By Uvindu Kurukulasuriya –
Re-reading Presidential Election Results Together With WikiLeaks’ Revelations
We all know the level at which Sri Lankan politics stand. So what do we learn from WikiLeaks? The question, as with virtually everything else to do with the leaks, was polarising. There was, from the start, a metropolitan yawn from bien pensants who felt they knew it all.
Arabs do not like Iran? The Russian government is corrupt? Some African countries are kleptocracies? Go on, astonish us. You will be telling us next that the Pope is Catholic. According to this critique the disclosure stated the obvious and amounted to no more than “humdrum diplomatic pillow talk”. (This was from the London Review of Books. Academic Glen Newey said he was unimpressed by the revelation that French leader Nicolas Sarkozy “is a short man with a Napoleon complex”.) This served as fuel for the argument that there was no public interest in leaked cables.
What this argument missed was the hunger for these cables in countries that did not have fully functioning democracies or the sort of free expression enjoyed in London, Paris or New York. This was as powerful a case for the WikiLeaks disclosers as any. It was not particularly edifying to see western commentators and politicians decrying public interest in the publication of information which was being avidly, even desperately, sought after by far off countries of which they doubtless knew little. Who was to say what effect these disclosures would have, even if, on one level, they were revealing things that were in some sense known? The very fact of publication often served as authentication and verification of things that were suspected.
There are 251,287 internal US State Department communiqués, sent from 280 embassies and consulates in 180 countries. Hundreds of journalists around the world have access to WikiLeaks unpublished data and are digging through the cables day and night. Among them were frank and often unflattering assessments of world leaders, analysis, much of it good quality; as well as comments, reports of meetings, summations and gossip. But more importantly they included disclosures of things citizens are entitled to know.
In this context the Colombo Telegraph website, an exile journalism initiative started to break important stories they found on the WikiLeaks database. Last week colombotelgraph.com published some important cables related to the Presidential Election in 2010. A sector of Sri Lankan media accused and published that the election was not free and fair based on accusations by the opposition camp. General Fonseka had alleged vote-rigging and had lodged several objections with Sri Lanka’s election commissioner by letter.
There were dozens of accusations. The biggest question was how President Rajapaksa was re- elected by a victory margin of over 1.8 million votes? The opposition camp claimed the government had pulled off a massive, high-tech fraud operation involving the intimidation of opposition voter-counting observers coupled with computer-based fraud at District Secretariat level and at the Election Commissioner’s office.
A leaked cable shows what Rajapaksa’s chief pollster and close advisor Dr. Sunimal Fernando thought less than a week before the presidential election. It is worth re-reading the allegations together with Dr. Sunimal Fernando’s statements.
Race is neck and neck
“In a one to one meeting with Polchief, President Rajapaksa’s chief opinion pollster and close advisor Sunimal Fernando said their polling figures less than a week before the presidential election indicated the race statistically was a dead heat” US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis wrote in a confidential cable to Washington.
Colombo Telegraph found the cable in the WikiLeaks database and it was classified “CONFIDENTIAL” by Ambassador Butenis. The cable written on 22nd January, 2010, under the name “RAJAPAKSA POLLSTER SAYS RACE IS NECK AND NECK”, further says “undecided voters were at an unprecedented 17 percent, with six percent leaning toward Rajapaksa and eleven percent towards Fonseka. Fernando said the President was doing very poorly in the East, mainly due to the corruption issue, but surprising well in the North. In the Western region, which includes Colombo and its suburbs, Fonseka had been doing well in the city (75 to 25 percent) but recently had begun to slip following television interviews and Rajapaksa’s position was stronger in the Colombo suburbs.
Eight GAs were ordered to send the results to President’s house
The very same day the US Ambassador sent another cable to Washington stating “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 US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis and USAID Mission Director met with about ten business representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the Ampara District and made a separate call on Ampara Government Agent Sunil Kannangara less than a week before the presidential election 2010.
The leaked cable classified as a “CONFIDENTIAL” by Ambassador Butenis under the title “ELECTIONS IN AMPARA: INTIMIDATION AND WEAK ALLEGIANCES” stated: “Business representatives reported that Iniya Barathy, Karuna’s second in command and Rajapaksa campaign coordinator, controlled 600 to 700 armed supporters and had created a climate of intimidation that precluded any expression of support for the opposition. On the other hand, support for Rajapaksa appeared weak…” Ambassador Patricia further wrote.
“80% says Mahinda is corrupt and 85% says his family is corrupt”
Another cable shows what Dr. Sunimal Fernando said just after the election campaign started.
“President Rajapaksa’s chief opinion pollster – who is a good contact of the embassy on other issues – shared with us the first findings from their initial survey.
These initial responses indicated that potential voters had little interest in the symbolic issues” US Ambassador Butenis wrote to Washington.
The cable, written on 26th December 2009 recounts details of a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s chief pollster and his close advisor Dr. Sunimal Fernando. Under the sub heading “PRESIDENTIAL POLLSTER SURPRISED BY GOOD FIGURES” the Ambassador wrote “Only about 10% cared about the president’s creation of a “patriotic society” after the war or his willingness to stand tall against the west. Also, many voters saw the Rajapaksa family as corrupt (85%) and the president himself as corrupt (80%). Despite all his faults, the pollster claimed, many voters still saw Rajapaksa as a man of action and a man of his word and would vote for him over Fonseka.”
Placing a comment she wrote “the pollster prides himself on being one of the few figures in the president’s circle who gives him objective information and is not a yes – man… we find interesting the very high negatives for the president on corruption and apparent lack of voter interest in Rajapaksa’s standard patriotic issues, which could eat away at the president’s positive figures as the campaign progresses”
Commissioner’s bizarre speech was clear evidence
In another confidential cable written by Ambassador Butenis on 1st of February 2010 said to Washington “the Elections Commissioner told poloff on January 28 that he was retiring by February 1, whether the president accepted it or not. … Post contacted his office on February 1 and learned he had come in to the office for
work, presumably to begin preparations for 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 EC on January 27. Wenger reportedly had asked Education Minister Susil Premajayantha why Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, had gone to see the EC shortly before the latter announced the results. Premajayantha became visibly upset and said Basil had been “sleeping” at that time. Opposition sympathizers claimed Basil in fact had gone to force the Commissioner in to certify the falsified results and that the Commissioner’s bizarre speech at the results release was clear evidence he was under extreme coercion. Wenger reportedly said she saw Basil leave the EC office just after the result announcement. One can read the full related cables visiting www.colombotelegraph.com.
Those are the facts of which we knew little. Who is to say what effect these disclosures will have, even if, on one level, they were revealing things that were in some sense known? The very fact of publication often serves as authentication and verification of things that were suspected.