The Political Column

17th September 2000

Rigging a sticky issue before all

By our Political Correspondent

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The controversy over polls stickers still makes news with some parties backing the action of Polls Chief Dayananda Dissanayake but the government appears to be perturbed over the whole issue.

The issue has many facets. The objective of the polls chief is unquestionable because as a responsible and independent officer who has constitutional status he has devised a method to ensure a fair poll.

But on the othe hand, some say one cannot be totally satisfied with his decision to offer the contract to a printer who has little knowledge about security printing or the seriousness of the matter.

While admitting the bona fides of the commissioner, many say he could have given the contract to a reputed firm which would do the job with confidentiality assured. Some say he could have gone for foreign printer. But the problem here is he will then have to inform the government or the Controller of Exchange and through this process his secret plan would have come to open.

Government Printer Neville Nanayakkara told private television that it was not possible to print any secret material at the Government Press, maintaining its confidentiality

Perhaps the only option will be the elections department to have its own press. In the absence of such a press, one cannot blame the commissioner for his decision to grant the contract to a printer if he is satisfied that the printer would do the job the way he wanted.

As soon as the detection was made by the CID, a sample of stickers was taken to Temple Trees, where the President summoned a top level meeting of top government officials, including Attorney General K.C. Kamalasabeyson. Several ministers including Minister G.L. Peiris and S.B. Dissanayake also were present.

One senior official suggested that the Commissioner could be arrested on the available material, but the Attorney General said such a situation would lead to other complications at an election time.

The matter is now before the Human Rights Commission following a petition by SLFP lawyer Ananda Gunatilleke.

The flip side of the story is that a noose has been hanging over the head of the Elections Commissioner since the Supreme Court judgment in a case filed by the Free Media Movement.

The Court issued strictures on the Elections Commissioner for allowing the government to put off the elections for five provincial councils under Emergency Regulations. The court also held that it was the sole responsibility of the Commissioner to hold elections democratically under the powers vested in him by the Constitution.

The court held the following points as the duties of the Elections Commissioner:

*The commissioner enjoys constitutional independence.

*The independence could not be exercised arbitrarily, but was in the nature of a power coupled with duty.

*Presidential immunity from a legal suit does not shield officials who act on the basis of wrongful presidential orders.

*The right to vote was part of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Commissioner should act on his own independently without taking direction from anybody on any high pedestal. He need not indicate to anybody what steps he would be taking to hold a free and fair election. It is solely within his authority and discretion in the exercise of this duty. If the Commissioner is unable to perform his duties within the existing legal framework, then he could go back to the Supreme Court for directions since the Supreme Court has confirmed the constitutional independence of the Commissioner of Elections.

Now the next question that arises is why the government is making a big hue and cry about the Commissioner's decision.

The state media carried articles, statements and other material to cast some doubts in the minds of the people about the actions of the Elections Commissioner. It became a hot debate in political circles with the UNP accusing the government of trying to remove the Elections Commissioner. The party was quick to point out that the Commissioner could only be removed by the President after an address to the parliament and by a simple majority.

Some people say that there is no time for this now. But others say the danger still looms because parliament resummoned to extend the state of emergency will go on until the end of the elections or the expiry of the period of the emergency, whichever occurs first. There are arguments and counter-arguments over the removal of the Commissioner.

Retired Supreme Court Judge K.M.M.B. Kulatunga says such a removal could only come through a parliamentary resolution. Such a resolution has to come before a select committee and any removal could not be proceeded with unless a month had lapsed and that it could be affected only if the Commissioner was proven guilty. The one month period for removal is mainly to facilitate a debate to take place in parliament and there is absolutely no question of a hurried removal of the Commissioner. He quotes Article 103 of the Constitution to support his argument. It states that any removal of the Commissioner "shall be not proceeded with until the expiry of one month. "

Justice Kulatunga says such removal requires a full quasi-judicial investigation into the matter and he rules out the possibility of a parliamentary meeting .

In the circumstances, some critics say the government could demand the resignation of the polls chief who is a heart patient. However, it is unlikely that the Commissioner would give in to any kind of pressure. Already he has been provided with police escort after he found some suspicious characters roaming outside his residence.

