Tuesday, 12 November 2019

2019 prez poll: critical issues ignored



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Government Information Department (GID) invited the media to meet foreign election monitors at the Galadari Hotel today (Nov 13). They are here to observe the eighth presidential election - the third since the successful conclusion of the war in May 2009.

Director General, GID, Nalaka Kaluwewa, requested both print and electronic media organizations to submit two names each for the scheduled one hour meeting. Kaluwewa was acting on Commissioner General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake’s request to arrange a meeting between the media and those from India, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and South Africa. Ratnayake was acting on behalf of the Election Commission (EC).

The European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), on its own has arranged a round-table discussion at the Hilton with the media tomorrow (14).

The EU outfit scheduled the round-table with the participation of its Chief Observer, Marisa Matias, a member of European Parliament from former colonial power Portugal. The EU EOM invited representatives from about a dozen state-owned and private organizations, involved in television, print, research and self-regulation. The two-hour meet with Matias and key members of her team will begin at 4.30 pm.

Matias is also scheduled to address the media at Hilton at 9 am on Nov 13. Both groups of foreign monitors have chosen hotels spared by the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) suicide bombers responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage.

Matias leads the sixth EU EOM here. It would be pertinent to mention that the EU EOM conducted five previous missions, including the parliamentary polls in April 2004. The 2004 mission took place in the run-up to the presidential poll in the following year. Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to promptly act on critically important EU EOM observations further facilitated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-Tamil National Alliance (TNA) attempt to carve out a separate state in the then temporarily-merged North East Province.

The first EU EOM was here in 2000, followed by 2001, 2004, 2005, and 2015. The deployment is always subjected to the invitation of the Government of Sri Lanka. The Elections Commissioner didn’t extend an invitation for EU EOM to monitor the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2010.

Had the then Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government acted swiftly and decisively, following EU EOM missive the in 2004 perhaps the Eelam War IV could have been avoided. Unfortunately, the government, the then Election Commissioner (EC was constituted in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution enacted in 2015) as well as other foreign and local election monitors refrained from backing the EU EOM observations. Veteran politician V. Anandasangaree, one of those who had been on the LTTE hit list at that time, was the only person to demand action against the TNA. The government simply ignored him. The EU, too, conveniently refrained from pursuing the matter.

Cushnahan’s role

Head of the EU EOM John Cushnahan didn’t mince his words when he declared the LTTE as the ‘primary source of the violence’ at the April 2 parliamentary election. Cushnahan quite rightly asserted that the LTTE’s primary aim was to garner a huge majority for its proxy, the TNA, to project it (the LTTE) as the sole representative of the Tamils. The Tigers did so by stuffing ballot boxes on behalf of the TNA in full view of poll observers.

Thanks to the LTTE, the TNA secured 22 seats - it was the grouping’s best performance at parliamentary election. The LTTE threw its weight behind the TNA on the basis of it (the LTTE) being recognized as the sole representative of the Tamil people. The LTTE was afforded the privilege in late 2001.

The EU EOM’s participation, in the electoral process here, should be examined against the backdrop of its role as a member of the Co-Chairs to the disastrous Norwegian peace initiative. Co-Chairs comprised the US, EU, Japan and Norway. In spite of Co-Chairs playing politics with the Sri Lanka issue, the EU EOM had the strength to categorically name the LTTE as the ‘primary source of violence.’ Anandasangaree applauded Cushnahan.

Having won the lion’s share of seats in the North-East, the TNA, acting in unison with the LTTE, ordered the Tamil electorate not to exercise their franchise at the Nov 2005 presidential election. Except Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), no one else condemned the LTTE-TNA move. Those who bitterly complained about the display of posters and banners and hate speech et al, turned a blind eye to what was taking place in the North and East.

Hilton, Colombo: EU EOM Deputy Dimitra addressing the media on Oct 22, 2019. Paul Anderson of the same mission looks on.

Sri Lanka was rapidly heading towards war.

Foreign observers here should be aware of the treacherous past of those who still pretend they represented public interests.

When the writer raised the TNA – LTTE project with Dimitra Ioannou, Deputy Chief Observer, EU EOM, at the first media briefing, she side-stepped the issue.

Asked by The Island why no follow up action was taken in spite of the EU EOM alleging that the TNA won the lion’s share of seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces at the April 2004 general election with the Tiger interventions, including stuffing ballot boxes on its behalf, the Deputy Chief Observer said that she was not aware of the situation then.

