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Spectre of Violence Hangs Over Sri Lanka Polls

[Violence in the lead-up to the Jan. 8 presidential election in Sri Lanka has poll monitors on edge. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS]

By Amantha Perera-

COLOMBO, Jan 6 2015 (IPS) – As 14.5 million Sri Lankans prepare to select their next leader, there is growing fear that violence could mar the Jan. 8 elections, billed as the closest electoral contest in the island’s history.

Election monitors were worried that as incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his rival Maithripala Sirisena wound down their campaigns on Jan. 5, violence would scare off voters.

Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of the national election monitoring body Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), observed that a worrying precedent has been set by police who have by and large remained inactive against violations of election laws, especially those perpetrated by government supporters including at least two parliamentarians.

“The last 48 hours before the election are crucial; ordinary voters will not want to risk being assaulted, or worse, if they feel that there is such a risk.” — Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE)

“The police always appear to be late on the uptake when decisive action by law enforcement can be the most effective deterrent [to violence],” he told IPS.

He pointed to recent clashes in Kahawatta, a town in the central Ratnapura District, as an example. In the early hours of the morning on Jan. 5, while a group of opposition supporters were busy setting up the stage for a rally by common opposition candidate Sirisena in the town’s public grounds, a band of government supporters arrived in eight vehicles and began attacking them.

Rather than running away, the opposition group retaliated. The situation escalated, and shots were fired. Three opposition supporters were injured, and one was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

Enraged, the opposition supporters launched a retaliatory attack on election offices set up by government followers. The main roads of the town were blocked for at least four hours while the mayhem unfolded.

“Police [did not] take any action until two hours after the initial incident,” CaFFE noted in an update. “They only reacted when the [opposition] United National Party (UNP) supporters started attacking [Deputy Minister Premalal] Jayasekara’s offices,” the monitoring body added.

A couple of hours earlier, another group of government supporters loyal to a deputy minister assaulted officials from the election commissioner’s department in the eastern town of Trincomalee after they had gone to investigate a digital screen in a public space relaying election propaganda.

The attack took place despite the officials being provided security by nine policemen.

“The last 48 hours before the election are crucial; ordinary voters will not want to risk being assaulted, or worse, if they feel that there is such a risk,” Tennakoon said.

Voting for equality?

The elections have been billed as one of closet in recent history. President Rajapaksa, who called elections two years before they were due, is facing a stiff challenge in the form of his one-time health minister Sirisena.

The run-up to the election has been dominated by personal attacks against the top contenders, and has remained largely empty of policy discussions.

Despite robust growth, Sri Lanka still faces vast economic disparities. The richest 20 percent of the population enjoys half of all national income, while the poorest 20 percent has access to just five percent of the country’s wealth.

According to the latest Household Income Survey by the government’s Department of Census and Statistics, the monthly income of the poorest 20 percent of the population was 10, 245 rupees (about 78 dollars), while the richest 20 percent earned a monthly income of 121,368 rupees (about 933 dollars).

Furthermore, the war-ravaged North is mired in poverty despite the civil war ending in May 2009.

Anushka Wijesinha, an economist and policy advisor, observed that the election manifestos are full of promises relating to public spending and low on strategic policies that would ensure long-term stability.

“Unsurprisingly, both manifestos are populist and full of public spending goodies – from welfare handouts to public sector salary hikes. These will boost short-term consumption, and are unlikely to be inflationary as recent inflation has been low. But the spending will hurt the fiscal consolidation efforts of the past few years and public finances may come under increased pressure,” he said.

The elections are likely to create economic uncertainty at least in the short term and will in all likelihood be followed by parliamentary elections. A day after elections were announced on Nov. 20, the Colombo Stock Market recorded its worst slide in over 15 months, and has remained sluggish ever since.

“Both [leading candidates] have a heavy emphasis on state-led initiatives and taxpayer-funded programmes, which in the past have been notoriously inefficient. Instead, focus of policies should be on making it easier for private sector entrepreneurship and innovation to thrive,” Wijesinha asserted.


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