The National Peace Council (NPC)



The government is sparing no effort to ensure victory for itself at the forthcoming presidential election. The opposition alliance accuses it of offering their members large sums of money to cross over. This is rejected by those who have been accused of this practice, which leaves the electorate in a state of disquiet and uncertainty, not wishing to believe the worst in those who ought to be champions of the national interest. Those who join the government do not seem to be negotiating any policy changes. Similarly, the situation where it concerns the various groups who are being provided with tangible benefits would be calculated to make them feel grateful and obligated to cast their vote to their benefactors. So far at least the government appears to be focused only on providing short term material benefits to induce those who join it and the electorate in general.

The problem of ensuring free and fair elections in these circumstances has grown to be so challenging in these circumstances that election monitoring organisations, in an unprecedented manner, have issued a joint statement on this matter. They said that “As election observers, whose primary objective is to ensure a free and fair environment for elections, we are concerned about the prevailing conditions. The sovereignty of the people is foremost in a democracy and the legitimacy of the elected leadership arises from the free vote of a country’s constituency.” The main point that the Sri Lankan election monitors seem to be making is that elections should always yield in an outcome that truly reflects the will of the people.



The run up to Pope Francis’s visit to Sri Lanka was notable for the controversy over the determination of the government to hold Presidential Elections at around the same time. The Vatican is known to have a policy whereby the Holy Father’s presence in a country is not used to purposes of partisan politics by politicians who put power before everything else. In particular, His Holiness will not visit a country for a specified period either before or after an election. This was said to be a month. But it is fortunate for us in Sri Lanka that the Vatican demonstrated flexibility on this issue. It was nevertheless unfortunate that the government’s determination to hold the Presidential Elections around the time of the Pope’s visit led to an escalation of speculation and doubt as to whether this visit would actually take place.

The general environment in the country due to the forthcoming elections is not a positive or reassuring one. Winning the presidency is the goal of both sides. The issues being canvassed at the elections, of corruption, nepotism and betrayal of the country to international interests are highly emotive ones. Violations of election law have occurred on a large scale with the misuse of state property and resources being highlighted by election monitors. There have also been acts of violence that have increased as the election approaches. There is apprehension that the forthcoming weeks will only see a rise in such incidents, which will restrict the space for a free and fair electoral process. There is serious concern that incidents resulting in physical harm to political campaign supporters and members of the general public will increase.



The political campaign for the presidential elections will begin in earnest after nominations close on December 8. With a close contest expected the ethnic minority vote can be decisive. However, the main Tamil and Muslim parties have yet to make formal decisions regarding which candidate they will support. They have said that they await the respective political programmes of the rival candidates before making their choice. Those parties that have been in the government coalition would hesitate to make their choice in favour of the opposition. Not only would it lead to an immediate loss of their positions in the government. The sense of betrayal on the part of the government could lead to retaliation especially in the aftermath of a victory.

However, the position of the TNA which is the main Tamil party is more nuanced. They have been in the opposition and been totally sidelined by the government during the past ten years. There is little that they have been able to do for the people who voted for them and this is visible in the rural areas of the North and East. Some leaders of the TNA have explained their delay in taking a stance due to concern that the government will use any public support given by them to the opposition to discredit the Opposition Common Candidate amongst the Sinhalese voters. But there is another reason that may explain the delay in taking a stance. This is the concern amongst sections of Tamil opinion that a victory for the opposition will be a setback to the gains that the Tamil nationalist cause has been making internationally in recent times.



The continuing defection of government members away from President Mahinda Rajapaksa's election campaign is an indicator of the formidable nature of the challenge faced by the government. The President has a reputation for being able to take on any challenge.
However, what he is seeking to do is unprecedented. No President in the past had the opportunity to contest the elections a third time.
The Sri Lankan voter has had an earlier tradition of not returning an incumbent government to power at elections. This only changed with the presidential system that concentrated power in the hands of the President and enabled ruling parties to muscle themselves back to power.