In terms of the EU EOM’s mandate to ‘observe and access’, Matias will examine (1) the legal framework and its implementation (2) the election administration (3) candidates and political parties (4) state institutions and civil society (5) media and (6) overall environment including respect for fundamental freedoms, civil and political rights.

The writer at that time pointed out sharp differences between the EU report and those of the other organizations which monitored the poll. "Wouldn’t it be absurd to have varying reports on the April election. But the unprecedented EU report had unmasked all phoney poll monitors," Anandasangaee said, while urging foreign governments, which funded polls monitoring groups, to assess their performances.

It would be interesting to note what the EU had to say about Karuna switching allegiance to the government. "There is a general perception that three of the five election-related murders were backed by the LTTE in an attempt to intimidate other Tamil contestants. For example on March 30, a TNA candidate, who supported Karuna’s split, was killed together with his brother-in-law in Batticaloa. On the same day, the deputy Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture of the Northeast University who supported interests of Eastern Tamils, was seriously injured in Batticaloa."

The EU also reported cases of multiple voting and impersonation in most cluster polling stations.

A President’s Counsel Opinion

The writer sought the opinion of President’s Counsel and former UPFA National List lawmaker M.M. Zuhair’s opinion as regards the impact of the 19th Amendment on the political scene, regardless of who wins the presidential election. One-time Ambassador to Teheran, Zuhair backed Maithripala Sirisena at the last presidential election, in January 2015, and was one of the leading yahapalana proponents. Judging by the rhetoric, political parties, polls monitors, civil society groups and various other interested parties hadn’t examined as to how stability can be restored in the immediate aftermath of the presidential poll.

Zuhair pointed out that incumbent Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe would continue to be in Office regardless of the outcome of the Nov 16 result. In terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, President Premadasa/Rajapaksa would have to work with Premier Wickremesinghe until fresh elections were held.

Following the last presidential poll, in January 2015, UNP leader Wickremesinghe, in an unconstitutional act, was sworn in as the premier in spite of having less than 50 lawmakers under his command. Wickremesinghe succeeded D.M. Jayaratne, who commanded a staggering two-thirds majority in parliament. The UPFA either tacitly, or in fear, approved Wickremesinghe’s appointment. Such a situation is unlikely following this week’s poll.

Zuhair questioned as to how stability could be restored following years of political turmoil and unprecedented chaos since the commencement of the yahapalana administration. Responding to another query, Zuhair pointed out that though Premadasa is on record as having said that he would have a new PM it could not be done in terms of the existing constitutional provisions. Similarly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too, would have to be satisfied with incumbent Premier unless consensus could be reached to dissolve parliament ahead of the stipulated period.

Government strategist Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka is on record as having asserted that there would be a new government before the Sinhala and Tamil New year. However, political parties are largely silent over the period, after the Nov 16 presidential and March 1, 2020, when the parliament can be dissolved by the newly elected president.

Critical issues ignored

People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) – the largest local operation - recently released its second report on the forthcoming poll. The writer raised several contentious issues with Executive Director, PAFFREL, Rohana Hettiarachchi, after his organization asserted that the ongoing campaign was certainly peaceful. PAFFREL commended the current situation declaring the peaceful conduct of the postal vote over a period of four days. Hettiarachchi, actually didn’t find fault with the campaign except for some minor skirmishes, in which the ruling coalition being the victim on most occasions and abuses of political power.

Both local and foreign monitors, as well as political parties, have constantly ignored critical issues that needed to be addressed. The EU EOM round-table can be an appropriate forum to discuss ways and means of improving the political party system. No less a person than former Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, recently admitted that the parliament was the most corrupt institution. Tangible measures are required to discipline parliament. There is absolutely no point in squandering funds (costly EU EOM operation conducted at the expense of European taxpayers) on polls monitoring missions. The requirement is to end corrupt practices through constitutional means, tangible measures to thwart foreign funding/interference in the local electoral process and speedy electoral reforms.

The writer, on a number of occasions, through the print media and television, pointed out the need to stop defeated candidates being accommodated through the National List, ban on crossovers and presidential pardons. Outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena raised many an eyebrow by granting amnesty to Shramantha Jude Anthony Jayamaha convicted of killing his girlfriend 19-year-old Yvonne Johnson. Jayamaha was convicted by the Colombo High Court in 2012. President Sirisena, who vowed to hang those convicted for narcotics offenses, ended up releasing a convicted killer on death row.

