As over 14 million voters in a nation of nearly 21 million people wait for the polling booths to open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday to elect the sixth Sri Lankan President, the government responding to the apprehensions of the opposition on possible violence and rigging said that it was committed to ensure a free and fair poll. The polling ends at 4 p.m. and the results are expected to be out by Wednesday morning.
There is consensus among all Lanka watchers here that the January 26 election is not only one of the most exciting electoral contest ever witnessed in the 62 year post-independent history of Sri Lanka but also that the outcome could pave way for the much needed reconciliation among the majority and minority communities and a new economic and social order following the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May, particularly in the war ravaged Northern and Eastern Provinces.
“Having restored peace to the country after 30 years of terrorism, the Government of Sri Lanka is wholly committed to a free and democratic election in every part of the country.
“It was precisely because such elections could not occur in a conflict-ridden situation that the Sri Lanka Government took decisive action last year to end the threat posed by persistent terrorism on the country’s democratic institutions.
“The Sri Lanka Government calls for a peaceful election, and stands committed to taking whatever steps deemed necessary to ensure the same,” the government said in a statement after the opposition combine backing the former Army Chief, Sarath Fonseka on Sunday accused the incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeking a second term two years ahead of his first tenure, of making preparations to snatch victory and prevent a smooth transition of power.
By all accounts, it is a straight fight between Gen. (retd) Fonseka and Mr. Rajapaksa. Till the retired General threw his hat into the presidential race in late October, the election was considered a one horse race with a certain victory for Mr. Rajapaksa. Emergence of Gen. (retd) Fonseka as the rallying point for all the political foes of the President has altered the ground situation dramatically.
Both Mr. Rajapaksa and Gen. (retd) Fonseka, regarded as ‘war heroes’ are expected by conventional wisdom to split the 75 per cent majority Sinhalese vote. Hence, much to the discomfort of the minorities in general and Tamils in particular all eyes are on who they would prefer to see in the presidential chair. Tamils account for 12.5 per cent of the population.
The Fonseka camp, which 24 hours ago raised alarm bells by talking about plans of Mr. Rajapaksa to wage a political coup to rig the will of the people, on Monday sought to bring down the temperature. In a message circulated through an e-mail the Fonseka campaign office said, “Please tell everyone not to worry about rigging - we are taking care of it. There will also be people standing by to help… Just make sure everyone goes and votes. Go in numbers and vote for the change you wish for. You have been great throughout and we are very grateful to all of you!”
Separately, in a press statement, Mr. Rajapaksa appealed to voters for their support and promised a brighter future for the country if he is re-elected. “In my first term of office, I won for you the peace you were yearning for. Without stopping there, I laid the foundation for development in the country, guiding the country towards a strengthened and self-sufficient economy.
“Doing what I say, and saying what I set out to do, I have earned your trust and confidence. And again I ask for your support in this election, so that together, we can continue to bring a “Brighter future” for you, your family and our country.
“By presenting the “Mahinda Chintana - Vision for the future” I am assuring you, of my deep commitment to fulfil your future aspirations as well.”
“We defeated terrorism and separatism, which at one time was thought and told by the whole world to be impossible. We are now ready to lead our children and our nation, to a brighter future, as stakeholders of a truly free motherland. We as a nation have just begun its recovery and started the journey to prosperity, let us all unite, to make this historic juncture meaningful for our country and her future. Together we will make Sri Lanka the “Wonder of Asia”, the statement said.
At a news conference specially convened to brief the foreign media contingents that have arrived here to cover the election the Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama said that all preparations are in place to ensure a free and fair poll.
“I understand through sources from the Election Department that for the forthcoming poll, the Commissioner has deployed 68,000 police personnel plus 25 Army battalions. Each polling station is therefore well secured by both the military as well as the police.
“250,000 Public Servants have been deployed for election duty, either in the polling stations or for purposes of counting. Moreover, senior and well-trained Public Servants have been stationed to monitor and ensure the due conduct of the process in each Province of our country,” the Minister told the foreign media representatives.
Election related violence
Mr. Bogollagama further said he has gathered that there have been 859 reported incidents of election related violence (so far five persons are reported killed in election related violence). “600 of these have their genesis in clashes between supporters of contending candidates that erupted at the time of putting up or removing banners and posters”.
In response to a question the Minister said there 54 foreign observers to monitor the polling process in 11,000 polling booths. The observers are from the Commonwealth and the Asian Election Authority.
At a news conference here on Friday they had said they would monitor the elections in all districts including the Northern and Eastern provinces where LTTE was militarily defeated.
The monitors said they would deploy their members in every district but due to the distance they would not be able to visit all the polling booths. They promised to closely monitor the election violence, but they would not be responsible for enforcing law and order.
Notwithstanding the assurances by the Election Commission and the government on peaceful conduct of the election, a general sense of unease prevails in the island nation. The rise in political temperature was not unexpected as the high stakes are involved for all the key players in one of the most important elections in the post-independent and post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka.
Pitch-forked into centre stage with the support on one hand of the two parties diametrically opposed to each other — the main opposition the United National Party led by former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) and the other, the post-Prabakaran Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the former Army Chief engaged in a no-holds barred attack on the President and his family. The alleged deals of corruption, poor governance, nepotism and improper handling of the issues triggered by the Eelam War IV including the re-settlement of the three lakh displaced are the pet themes of the retired General.
Though the President himself focused in his election rallies mostly on issues related to development and the need for reconciliation in the post-conflict situation, some of the second and third rung leaders of the ruling combine were reckless in their allegations targeting Fonseka and other opposition leaders backing him.
There is little doubt that it is one of the most crucial elections in the 48 year old post independent history of the island nation for two reasons. It is the first much mass democratic exercise in the post-Prabakaran era and it is again for the first time that an apolitical candidate has managed to capture the imagination of the voters in such a short span of time.