There is growing apprehension that the coming elections can become violent. The stakes are very high for the contesting political parties. The presidency is by far the most powerful institution in the country. Winning the presidency is the goal of both sides. The issues being canvassed at the elections, of corruption, nepotism and betrayal of the country to international interests are highly emotive ones. Violations of election law are occurring on a large scale with the misuse of state property and resources being highlighted by election monitors. There have also been acts of violence that can increase sharply as the election approaches.



Last week there was an unexpected focus on events that took place 25 years ago and which had appeared to have fallen out of public memory. This was the Sinhalese militancy led by the JVP in a three year period of terror that gripped most of the country and excluded only the predominantly Tamil-speaking North and East. The general belief is that about 60,000 people perished in the period 1988-90. But there is no certainty about the figure. The numbers killed by the JVP were counted by the government at that time which gave precise numbers. These included 487 public servants, 80 of who were bus drivers, 30 Buddhist monks, 2 Catholic priests, 52 school principals, four medical doctors, 18 estate superintendents, 27 trade unionists, 342 policemen, 209 security forces personnel and family members of 93 policemen and 69 service personnel. But the numbers killed by the government side were not counted or shared.

The overwhelming present local and international focus has been on the final phase of the war against the LTTE and this has taken the country’s attention away from those terrible events. But suddenly the tragic past was brought back to life. The media ran several stories on what happened those days. In particular there was a vivid description of the last hours of the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera when he was held in captivity by the government forces. It showed how he was interviewed by the political and military leaders of that time who had been at the receiving end of JVP violence. It showed how he was subjected to their violence. It showed how people can act when they hold absolute power of life and death over those who have been their enemies, and why the laws cannot be silent even in a time of war, or when the war has just been won.



The readiness to politicize any issue came to the fore in the course of the landslide tragedy at Haldamulla. With presidential elections on the near horizon, there was competition to be seen as caring more for the victims than the other. The President, ministers, leaders of political parties and their party members all were seen on the media taking relief supplies to the area and commiserating with the victims. The government had the advantage as it could control access to the area. The media showed visuals of the relief supplies taken by the Democratic Party dumped on the side of the road as they could not gain access to site of the tragedy.

Both the government and Northern Provincial Council also expressed their intention to adopt the children who had been orphaned. The Northern Provincial Council even passed a resolution to that effect. On the other hand, the government said it would send the children to state orphanages. This hasty decision was in contradiction to the established policy of the Department of Childcare and Probation which is that children should be brought up in a family environment as far as possible. It is well known that state orphanages are poorly funded and generally under-resourced. The position of both the government and Northern Provincial Council were in violation of the “best interests of the child” which is the accepted norm both locally and internationally.



The Sri Lankan Airlines flight was full of tourists. But when the flight landed in Colombo nearly all of these passengers set off for the transit lounge. Their destination was not Colombo, which was only a stopover on the way to Maldives. That night Colombo airport was quite empty. The airport’s duty free shops were quite empty too. The staff at these shops stood outside their shops competing with each other to bring in the few passengers who had disembarked and come in through immigration. The contrast was so stark with other airports where the sales staff does not need to engage in high pressure salesmanship. The much advertised success of the tourist industry was not much in evidence at the airport.

Travel advisories of the developed countries warn potential tourists about the dangers they might have to face in Sri Lanka. For example the UK government has issued a travel advisory that states “The security forces have imposed restrictions preventing all foreign passport holders (including British nationals) travelling to the Northern Province. All foreign passport holders planning to travel to the north must get prior approval from the Ministry of Defence. Military activities are ongoing. You should obey orders from the security forces and signs warning of the danger from land-mines. See Local travel – North. Political rallies in Sri Lanka have sometimes turned violent. You should avoid any political gatherings or rallies. See Political situation. There is an underlying threat from terrorism. See Terrorism.”



