Spoken words and voter’s voice | Daily News


Spoken words and voter’s voice

A mock vote counting session underway in Galle, as part of the EC’s programme of rehearsing for holding the General Election under the “New Normal” conditions
A mock vote counting session underway in Galle, as part of the EC’s programme of rehearsing for holding the General Election under the “New Normal” conditions

The 2020 General Election campaign is moving in to top gear, undeterred by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and is proving to be a contest of a different kind, where public opinion will be shaped by media statements and not by crowd pulling mass rallies.

None of the major parties - the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and opposition parties, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the United National Party (UNP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) will be holding campaign rallies on a mass scale.

Instead, parties and their candidates fighting for preference votes within their own party have resorted to pocket meetings, house to house ‘door knocking’ and greater exposure on social media to launch their campaigns, mostly because of the limitations imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Elections Commission (EC) too has adapted to the current circumstances. There is speculation that although polling will be held on August 5, health concerns could force a delayed count of the vote. As a result, the customary declaration of results overnight is likely to be delayed at this election.

There are also a number of other precautions the EC will be implementing during the election. They include social distancing measures at polling booths, the use of hand sanitizers and requesting voters to bring their own pens to mark their vote and their preferences on the ballot paper.

The EC is also keen to ensure that the poll is concluded in early August, even if the Covid-19 pandemic escalates between now and then. In such an event, the poll could be held on a staggered basis over a few days, officials making contingency plans have proposed.

Maximum health precautions

This will allow the EC to concentrate resources on a few provinces on a given day and conduct elections in that region with maximum health precautions. It could then move on to the next few provinces on the next day and continue this process until polls are concluded for the entire island.

Meanwhile, political parties are also being compelled to adapt to the changes necessitated by the pandemic and are finding that media statements, while gaining valuable exposure for candidates, can also boomerang spectacularly, if a blunder is committed by a particular candidate.

Several such examples were seen in the first few days of the campaign and they proved that even veteran politicians could fall prey to the harsh realities of media exposure, be they former Government ministers or leading Opposition politicians.

One such politician was former Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, now a SLPP candidate for the Kandy district. Aluthgamage grabbed international headlines when he recently said that the April 2011 cricket World Cup final between Sri Lanka and India played in India was ‘fixed’.

Although the ex-Minister, who was Minister of Sports at the time in 2011 said that players were not involved he appeared to cast aspersions on the substitution of four players on the eve of the game. He also said ‘officials’ bought cars and companies shortly after the finals ended with a win for India.  

Aluthgamage’s claims promptly earned a rebuttal from cricketing legends Kumar Sangakkara who captained the Sri Lanka team then, his colleague Mahela Jayewardene, star pace bowler Lasith Malinga and Aravinda de Silva, who was the then Chairman of Selectors for the national team.

Sangakkara stated that the proper process for the Minister is to complain to the relevant authorities. Jayawardena poured scorn on the minister’s comments suggesting that they were made with an eye on the election. De Silva explained why players were substituted and said he was prepared for a probe.

Questions were also raised as to why Aluthgamage waited for nine long years to make his concerns public. It was also queried why he did not act swiftly and promptly if players were being substituted because, as the then Minister of Sports, he had ample powers at his disposal to do so.

Sports Minister Dullas Alahapperuma has announced that the Ministry of Sports will conduct an inquiry but what scope this inquiry will have is unclear as yet. In any event, the overwhelming response for Aluthgamage was negative with the public questioning his motives.

Social media was rife with memes lampooning Aluthgamage and even the mainstream media joined in with cartoons. The former Minister, who has been in Parliament uninterrupted for the past 20 years has now found that the 2020 election campaign is tough going.   

A similar, if not more serious storm of public opinion has engulfed another former Minister of Sports, the UNP’s Harin Fernando. Fernando, who is perceived as an up and coming politician of the SJB is not contesting the 2020 election but is a candidate on the party’s National List.

Fernando ran in to heavy weather when he made comments to the effect that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith dabbled in politics following the 2019 April Easter bomb attacks and in the lead up to the November Presidential Elections that year.

Cardinal Ranjith won the respect of all parties and communities through his conduct in the aftermath of the Easter terror attacks, appealing for calm in the Catholic community and asking them not to retaliate against Muslims just because the attacks were carried out by persons of that faith.

The Cardinal was also however a vocal critic of the then Yahapalana Government’s handling of the bomb attacks and has repeatedly called for an impartial inquiry into the incident and for those responsible to be punished.  

Fernando claimed that Catholic voters traditionally voted for the UNP but that did not occur at the 2019 Election because the Cardinal sided with its rivals. This has led to widespread condemnation of Fernando’s remarks with his own party, the SJB, distancing itself from these comments.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Colombo also expressed its strong concerns. “Derogatory comments against His Eminence were totally unfounded and uncalled for and have been made for cheap political gain,” it said and urged “those concerned to take steps to correct this situation with immediate effect”.

Losing Presidential candidate at the 2019 Presidential Election and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa quickly moved into damage control mode expressing his regrets at Fernando’s remarks and offering an unqualified apology to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.

“I tender an apology to Cardinal Ranjith if the remarks made by Mr. Fernando hurt him in any way" Premadasa said in a statement. “I will not hesitate to tender an apology whenever anyone in our party does some wrong,” Premadasa said in his video message.

Fernando himself attempted some damage control. “A 45-minute speech made by me at a rally in Polonnaruwa was edited into a one-minute clip and released by certain media institutions with vested interests. The edited clip distorts my message,” he said, but the impact of this clarification is minimal.  

Unfortunately for Fernando however, the damage may have already been done. Fernando may be factually correct when he said that the traditional Catholic vote, which usually accrues to the UNP, veered away from the party at the last presidential poll- but it was not because of Cardinal Ranjith.

Many of the Catholic faith opted to vote to for the SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa instead of the UNP because they felt that the Easter attacks could have been prevented if not for the lethargy of the UNP Government and that it did not manage events well, even after the attacks occurred.

Ironically, former Minister Harin Fernando himself is complicit in this because he went public while the attacks were occurring stating that his father had warned him not to go to Church that day. This increased the ire felt by the general public and created the impression that warnings were not heeded.

As Fernando is not running for election as a candidate from the Badulla district at the August election, his comments may not harm his personal prospects. However, it cannot help his party, the fledgling SJB which is in a do-or-die battle with the more established UNP at the upcoming polls.

Campaign comments

Another politician in hot water for comments made during the election campaign is Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, better known as ‘Karuna Amman’. He was a leading member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) but has since turned politician and was a former deputy minister.

Addressing a gathering in Navadinveli in Ampara last Saturday, Karuna Amman is reported to have said that, “when I was a member of the LTTE, I killed some 2,000 to 3,000 Sri Lankan Army personnel in one night at Elephant Pass. I have killed more in Kilinochchi.”

Again, political parties have rushed to distance themselves from Karuna Amman. “We are not in a position to take responsibility for the statement he made as he is neither a member of the SLPP nor a member of our affiliated group,” SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam said.

Although Karuna Amman functioned as a Minister of National Integration in the Government led by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, SLPP General Secretary Kariyawasam said that “Karuna Amman is not maintaining any links with our party; we highly condemn the statement.”

In more fallout for the former terrorist turned parliamentarian, he was summoned to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) to provide a statement regarding the alleged atrocities attributed to him. He was due to do so on Tuesday but has asked for a different date.

In a campaign constricted by the Covid-19 pandemic but still conducted under the harsh scrutiny of social media, candidates are finding that the spoken word is hard to retract. With several weeks of campaigning to go before the poll, voters are likely to see more and more of the same.

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