There are only two days to go before the country will decide whether President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be re-elected to the office he pledged to abolish or whether the promised change offered to the electorate by General Sarath Fonseka, the contender backed by forces as disparate as the UNP and JVP, will be given the opportunity to lead this country. Both candidates have predictably forecast victory for themselves. They well know that if the runner does not project supreme confidence in his own cause, supporters will be demoralized. So what they claim must naturally be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. Whatever the preference of individual voters may be, the whole country wants a free and fair election without the violence we have seen in the run-up to poll. That, hopefully, is what we will have despite some inauspicious signs to the contrary.
The pundits have professed that had the president foreseen who the challenger would be, he may have had second thoughts about calling this election two years ahead of time to cash in on the war victory. Apart from that, parliamentary elections are due by April and Mahinda Rajapaksa, a consummate politician, knows better than most that a handsome victory for himself on Jan. 26 will augur well for the UPFA in April or even earlier. It is very likely that parliament will be dissolved in days if the president wins handsomely or even comfortably come Tuesday. If the finish is close, or Fonseka pulls it off as his aficionados claim he will, a whole lot of new considerations will come into play. Although there is limited time for maneuverability given the constitutional imperative that parliament, unless sooner dissolved stands automatically dissolved six years after the previous election, those who will call the shots will seek the best advantage for themselves.
While we await the poll and the results, hoping and praying that there will be no violence or untoward events, it will be useful to reflect on what this contest has taught us. Lankans are all too well aware that incumbents, to whatever degree, have long abused state resources and public property in seeking self-perpetuation by re-election. Nobody s hands are clean on this score. Laws are brazenly flouted and a coterie of sycophantic public officials is at the beck and call of the power wielders to do all manner of election related work on behalf of their patrons. Accounting officers close their eyes to the misuse of state property in their charge. Most often such election work is done at public cost and the workers duly rewarded also at public expense if the right horse wins. This malady seems to have been particularly bad this time round and efforts to curb such malpractice have been at best half-hearted or non-existent in most instances. We say this with the knowledge that that public memory on how those who today point accusing fingers at their opponents behaved when the boot was on their foot has faded with the years. A major cause for concern is that the situation becomes worse, not better, with each succeeding election. A writer on this page last week blamed the sorry lack of public opinion on this score on our intellectuals and correctly called for an attitudinal change. This is something that will find resonance in the minds of thinking people.
At what might have been his last pre-election press conference, Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake on Friday admitted that the election authorities had some problems with the police earlier but the situation had since improved. While it must be freely conceded that the commissioner and his staff have a very difficult job to do, compounded by an obvious lack of independence by the police, if the elections chief was less reticent about failures and publicly reprimanded wrong-doers, the results may have been better. Dissanayake deserves public sympathy for being compelled to continue as Elections Commissioner well beyond his retirement age due to the non-appointment of the Elections Commission in terms of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. He has soldiered on beyond the call of duty and has been reported in the press to have indicated that Tuesday s will be his last election. If this is correct, does it means that he has an assurance that the long delayed Elections Commission is at last being appointed? Or is there some other means of replacing him in the short term given the fact the parliamentary election must be held by April? We do not know, but Dissanayake himself may possibly enlighten the country in the next few days.
At previous elections, the commissioner has threatened to annul the poll in divisions where there have been irregularities. There have been no such warnings this time round perhaps for the reason that the election chief does not anticipate such an eventuality. All those who value democracy will hope that such will be the case. Although he has in the past avoided extreme measures as any good public officer would, he would no doubt use the full force of the law if the occasion demanded it. The way in which the state media conducted itself during the campaign period had earned the commissioner s displeasure and he withdrew the competent authority he appointed to ensure fairer coverage in the context of non-cooperation by the media bosses. He has not gone public on whether he is vested with the necessary lawful authority to enforce compliance.
Dissanayake did not take questions at his press conference on Friday as he feared that his replies may be distorted to suit particular agendas. He promised that he would answer questions after the election. He cannot be faulted on his assessment that losers will always complain. The people will be happy that he projected confidence that the election will be free and fair with a number of safeguards in place to assure this objective. Dissanayake s complaint about the long list of runners at this election compelling wasteful expenditure will also resonate among the people. While it is the commissioner s job to ensure a proper and orderly election, the business of law enforcement lies squarely with the police. There have been obvious lacunae in this area, largely in the matter of illegal propaganda displays. It is clear that the law needs tightening in this area and it will be the business of parliament to either do so in the light of recent experience or alternatively remove unenforceable provisions from the statute.