By Uvindu Kurukulasuriya –
If a ‘scoop’ is the true measure of a reporter, then Greg Palast is one of the best, wrote John Pilger in his book Tell Me No Lies. It was the indefatigable Palast who exposed the theft of voting rights from more than 50,000 people in Florida during the US presidential election in 2000. This enabled George W. Bush to ‘win’ Florida by 537 votes and helped him ‘defeat’ Al Gore for the presidency. So close was national vote that the Supreme Court, stacked with conservatives, handed the election to Bush. How this happened is no less than amazing.
Palast discovered that the Republicans had spent almost their entire budget for Florida conducting a computer hunt for black voters, so they could be de–registered. Letters were sent direct from the office of Governor Bush, instructing country supervisors not to register ex felons if they had been given clemency by other states and were entitled to vote under Florida law.
Palast, who often work from London, broke the story in The Observer. His scoop was published in the United States only in the small–circulation weekly The Nation the following February, after Bush had been declared the winner. It took the Washington Post, scourge of Watergate, seven months to report it. The New York Times finally reported it on 16 February 2004.
The following is an extract from Greg Palast’s subsequent book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (2003).
“In days following the 2000 presidential election, there were so many stories of African–American erased from voter rolls you might think they were targeted by some kind of racial computer program. They were.
I have a copy of it: two silvery CD–Rom disks right out of the office computers of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Once decoded and flowed in to a database, they make for interesting, if chilling, reading. They tell us how our president was elected – and it wasn’t by the voters.
Here’s how it worked: mostly, the discs contain data on Florida citizens – 57,700 of them. In the months leading up to the November 2000 balloting, Florida Secretary of State Harris, in coordination with Governor Jeb Bush, ordered local elections supervisors to purge these 57,700 from voter registries. In Harris’s computers, they are named as felons who have no right to vote in Florida.
Thomas Cooper is on the list: criminal scum, bad guy, felon, attempted voter. The Harris hit list says Cooper was convicted of a felony on 30 January 2007. 2007? You may suspect something’s wrong with the list. You’d be right. At least 90.2 per cent of those on this ‘scrub list’, targeted to lose their civil rights, are innocent. Notably over half – about 54 per cent – are Black and Hispanic voters. Overwhelmingly, it is a list of Democrats.
Secretary of State Harris declared George W. Bush winner of Florida, and thereby president, by a plurality of 537 votes over Al Gore. Now do the arithmetic. Over 50,000 voters wrongly targeted by the purge, mostly blacks.”
In the Sri Lankan presidential election of 2010, the final turnout was 74.5%, with 10,495,451 voting out of the 14,088,500 voters registered. Of these, 10,393,613 were ruled valid votes, with 101,838 rejected. According to the end result, Rajapaksa was elected to a second term of office with 6,015,934 votes, or 57.88% of the vote. Fonseka finished second with 4,173,185 votes, or 40.15%. Fonseka announced that he did not accept the results, and that legal action would be taken. The biggest question was how President Rajapaksa was re-elected by a victory margin of over 1,842,749 votes? The opposition camp claimed the government had pulled off a massive, high-tech fraud operation involving the intimidation of opposition vote-count observers, coupled with computer-based fraud at District Secretariat level and at the Election Commissioner’s office.
But where is the Sri Lankan Greg Palast? Everybody forgets and moves on from election to election. The election monitors are also the same. They monitor an election, publish a report at the end, and then forget about the underlying issues. The public cannot see any attempts to investigate what really has happened in elections. At least for presidential election there should more detailed investigation into the underlying issues.
In the 2010 presidential election it seems even the President’s close friends, advisors and pollsters did not quite believe the result. For instance, a leaked US Embassy cable shows what Rajapaksa’s chief pollster and close advisor Dr. Sunimal Fernando thought less than a week before the presidential election. Sunimal Fernando said to US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis that their polling figures less than a week before the presidential election indicated the race statistically was a dead heat. He said the race was neck and neck. So, how did Rajapaksa win the election by such a huge margin? That is the question that should be investigated. Such an investigation will help to prevent future election frauds.
As I wrote two weeks before, another leaked cable says, “The president’s campaign had ordered eight GA’s including those in Ampara, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa to send election results directly to the president’s house for his review before sending them to the Election Commissioner.” The government ordered Swiss Journalist Karin Wenger to leave the country, although after heavy criticism from the international community, the government reversed its decision and allowed Ms. Wenger to stay. It was widely suspected that the government was unhappy with her because she asked questions at a government news conference about the location and status of the Election Commissioner on 27th January 2010. Wenger reportedly asked Education Minister Susil Premajayantha why Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, had gone to see the Election Commissioner shortly before the latter announced the results. Wenger reportedly said she saw Basil leave the Election Commissioner’s office just after the announcement of the result. Opposition sympathizers claimed Basil in fact had gone to force the Commissioner to certify the falsified results, and that the Commissioner’s bizarre speech at the results release was clear evidence he was under extreme coercion.
The personal lawyer of the Election Commissioner, Elmore Perera challenged him, Dayananda Dissanayake, just after the presidential election to appear live on TV and truthfully divulge to the country where, and with whom, Disanayake and his wife were between 3.30 p.m. on 26th January 2010 and 4.45 p.m. on January 27th 2010. He wrote an open letter to Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake under the title “A Free and Fair Election – An Impossible Dream?”
This week the Colombo Telegraph revealed another confidential leaked US Embassy cable, which details reasons behind the transfers of police and senior Army personnel just after the presidential election. According to the cable, US Embassy’s local-hire security investigator spoke on 2nd February with Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police Gamini Nawaratne, who was assigned to the Elections Commission. Ambassador Butenis wrote, “Nawaratne confirmed media reports that 150 police officers were being transferred because they had ‘showed bias’ during the elections, which Nawaratne interpreted to mean they either had failed to provide support to the government’s campaign or they had tried to prevent election fraud by the government. Nawaratne implied that the government was putting the transferred officers into positions where they could have less of an impact on the upcoming general elections. Elections law in Sri Lanka prohibits transfers or promotions of military or government officials during an election campaign.”
So, what does this imply? Today lying to media saying the election was free and fair, and next day saying something completely different to the US Ambassador. This is the man who is going to be next Inspector General of Police in this country!
How did the Rajapaksa’s game play at the ballot box? Was it an elaborate rigging operation conducted with the assistance of computer technology? Was this rigging the work of the Rajapaksas or the state election chief, or both? It is unlikely we will ever discover the truth, but we can see the consequences. The American press and the civil society managed to investigate and expose Bush’s hi-tech computer based election fraud even at some point after the election. Would we be able to do the same in Sri Lanka?