due to polls violence. “The situation is very similar to what we saw during polls violence in Kolonnawa in October last year,” he said.

In the Anuradhapura district, he alleged, there was misuse of state resources and manpower. During a meeting held by the Commissioner of Elections with political party representatives, we alleged that the Akkaraipattu Police were favouring UPFA candidates. It was thereafter that four police stations (Akkaraipattu, Sammanthurai, Pottuvil and Kalmunai) which were under one Superintendent of Police were brought under the temporary charge of an SSP from Colombo, Tennekoon added.
 Violence by ruling party candidates or supporters using state resources has been a practice resorted to by successive regimes.

However, the growth in its intensity at the recent polls, particularly in the backdrop of a weakened opposition that is unable to counter it, assumes greater importance. It is not only an impediment to the conduct of a free and fair poll. A bigger issue is how such a phenomenon would continue to impact on all future polls, essentially conducted to demonstrate the government’s strength and popularity.

Those compulsions drive a ruling party to throw all its resources at successive polls whilst opposition parties have found themselves helpless. This indeed was the reason why some members of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) said they should boycott local and provincial polls. However, the leadership frowned on the idea since it would amount to the party abandoning its role as an opposition.

There is a significant feature in the outcome of yesterday’s polls for the two main contenders, the UPFA and the UNP. More than winning, the important factor will be the number of votes they received. This is in comparison not only with the previous PC polls but also the outcome of the last parliamentary elections. That is to determine whether or not more voters have endorsed their positions, a measure by which they will discern the strength of their power base. A poor voter turnout could also be contributory to such a determination.

Minister Dullas Allahapperuma, a key UPFA spokesperson who was in the forefront of the polls campaign, was also less optimistic of a victory at the Eastern Province. He told the Sunday Times, “We are confident in comfortably winning the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provincial councils. In the East the UPFA will certainly have the controlling power.” He forecast that the UPFA may have a shortfall of seats to meet the required majority of 19 seats to have control of the Eastern Provincial Council. “That will not be a problem. There are members who will support us to gain a majority,” he said. Allahapperuma declared that the SLMC “will have to make up its mind after the elections. We find there are several factions in the party. Therefore, they will have to discuss among themselves and decide on their future role. The Minister argued that issues such as the recent devastating drought are not going to deter voters from backing the UPFA. Relief has been provided to them. He said “overall we are going to win the elections.”

Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran expressed confidence of a TNA victory in the East. He told the Sunday Times “the majority of Tamils in the East are now with the TNA. He added, “I was involved in campaigning activities. I travelled to several villages northwards from Pottuvil to Trincomalee. I found that the people are now supporting us in huge numbers. Though the government used force to win the hearts and minds of the people, not even a ten per cent vote share would go to it. The TNA will be the single largest party by winning a majority of the seats in the East. In the Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts, the TNA is expecting three, seven and four seats respectively. In addition we are expecting the two bonus seats in the East by ending up as the party which gains the highest majority in the province.”

The main opposition UNP’s communications chief Mangala Samaraweera told the Sunday Times, “Even in remote areas we have conducted our campaign, people have demonstrated that they want a change. They were disgruntled and disillusioned. Some government supporters said they would not even cast their votes. This will mean a marked decrease in the UPFA votes.”
 A convincing victory for the UPFA is as important outside Sri Lanka as it is within. In fact projecting “a positive image” was uppermost in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mind. At a breakfast meeting cum news conference at the Speaker’s Residence in Kotte, Rajapaksa declared, “If we paint a negative picture it will adversely affect the country. Therefore it is the media which can give this positive side. Today democracy has been restored in the North and East. We hope to hold provincial elections in the North.”

The remarks came in an event linked to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) 58th annual sessions in Colombo beginning September 12. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was also billed to take part in the event. Instead, he had deputed John Ameratunga, who now acts as opposition leader in his absence. Both President Rajapaksa and Deputy Speaker Chandima Weerakkody defended Ameratunga when a journalist raised questions from him on whether the UNP would support calls for probes on human rights issues during the CPA sessions. Both said Ameratunga had not taken up any such position though there were some calls in that direction. Ameratunga remained silent all the shile. These developments come with just seven weeks to go for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The Government is keen to demonstrate that the people are with it notwithstanding criticism over human rights and related issues. That no doubt is a main reason for the conduct of the elections to the three provincial councils even before their terms had expired.

In what seems in-fighting within the government ranks, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, President’s Special Envoy on human rights issues, has been excluded from the Geneva team. This is when the UN Human Rights Council discusses Sri Lanka’s National Report on human rights and related issues in the past four years for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
 It was Samarasinghe who formulated the National Report for the UPR. It has now been posted on the UNHRC website. The Sunday Times learnt that the External Affairs Ministry has stopped consulting Samarasinghe on matters relating to UNHRC or human rights issues. Nor has he been briefed on the visit next week by a UN team to assist the government in implementing the US-backed resolution passed at the Human Rights Council sessions in March. It may be recalled that External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris protested to President Rajapaksa about the role played by Samarasinghe during the Council sessions in Geneva. The move was to draw a rebuff from the President who noted that there were divisions when the government was battling a common enemy.

The Sunday Times learnt that Minister Samarasinghe lodged a strong protest with Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. As a result, the External Affairs Ministry sought to retract a statement made to The Sunday Times last week by Secretary Karunatilleke Amunugama that there would be no representation at ministerial level when the UPR takes place in November. He now says there is no decision on the matter. However, he did tell the Sunday Times last week that the country’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Ariyasinha would lead the delegation. There are now indications that Samarasinghe will be present to defend the National Report he prepared. Other officials travelling from Sri Lanka are Mohan Peiris, Legal Advisor to the Cabinet, Attorney General Palitha Fernando and an official from his Department. The UPR comes ahead of the Human Rights Council sessions in March next year when Sri Lanka’s follow-up action on the US backed resolution, will come up for discussion.

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