Meanwhile, at the party leaders meeting held on Monday, the Elections Commissioner challenged the government to take action against him if he has flouted or abused his powers.

The Commissioner has not abandoned his plan to stick the sitckers on the polling cards to prevent another Wayamba being enacted. He may cancel the earlier sticker and design a new one.

In parliament on Thursday, Minister Alavi Moulana showed a sticker to MPs, saying he obtained it from a trishaw driver. It appears some ruling party members are unhappy over the polls chief''s plan.

Amidst all this hullabaloo over the sticker issue, the internal battles within the PA are also raging. Minister A. H. M. Fowzie is fighting Minister M. H. M. Ashraff, Minister D.M. Jayaratne is feuding with Minister Anurudda Ratwatte, Deputy Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi is having a problem with Minister John Seneviratne and Chief Minsiter Berty Premalal Dissanayake is clashing with Minister H. B. Semasinghe. Apart from the Ashraff-Fowzie clash, the others were largely as a result of competition for preference votes.

Mr. Fowzie dropped another bombshell on Thursday - two days before the tragic death of Mr. Ashraff in a helicopter crash when he issued a press release accusing Mr. Ashraff of sending port workers above 45 years on compulsory retirement and recruiting people during elections. But Mr. Ashraff said he was only filling vacancies.

Minister Ashraff has said he would sit in the opposition in the next parliament and continue to support the President. Mr. Ashraff looked dejected because he could not get SLMC general secretary Rauf Hakeem on the PA national list. His other demand that the Puttalam UC chairman should be reinstated also remains unmet thought the President has ordered Wayamba chief minister S. B. Nawinna to do so.

The president's reprimand on using her picture may have added to the worries of Mr. Ashraff .

On Thursday, Mr. Ashraff had a meeting of the party's women's corps. He invited TULF leader R. Sambanthan to lunch at the residence of the Colombo district leader A.J.M. Muzamil. It was only after his arrival at Mr. Muzamil's residence that Mr. Sambanthan realised that it was an election-related meeting.

Mr. Sambanthan too spoke and wished the NUA success at the elections. But this does not mean the TULF is putting its weight behind the NUA. If that is the case it should have happened in Batticaloa district.

The TULF, it is believed, may win at least six seats in parliament three from Jaffna and three from Batticaloa. But there is a reason to be alarmed because the LTTE is said to be fielding two of its candidates through the TULF list, after forcing two TULF members to step down.

In Tamil areas, the LTTE is conveying a message that the people should vote for a change of government. This could mean that the TULF will not support the ruling PA to form a coalition and it is unlikely that the CWC will gain a good number of seats this time to assist a the PA endeavour out to form the next government. According to analysts, in any case, it is going to be a coalition government. Some analysts say the PA might form a minority government similar to the short lived first BJP government in India . So interesting times are ahead in the political arena of Sri Lanka.

While the government is struggling to get on its feet as the election day nears, the UNP appears to be beaming with confidence. The UNP manifesto is more of promises than of policies. It is pledging to increase the salaries of government servants by Rs. 2000 and the pension paymnt by Rs. 750. The Samurdhi allowance will also be increased to Rs. 2000. A guaranteed price for farm products, job creation programmes, expansion of educational opportunities are some of the attractive promises of the UNP.

The party also spells out to how it will end the war.

The UNP also had a closed-door session with the business community where some important issues were discussed.

The audience was convinced that there should be a change but they were baffled whether the UNP message had reached the grassroots.

There was another question as to how they would work with a hostile president in the event of their victory.

Anura Bandaranaike said the UNP would deal with the President in accordance with the constitution. He said the UNP's fervent hope was that the President would co-operate with them but if she doesn't they would work according to the concept "that Parliament is Supreme."

Answering a question about the formation of the cabinet Mr. Wickremesinghe said that some were in the campaign while some were with him to-day, the others he said "are among you all" hinting that several businessmen in the audience will join his cabinet as technocrats.

While the battle rages to and fro the most important question remains. Is there a proper system devised by any party to prevent mass-scale rigging in polling booths?