In spite of President Sirisena giving up responsibilities as the leader of the SLFP, before the latter pledged its support to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a presidential pardon to a convicted killer should be taken up at the campaign. President Sirisena, while boasting he would implement the death penalty, released a cold blooded killer as he was leaving the presidency though he finalized a controversial deal to retain the President’s bungalow for his use. Can anyone justify presidential pardon to a convicted killer or him being granted a President’s bungalow. President Sirisena is widely believed to be seeking entry into parliament on the National List at the expense of a candidate accommodated on the same after being rejected by the electorate.

Polonnaruwa District MP Wasantha Senanayake, brought the entire parliamentary system to disrepute late last year by switching sides a couple of times within several days. Finally, Senanayake settled as the State Minister for Foreign Affairs. Last week, Senanayake, switched allegiance to SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Television footage showed Gotabaya Rajapaksa quite rightly expressing disgust at the way Senanayake made his entry. Senanayake being carried by people towards Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s platform reminded the disgusting politics, at national level. Will Senanayake seek nomination from the UPFA to contest the 2020 parliamentary election. Senanayake, since his entry into politics has made somewhat of a mockery of himself by such behaviour. Senanayake contested the last parliamentary poll on the UNP ticket to enter parliament from Polonnaruwa district. In the previous parliament, Senanayake represented the UPFA in the Gampaha district.

Tangible measures are required to stop lawmakers undermining the parliamentary process.

Polls monitors should take into consideration all factors. Over the years, poll monitors, both foreign and local, played safe. Their reports side-stepped real issues, while reaping foreign funding. They never took into consideration the real state of politics here.

The EU EOM report that dealt with the LTTE-TNA nexus at the April 2004 parliamentary poll was undoubtedly the most important post-election report received from local or foreign observers. The report established a direct relationship between the LTTE and the TNA parliamentary group beyond reasonable doubt.

In spite of the Cushnahan report, the EU, subsequently, developed close links with the TNA. The EU-TNA relations rapidly grew with the former backing one-time LTTE partner’s push for local and foreign hybrid investigation into highly unsubstantiated war crimes accusations. The EU threw its weight behind the US project to compel Sri Lanka to co-sponsor a resolution in Geneva against its own war-winning armed forces. It would be pertinent to mention that the US funded those opposed to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the tune of millions of US dollars. US Secretary of State John Kerry let the cat out of the bag when he declared that the US spent USD 585 mn for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. What other Western nations towing the American line spent on the project is anybody’s guess. The EU EOM Deputy Dimitra Ioannou side-stepped the issue when the writer raised accusations in respect of the US and Chinese funding political parties.

Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion a decade ago. Those who couldn’t stomach Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE successfully moved Geneva in Oct 2015. The Geneva project suffered a debilitating setback, in Oct 2017, in the wake of Lord Naseby’s disclosure in the House of Lords. The revelation, based on wartime dispatches from the British High Commission, in Colombo, negated unsubstantiated accusations pertaining to the massacre of 40,000 civilians on the Vanni east front in 2009.

But the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) called for an exclusive international war crimes probe in addition to 12 other demands in the run-up to the Nov 16 presidential poll. Lord Naseby’s disclosure tallied with wartime US Defence Advisor Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith’s 2011 refutation of battlefield executions as well as Wiki Leaks revelations. Unfortunately, treacherous current dispensation worked with foul Western interests. Sri Lanka never presented fresh evidence in defence of its armed forces.

Sri Lanka goes to the third presidential poll, since the end of conflict, with the country still being harassed over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

Having introduced the executive presidency with the enactment of a new Constitution in 1978, the first presidential election was held on Oct 20, 1982. Having deprived SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike an opportunity to contest the election J.R. Jayewardene comfortably won the election. Even Hector Kobbekaduwa, who was the SLFP presidential candidate, was not spared, as someone else cast his vote before he could get to the polling station  proving what a mockery wily JRJ’s five star democracy was. Six persons, including Rohana Wijeweera contested the election. Wijeweera secured a distant position with just 273,428 votes - 4.19 % of the total polled. Lawmaker Vasudeva Nanayakkara of the Nava Samasamaja Party, now backing Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was among the six candidates. Terrorism was an issue at that time as Tamil separatist movements were engaging in deadly acts of violence.

