Policies matter little in Sri Lanka's bitterly fought election

13:48, January 24, 2010      

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Sri Lankan elections are not entirely fought on the basis of manifestos or policy guidelines of major parties and candidates. The current presidential election, scheduled to be held on Tuesday, is no different.

The two main candidates -- incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his main challenger former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka delayed issuing their policy statements until early January from the official announcement on the election in late November.

Fonseka, the man who promises "believable change" wants to exploit the anti-incumbency factor, the corruption and good governance issues.

Rajapakse whilst promising massive infrastructure and economic development on the other hand attacks Fonseka over the former Army chief's alleged corrupt practices in his military career and his lack of experience as a politician.

The two do not agree on the political reforms. Fonseka vows to activate the 17th amendment to the island's constitution. Rajapaksa had chosen to ignore implementing it claiming that it sought to usurp his executive authority.

The president appointed people to man senior public service positions such as the Elections Commission, police and judiciary in violation of the 17th amendment which sought to de-politicize the key institutions. Still Rajapaksa offers a new constitutional package to ensure good governance.

The former Army chief has the move to abolish or curb the present executive presidential system and lift the state of emergency which gives extraordinary powers to security forces and police.

Rajapaksa who pledged in 2005 to abolish the presidency at the end of his first term now declares he would ensure changes to curb its excessive powers. He would make the president more accountable to parliament.

Both woo minorities on the presumption of Sinhala majority vote coming their way due to their roles in the victory over Tamil Tigers rebels. They appeared to be on common ground on the rights of the minorities. Both promise action for rapid resettlement of the internally displaced and assistance to those affected by the war.

Rajapaksa promises a range of measures to ensure political rights for the Tamil minority. He pledges electoral system reform to introduce a proportionate system at the district and national level to ensure political representation of minority political and ethnic groups.

Rajapaksa wants to expand the membership of All Party Conference, which was entrusted to find a political solution to the island's ethnic issue. He would also amend the existing 13th amendment to empower the provincial council system.

Fonseka's national reconciliation plan aims to build a shared Sri Lankan identity and reduce human rights abuses. He seems to lack clarity on his devolution plans as he does not want to hurt his chances both with the majority Sinhalese and the minorities who have come out in support of him.

Economy is an area where the main opposition challenger finds himself trapped. His main sponsors the United National Party with its clear penchant for free market liberal policies clashes with the economic policy of the other main pillar of his coalition, the JVP or the People's Liberation Front. The JVP stands opposed to free market ideology.

Rajapaksa has no such problems. He sets to achieve ambitious 8 percent growth and with it to double the GDP per capita to 4,000 U. S. dollars in his second term.

With pre polls suggesting cost of living to be the main election issue, both manifestos contain several populist measures to bring down cost of living, public sector spending and increasing subsidies. Fonseka's pledge to raise public service salaries by 10,000 rupees (about 87 dollars) remains the most attractive. Rajapaksa's offer is limited to 2,500 rupees (22 dollars). Both however have failed to show how they would find the extra money needed to meet these pledges.

Policies may matter little as indicated in the bitterly fought campaign -- both parties try to undermine the other party through personal attacks and mud slinging.

About 800 election-related cases have been reported since November with five people being killed.

Source: Xinhua
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