Campaigns gather steam amidst hurdles | Daily News


Campaigns gather steam amidst hurdles

Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne and Attorney General Dappula de Livera addressing Police and Prison Officials
Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne and Attorney General Dappula de Livera addressing Police and Prison Officials

As candidates and political parties gradually increase the tempo of their campaigns, the new health guidelines, which are meant to balance electioneering and public safety in the face of COVID-19, have been made law with effect this week.

With the issuance of the relevant gazette by health authorities, law enforcement authorities are empowered to prosecute anybody who flouts the given safety protocols during election campaigns.

On top of these ‘New Normal’ health precautions, which considerably restrict the space for candidates and political parties to reach out to the masses, the NEC’s sudden decision to tighten the ground rules pertaining to election propaganda activities perturbed them further.

The country’s age-old Election Law prohibits the display of posters and cut-outs even at candidates’ election offices, but the NEC had been lenient on this provision in the many elections held in recent years. It had been the practice of election authorities to come up with temporary provisions with the concurrence of political parties when an election is round the corner to be more pragmatic. Changing this previously agreed position, the NEC, in a meeting with political party representatives and election watchdog groups last week, asked them to stick to the Law as it is this time.

There was not a single party which did not complain about this decision, and the election monitoring groups were also on the same page with political parties on this matter. They observed that this could affect a level playing field as less affluent candidates and new comers would have less space to promote their preferential vote numbers.

The 7,400 odd candidates, who are vying for 196 slots of the country’s 225-membered legislature, are already in a tight race to bag more preferential votes. Not all candidates can afford the current rates of print and electronic media advertisements and visibility in social media also depends on money to some extent.

The political parties of all hues requested the Commission to reconsider its decision as other campaigning methods such as public rallies, distributing leaflets and house to house visits are also limited under the prevailing circumstances.

Political platforms heat up

The political discourse, which was rather dormant owing to the Coronavirus pandemic, has sprung back to life with the election heat. Three separate statements by former MPs Harin Fernando, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias “Karuna Amman” and Mahindananda Aluthgamage dominated the news cycle this week whipping up controversy.

Former Deputy Minister and one time LTTE Commander Karuna Amman put his foot in his mouth when he, reacting to a political remark by a regional politician in the East, said, “I agree that I am more dangerous than COVID-19. When I was a member of the LTTE, I killed some 2000 to 3000 soldiers in one night at Elephant Pass, as opposed to the number of lives claimed by COVID-19 in Sri Lanka. I have killed more in Kilinochchi”.

This statement made at a pocket meeting in Ampara raised a furore, and the Opposition picked it up instantly to score a political goal. As controversy was brewing, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) distanced itself from Muralitharan stating that he was contesting from a totally different party named ‘Ahila Ilankai Tamil Mahasabha’.

On the instruction of the acting IGP, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has now commenced a probe into this alleged statement, and the former Deputy Minister has been asked to be present at the CID to record a statement.

Meanwhile, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) heavyweight Harin Fernando received backlash for accusing His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith of “playing politics” during last year’s presidential poll. In a thinly veiled criticism, he alleged that the Cardinal’s actions caused them to lose five per cent of swing votes of the Catholics in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.

The Catholic Church immediately deplored this statement, stressing that it has always been impartial in its political stand. “We are shocked by this attack and expressly condemn such a misconstrued criticism of His Eminence, especially when Harin Fernando himself had openly confessed that his father had warned him of the impending disaster, prior to the incident and prevented him from going to Church. Lest one forget, it was His Eminence who gave leadership to a country wrecked in political turmoil and it was solely due to his efforts that clashes between the different communities were prevented in the aftermath of the tragic Easter Sunday bomb blasts,” the Catholic Church’s statement read.

In an effort to control damage, SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa apologized for the statement on behalf of Fernando.

Match fixing claims

In a different turn of events, former Sports Minister Aluthgamage dropped a bombshell by going public with an explosive allegation that the 2011 Cricket World Cup Final between India and Sri Lanka was “fixed”. This shocking revelation sent a collective chill down the spine of the cricket-loving nation, prompting incumbent Sports Minister Dullas Alahapperuma to order a full-scale investigation into the match-fixing claims.

Aluthgamage reiterated that he made the claim with absolute responsibility, but while saying so, he refrained from exposing any concrete details to corroborate his accusation. “I would not involve the cricketers in this. However, certain groups were definitely involved in fixing the game,” he said also demanding an investigation on “how certain cricket officials” allegedly bought “car companies” and started new businesses “within a year of losing the match”.

Many cricket fans were perplexed why Aluthgamage was making these allegations after nine years and whether he was trying to steal the limelight ahead of the Parliamentary Poll as such tactics were not unheard of in politics. However, this was not the first time the final of 2011 Cricket World Cup came into question. Similar allegations by cricketer-turned-politician Arjuna Ranatunga, who captained the country to its 1996 ICC World Cup victory, sparked controversy in July 2017.

In an exciting WC final match on April 2, 2011 at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, India defeated Sri Lanka by six wickets in the 49th over, successfully chasing a total of 274 set by Sri Lanka, to win its second World Cup title after 1983. Following the fresh allegations by Aluthgamage, cricket legends Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayewardena and Lasith Malinga came forward to demand more evidence and a proper investigation into the claims.

Prisons under scrutiny

Another interesting development over the week was how Defence Ministry Secretary Major General (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne and Attorney General Dappula De Livera came down hard on the corrupt practises in prisons.

It could be seen that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is determined to clean the prisons by turning them inside out. A systemic overhaul has begun with the recent change of heads in the Prisons Department and new Commissioner General Thushara Upuldeniya has been entrusted with the difficult task of stamping out corruption and preventing the many irregularities taking place in prisons.

The Defence Secretary addressing senior prison officials last Thursday made it clear that aiding the criminals and drug peddlers, who are in the cells, would no longer be tolerated and that prison officials would be closely supervised.

In a persuasive speech he said, “If a remanded drug user comes out of the prison as a drug dealer, there is something radically wrong in the system. Ask your conscience whose fault it is. Never let yourself regret in retirement over feeding and educating your children with money given by organised criminals. Leave the service, as a member of a respectable and proud profession, one day”.

Next day, the top prison officials were subjected to a 48-minute harangue by Attorney General (AG) Dappula De Livera when he visited Colombo Remand Prison on the invitation of the Commissioner-General of Prisons. The entire video was shown by several TV channels.

Becoming the first AG to visit a prison institution in an official capacity, he minced no words in describing the sorry state of affairs in the country’s prison system, adding that public trust in it is lost as prison guards are found to be conniving with inmates. “Send me the names of corrupt officers, I will take care of the rest,” De Livera warned also adding that he does not like wasting time.

With the authorities breathing down the prison officers’ neck, business as usual will not be possible in prisons and those who do not toe the line will be in trouble. This is an opportune moment for the prison officials to turn the searchlight inwards and correct themselves to be in a better position to correct others. 

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