It looks more and more likely that presidential elections will be called early next year regardless of other consequences. The government spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has announced that Presidential Elections will be held in January. He has also said that he knows the date but will not reveal it. What is happening of the ground also strongly suggests that elections are around the corner. The Elections Commissioner has completed the voter registration process early this year in October and not in December as is usual. The national budget has been presented to Parliament in October earlier than the usual month of November.

It is clearly an election budget as it offers many concessions to the public but for which the sources of revenue are unknown. The days prior to the presentation of the budget saw a massive advertisement campaign in the national media regarding the government’s priorities and the bright future that awaits the country. In addition, the media has been reporting incidents involving the utilization of government resources to prepare for the elections, in the form of poster campaigns and the constructing of stages for speakers to stand on at meetings. However, despite this evidence of preparations for early elections the government will have to be ready for negative fallouts if it goes ahead with its plans.

The media has reported that the Catholic Church is particularly affected following the delay by the government to confirm whether the presidential election is likely to coincide with the Pope’s visit which is scheduled to take place in the middle of January. Under pressure from the Vatican, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has written to President Rajapaksa requesting him to inform the church about the date of election. But there has been no official reply so far. This has put the local church on the horns of a dilemma as they are unable to advise the Vatican which needs to know the situation. The Vatican takes care to ensure that papal visits steer clear of local party political issues including elections. The usual protocol with regard to such papal visits is that they do not take place within one month of an election.



The decision of the EU Court of Justice to remove the ban on the LTTE on technical grounds has come as the government and political parties are mobilizing for snap presidential elections likely to take place in January. The immediate response of the government to the EU decision has been to describe opposition politicians and civil society activists who travelled to the West in recent times as traitors who contributed to the decision to lift the ban on the LTTE. This message is being repeatedly taken to the people by the state media. While the decision is a legal one taken by the Court, and not a political decision by European governments, this is unlikely to impress most Sri Lankans who will tend to see the relationship between law and politics through their own local experience which is not at all positive.

The timing of the European Court’s verdict comes even as the government continues to be investigated for war crimes at the behest of the UN Human Rights Council. The EU legal decision in favour of the LTTE is likely to further strengthen the government’s case to the people in Sri Lanka that the war crimes investigation into it is biased and a threat to national security. The UN investigation into war crimes is described by the government as an international conspiracy to punish the country’s leaders who defeated the LTTE and is to eventually seek the division of the country. This has evoked sympathy and outrage amongst the majority of Sri Lankans. The timing of the EU verdict is fortuitous for the government. It will enable the government to mobilize the nationalism of the people to its advantage.



During the Uva provincial council election last month the President Rajapaksa thanked the visiting Chinese President for having bestowed economic assistance on the country and reduced the price of petrol and electricity. This time there was no Chinese President to share the credit with. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed that the price of cooking gas should be reduced. The government is aware that economic considerations loom large in the minds of the majority of the electorate. During his ongoing visit to Jaffna and the Northern Province, the President is making major offerings to the people, of land, jobs and subsidized motor cycles, to mention but a few. Despite the high level of economic growth reported by the government, economic hardship badly affects the life of the masses of the people. If the economic concessions at the Uva elections were a precedent, the package of economic benefits to the electorate at this time points to imminent elections.

It is said that astrologers have warned the President that his star is on the wane and will wane faster after March of next year. This is not a particularly stellar prediction. Most political commentators in media and general life are in agreement that the government’s popularity is on the decline, which is not surprising as the Rajapaksa-led government has been in office for nearly ten years. The results of the Uva Provincial Council election were a confirmation of the fall in popularity. Whether it is written in the stars or not, the sooner a presidential election is held the better it will be for the government. This makes early January, which is the earliest in which an election can be held, the most likely time. However, there is one serious problem that arises, and that is the pre-planned and agreed upon visit by Pope Francis to Sri Lanka for which the Catholic Church has been making preparations.



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