By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
It was an explosive revelation by any yardstick. The former Questioned Documents Examiner of the Elections Department had determined that the 62 ballot papers found abandoned near the Ratnapura technical college (and marked for common oppositional candidate Sarath Fonseka) were authentic and not photocopies.
In most countries the revelation would have caused a furore.
The government would have been on the defensive, casting around for excuses while the opposition would have been on the war path demanding explanations. The media would have been in a digging-frenzy while the public would have been incensed and interested in equal measure.
Not in Sri Lanka. It is more than a week since UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya informed the parliament and the public about this revelation which casts serious doubts about the legitimacy of the 2010 Presidential Election and the validity of its result. But this disturbing and portentous exposure barely made a ripple, inside the parliament or outside.
There were no outcries, no demands for inquiries, parliamentary or judicial. There were no lengthy media interviews with the retired official who made this finding. There was no societal outrage.
When the abandoned ballot papers were discovered, soon after the conclusion of the presidential election, the government claimed they were photocopies. The recent revelation about their genuineness raises a number of questions. When did the former Questioned Documents Examiner make his determination? Who did he inform about his finding? If the Elections Commissioner was informed about this finding why did he not act on it? Why was it kept a secret from the parliament and the general public? Did the President know about it?
Juxtapose the Questioned Documents Examiner’s ruling with two recent Wikileaks cables about the 2010 presidential election, and the composite picture strongly indicates a carefully calibrated exercise of electoral malpractice aimed at padding what could have been a wafer-thin margin of victory for Presidential Mahinda Rajapaksa. Before the election, many commentators concluded that the two candidates were more or less evenly balanced and even though Mr. Rajapaksa will win in the end, it will be with the narrowest of margins – as in 2005.
The first Wikileaks cable sent by Ambassador Butenis to the US State Department on 22 of January (titled ‘Rajapaksa pollster says race is neck and neck’) proves that this analysis was shared by Mr. Rajapaksa’s chief pollster and senior advisor Sunimal Fernando: “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 (Fernando said) undecided voters were at an unprecedented 17 percent, with six percent leaning toward Rajapaksa and eleven percent towards Fonseka” (See the website Colombo Telegraph for the full cable).
When the results came, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had won, not narrowly but by a colossal 17% margin. This, interestingly, was the same percentage mentioned by Rajapaksa advisor cum pollster Sunimal Fernando as the figure of undecided voters, a week before the election.
Does this mean that all or most of the 17% decided to vote for Mr. Rajapaksa in the end? Or did the regime use foul means to pad the President’s majority? The fact that the 62 ballot papers found abandoned near the Ratnapura Technical College were genuine points to the second – malpractice – possibility. So does the other Wikileaks cable sent by Ambassador Butenis: “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” (ibid)
A fascinating expose by journalist Uvindu Kurukulasuriya provides yet another piece of this puzzle. This November, President Rajapaksa bestowed the second highest national honour, Deshamanya, on a Dr. K Pushpa Kumar. This honouree has a nom de guerre – Iniya Barathy: “Who is this Inayapaarathi? He is a man who has been accused of war crimes by the United Nations for forced arms training to children!
Iniyapaarathi is a lead operative of the paramilitary group led by Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan alias Karuna… Iniyapaarathi is at present the Ampara District Coordinator for President Rajapaksa
Iniyapaarathi is also accused of intimidating voters, issuing death threats and of election fraud during the last presidential election, parliamentary election and during the recently held local government elections.
The Kalmunai court had sentenced Iniyapaarathi to a ten year suspended jail term, when he was found guilty in some criminal cases
According to past news reports about ninety percent of affected families that gave evidence before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) at its sittings in Ampara on March 26, 2011 alleged that Iniyapaarathi was responsible for the abductions and disappearances of their husbands, wives and children” (The Sunday Leader – 4.12.2011).
Mr. Kurukulasuriya goes on to say that during a visit to the Ampara office of the TMVP, he, and several other journalists, saw Mr. Iniya Bharathi in the company of child soldiers and an unmarked white van; he provides photographic evidence to prove his charge. The second Wikileaks cable also mentions the role played by Mr. Iniya Bharathy in the Presidential election: “….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” (See Colombo Telegraph).
The question cannot but intrude: was Mr. Iniya Barathy honoured with the Deshamanya title because he helped Mr. Rajapaksa win the Eastern province by foul means? Would the President bestow the country’s second highest honour on a convicted criminal unless that convicted criminal helped save his presidency?
