Thursday, 26 February 2004  
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Put an end to vote-catching deals

Most readers wouldn't have taken long to figure out the motives behind efforts by the Government to purchase land at a price, which has not been approved by the Government Valuer as yet, for the purpose of going ahead with the Oluvil Port Development Project.

A Cabinet Paper was hurriedly presented at the Cabinet meeting of February 17th with the express intention of putting the transaction through with hardly a care for accepted procedure and the President has understandably taken exception to this irregularity.

It is not without interest that a prominent Government politician who held the relevant subject has now parachuted himself to the Digamadulla district which is the site of the prospective port, for the purpose of contesting the upcoming poll. Even a school boy would be able to see in this hurriedly put through deal an effort to catch votes and voter goodwill.

Considering the fact that Rs. 555.8 million was at stake, this couldn't be cursorily dismissed as an attempt to disburse pre-election "goodies" of a minor kind. There is in this transaction, a crooked hand of power abuse, and we hope the relevant probe would swiftly follow to reveal the whole truth of the case.

In fact, this opportunity should be taken to put a halt to pre-election power abuse of this kind. When the party in power wields its authority just before an election, to disburse the resources of the State in an effort to swell its vote bank, a dangerous distortion in the governing process could be said to have set in.

Besides constituting power abuse, such practices put the ruling party at a distinct advantage over its rivals, making short work of the norms of justice and fairplay, in the process. Therefore, the President's intervention couldn't have been more timely.

While lauding the President's action we would like to point to the loopholes in the law and in the administrative regulations which make such practices by ruling parties possible in the run-up to a national poll. One is reminded of the privatization of the management of plantation companies prior to the 1994 general election, in a similar effort at vote catching.

The time is ripe to rectify the deficiencies in the law which permit these abuses. The State machinery should be in place to ensure accountable conduct on the part of incumbent regimes.

Let not the Family Silver be bartered away for a mess of pottage.


People Power

People power. Two words that say it all. These two powerful words fused into one on February 25, 1986 when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Manila, defying tanks and troops, calling for the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. They proved that no dictator could ignore the people's wishes.

The people succeeded. Marcos, who ruled the Philippines for 20 years, was forced to flee into exile in Hawaii, where he died in 1989. His family was later allowed to return home and still face numerous civil and criminal cases.

The Marcos family lived in the lap of luxury, zapping the country's wealth, while the people drifted into a widening chasm of poverty.

Eighteen years later, the memories of 1986 still linger in our hearts. The spontaneous outpouring of public anger against the machinations of a power-hungry despot changed the face of politics worldwide.

Today, the Philippines' leaders are firmly committed to democracy. It is just two months away from another Presidential Election, which will be contested by President Gloria Arroyo, movie icon Fernando Poe and several other candidates. Arroyo herself was swept into office by a popular revolt that toppled Joseph Estrada in 2001.

The challenges confronting the winner of the May 10 Presidential poll are many and varied. Some, such as poverty and unemployment, are common to all developing countries. Other issues are more complex. Tackling separatism and terrorism, as well as achieving peace, must be on the agenda of the next President.

Peace talks have already been initiated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting to set up an Islamic state in southern Philippines. President Arroyo has indicated that the talks could move faster if some cases against MILF leaders are dropped. Her government is striving to resume peace talks with the MILF by April.

The use of the Philippines as a 'base' by terrorist cells is even more worrying. Abu Sayyaf guerrillas staged two attacks in southern Philippines last week. Their group has been linked to al-Qaeda.

As Sri Lankans have experienced, there are no easy answers to these issues. The path ahead may be difficult, but 'people power' will remain a potent weapon as the Philippines enters a new era.

British Council

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