The second presidential poll was held on Dec 19, 1988, during the deployment of the Indian Army in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Having joined The Island as a trainee, in June 1987, the writer covered that election conducted in the Northern and Eastern Provinces under the supervision of the Indian Army. UNP candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa, the then Prime Minister of the UNP administration, won the election. Premadasa defeated SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Had the then proscribed JVP reached a consensus with the SLFP, Premadasa could have been definitely defeated. The JVP inspired violence facilitated Premadasa’s victory. In addition to the two main candidates - Premadasa and Bandaranaike - there was only one candidate Ossie Abeygoonasekera, who was fielded by the UNP for obvious reasons. Abeygoonasekera son now holds a government appointment having contested the last parliamentary poll in Aug 2015 on the UNP ticket. Previously, he served President Rajapaksa’s administration. In the following year, 1989 parliamentary elections in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces, too, were held under the supervision of the Indian Army. Abeygoonasekera was killed on Oct 24, 1994 in an LTTE suicide attack directed at the UNP presidential campaign rally, on the night of Oct 24, 1994.

Premadasa was assassinated on May Day 1993. His assassination brought D.B. Wijetunga to power. Wijetunga’s UNP ensured free and fair elections. Wijetunga chose not to contest but facilitated the return of dissident Gamini Dissanayake, whose re-entry deprived Ranil Wickremesinghe of an opportunity to contest the third presidential poll.

Those here for polls monitoring mission must know Sri Lanka’s wretched past.

The third presidential election held on Nov 09, 1994 comfortably won by the SLFP-led People’s Alliance candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The LTTE ensured her victory by assassinating UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake on Oct 24, 1994, at Thotalanga, along with Ossie Abeygoonasekera and several other top UNPers. Thereafter the UNP fielded Gamini Dissanayake’s wife, Srima, who managed just 35.91 % of the vote whereas the then Premier Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga polled 4,709,205 or 62.28%. There were altogether six candidates. Dissanayake’s assassination took place amidst talks between Kumaratunga and the LTTE. In spite of the heinous crime, Kumaratunga entered into formal negotiations soon after her victory.

Incumbent President Kumaratunga (PA) and Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP were the main candidates at the fourth presidential poll held on Dec 21, 1999. Kumaratunga survived a LTTE suicide attack on her final election rally in Colombo to win the election. Had the Tigers succeeded, she would have been the second presidential candidate to die during a polls campaign. Gamini Dissanayake was the first. There were altogether 13 candidates.

The fifth presidential held on Nov 17, 2005 was won by the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa by the narrowest of margins - just 186,000 votes. Thirteen contested the election with Mahinda Rajapaksa and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe being the main contenders. The LTTE-TNA combine enforced polls boycott in the Northern region at that poll. Their move deprived Wickremesinghe of certain victory and, as desired by the LTTE, paved the way for an all-out war that was brought to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009. There hadn’t been a previous instance of the LTTE teaming up with a Tamil political party/grouping represented in parliament to disrupt national elections.

Since the end of the war a decade ago, Sri Lanka held two presidential polls, in January 2010 and 2015. On both occasions, the UNP fielded - outsiders-retired war-wining Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena, respectively, under the ‘swan’ symbol of the New Democratic Front (NDF). Twenty two contested the 2010 presidential whereas 19 were in the fray at the last.

In the wake of the 2015 presidential election, Maithripala Sirisena, with the support of an overwhelming majority in parliament, enacted the 19th Amendment. The new law restricted both the presidential and parliamentary terms to five each. It would be pertinent to mention that Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the advice of his associates, particularly Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena widely dubbed the royal astrologer, called the last presidential poll well over a year ahead of the schedule. Among those advised him against calling for early polls was Maithripala Sirisena before he was enticed by the UNP campaign.

The UNP, for the third time fielded a candidate on the DNF ticket - a party not represented at any level of administration, Local Government, Provincial Council or Parliament, was twice on the fray. Although its first attempt failed in 2010, the second succeeded five years later. Like on the previous occasions, the NDF success will depend on its ability to woo the minority vote amidst the ongoing controversies over the sharply down national economy, security crisis caused by Thowheed attacks, treasury bond scams as well as the move to hurriedly sign USD 480 mn Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant. (To be continued on Nov 20)