With such explosive revelations floating around, what is the opposition doing?
The UNP is snared in an insoluble leadership crisis. The Ranil Wickremesinghe leadership is dead, has been dead for a long time. But Mr. Wickremesinghe cannot be dislodged, not only because those who oppose him cannot match the determination and the drive he displays in any leadership contest but also because many of them have politically tarnished or questionable reputations.
Karu Jayasuriya would have been ideal leadership material had he not defected to the regime and accepted a ministerial portfolio not so long ago. Sajith Premadasa is wedded to a parochial vision and is conspicuous in his unwillingness to address national issues or be critical of the Rajapaksas, except on trivial matters. Many UNPers, though disenchanted with the disastrous leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, are unenthusiastic about the contenders. Though the UNP still contains potential leadership material of good quality, it may take a while before these younger members are capable of entering a leadership contest as principles.
The JVP too is in crisis. For most of its existence, patriotism was the publicised raison d’être of the JVP. But its patriotism was a Sinhala patriotism, representing a Sinhala supremacist Sri Lanka. In its first incarnation, the JVP fixed its sight on ‘Indian expansionism’ with the upcountry Tamils of Indian origins cast in the role of the Fifth Column cum Enemy.
The transformation of the language issue into an ethnic problem in the 1970’s and the early 1980’s provided the JVP with a far effective slogan and a far better enemy. After the briefest interlude of non-racism, the JVP reincarnated itself as a national socialist party, with a shrill and venomous opposition to devolution as its main political platform. It is in this guise it lunched its deadly Second Insurgency.
After its near total destruction in 1989, the JVP used the ‘Tamil-Eelam-Devolution’ cry to make its comeback. That platform enabled the JVP to grow, to the point of becoming the third force in Lankan politics. Then came Mahinda Rajapaksa, who became the President with the JVP support (and that of the LTTE; without the Tiger boycott Mr. Rajapaksa would not have won the 2005 Presidential election).
As the Fourth Eelam War intensified, the JVP found itself displaced from the patriotic platform it had occupied for almost three decades. Other presidents too had fought the LTTE militarily. But since the Indo-Lanka Accord, Lankan administrations had adhered to a broadly pro-devolution stand. The Rajapaksas were to break this rational mould. Like the JVP and other Sinhala supremacists, they did not believe in the existence of an ethnic problem. Like the JVP, they believed that the problem was purely a military one and thus resolvable totally by inflicting a crushing military defeat on the LTTE.
Like the JVP, the Rajapaksas opposed devolution as something unnecessary; after all if there is no ethnic problem what need is there for a political solution, and therefore devolution? This had been the stand of the JVP for decades. Now the Rajapaksas ascended the same platform, and dislodged the JVP from it. Bereft of the slogan of Sinhala patriotism, the JVP went into an existential crisis.
Had the JVP’s politico-ideological soul had not been so seeped in the poison of national-socialism, it could have moved successfully on to a socio-economic platform. Economics after all is the soft underbelly of Rajapaksa Rule and thus its point of greatest vulnerability. The JVP could also have made an effort to reach out to Tamil people by addressing their concerns, including their need for devolution.
The JVP does play with socio-economic issues and speak about the trials and travails of the Tamils, but as tactical ploys. There is no strategic shift either ideologically or policy-wise. The JVP raises these issues as fillers, to occupy time until it can wrest the patriotic banner from the Rajapaksa hands.
The JVP clearly believes that history will repeat itself and that the Rajapaksa administration will sooner or later succumb to Indian and/or Western pressure and agree to a political solution to the ethnic problem, as the Jayewardene administration did. The JVP is waiting for that day. But as that day becomes more and more remote, and as the JVP’s voting and support bases erode, a mood of political angst envelopes the party.
Uncertain about the present and fearful about the future, the JVP is turning on each other.
The internal crises of the UNP and the JVP are preventing the opposition from doing its job of opposing the government. There are many issues on which the regime can be taken to task – from price hikes to land grabbing, from corruption to waste, from electoral malpractices to abuse of power, from tyrannical deeds to human rights violations.
Then there are international scandals, such as the expose by the British paper, The Independent, that the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger wrote the 2010 UN Speech of President Rajapaksa. Any one of these many issues would suffice for a reasonably strong and cohesive opposition to put any government on the defensive. But all of them put together are insufficient to galvanise our opposition into action. Thus the Rajapaksas remain supreme.