The answer is no but the UNP is in an optimistic mood.


What the UNP says

The UNP under two headings "End the war" and "Armed Forces" has spelt out its security policy. Excerpts from the manifesto:

Long-term peace is possible only on the basis of a political solution involving all parties to the conflict. Whenever we stated this position, Chandrika attacked and slandered the UNP. But now she herself has started negotiations with the LTTE through the offices of the government of Norway. When we proposed a short term interim council for the North East consisting of representatives from all concerned parties, this was subjected to massive criticism by Chandrika. Now Chandrika has proposed the establishment of an Interim Council for the North and East for a period of ten years. All this proves two points the duplicity of the Chandrika government and the correctness of our stand.

We will take the following steps to end the war while safeguarding the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

We will start discussions with all political parties, religious organisations and civil society to achieve a consensus on a political solution.

We will open dialogue with the LTTE.

We will work towards de-escalating the war, ending the conflict and restoring normalcy.

We do not propose to make constitutional changes relating to devolution of power until a working solution acceptable to all sections of our society has been reached.

We will set up an Interim Council in the North and East for a limited duration.

We will set up an independent Committee to develop an Action Plan that will address the problems of war victims and displaced persons of all communities.

The UNP has also addressed the masses on what they call "the constitutional scam of the People's Alliance government." Whilst criticising the government for a lost opportunity to change the Constitution after talks with the UNP, the UNP has spelt out the manner in which it would deal with constitution-making.

The UNP also offers a new political order; the UNP's explanation of the constitutional scam and as to how they would do it as follows:

For the first time in history, the opposition the United National party entered into dialogue with the government to find a solution to the most critical problem facing the country today. We did it with all good intentions. Notwithstanding the continuous barrage of abuse and mudslinging by the state media against our leader and the party, the UNP continued to participate in the talks in the national interest.

This was a golden opportunity to create a new political culture in our country. But, Chandrika's foremost interest was to cling on to the Executive Presidency under the new constitution. She was not genuinely interested in negotiating a constitution that would be acceptable to all parties. This was made obvious by her actions. Once the UNP exposed her attempt to continue as the Executive President for six more years under the facade of the new constitution, what did Chandrika do?

All that was painstakingly negotiated up to this point was peremptorily jettisoned. Within twenty-four hours, another constitution that completely negated the rights of the people was presented to Parliament.

Instead of consensus building on a solution to the greatest problem facing the nation, many deceitful and reprehensible attempts were made by Chandrika to bribe members of Parliament. This was done in order to obtain a two-thirds majority to approve the constitutional scam. Thereby we lost a historic opportunity to arrive at a consensus on a constitutional order, which would have been acceptable to the majority of the people.

Ultimately, the people and the UNP were able to defeat Chandrika's machinations to enact this constitutional scam, which was primarily prompted by her greed for power to remain as Executive President.

Frustrated by these events, Chandrika brags that she only needs one more seat in the next Parliament to enact the constitutional scam.

A new constitution can be enacted only with a two-thirds majority in parliament. Even in 1947, the constitution was enacted with a two-thirds majority. In 1972, the constitution was approved by a two-thirds majority of a constituent assembly consisting of all parties represented in Parliament. In 1978, the constitution was passed in the same manner.

This is the democratic and legitimate method of instituting a constitution. Chandrika refuses to follow the established procedure due to her craving for power.

The UNP will begin by creating a consensus on a new constitutional order and thereafter, proceed according to the existing constitution by taking the following steps.

We will abolish the Executive Presidency and introduce the position of a Prime Minister elected by the people who will exercise executive power and who will be accountable to Parliament.

We will reduce the term of Parliament to five years.

We will appoint

An independent Police Commission
An independent Public service Commission
An independent Elections Commission

* Key positions in the public service will be filled on the recommendation of an independent constitutional commission.

We will empower the Supreme Court with the authority to determine the constitutionality of our laws and the responsibility to protect the sovereignty of the constitution.

Parliamentary consultative committees will have the power to review the activities of ministers. Opposition members will have equal responsibilities in these committees.

We will reinforce the fundamental rights of the people.

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