The Sunday Leader

The Cost Of Winning

Campaign spending by the Rajapaksa camp has been unprecedented

By Romesh Abeywickrema

Elections are a costly business in Sri Lanka. They are costly to conduct, costly to contest and yet more costly to win. The cost of conducting the presidential election in ’94 was one third of what it would cost to hold the forthcoming January 26 poll, which would cost the taxpayers of this country a staggering Rs. 1.5 billion. Talk of inflation!
What is more worrying however is the astronomical cost of conducting a decent campaign. If records were ever kept of campaign expenditure, the present Rajapaksa campaign would by now have broken all the standing records by a huge margin.

Never in living memory has a candidate splashed so much money – of both taxpayers and others to win an election. Mind you an election that is being held two years before the due date since the conditions were thought to be favourable for a landslide victory for the incumbent.

Mercifully only he, out of the record number of 22 contestants for the post has such financial muscle – just imagine the state of the city if the other 21 also went about copying the Rajapaksa poster and hoarding campaign!

It seems to have dawned rather late on the President’s campaign team that things are not what they seemed, and that they somehow read the mood of the electorate wrong. How else could one explain the government’s 60x24x7 media blitzkrieg that is being carried out covering all the local media outlets and quite a few internationally?
Be that as it may, the die has been cast and there is no turning back — now it is a question of winning at any cost.

For their part the Fonseka campaign team seem to be playing it lean and mean getting value for their hard-to-come-by contributory rupees and cents. That they have spent their cash wisely is apparent by the stiff competition being offered to the government’s multi million dollar global campaign.

However what usually escapes scrutiny is the direct cost to the economy that comes about as a result of the many concessions and goodies such as pay hikes that are offered on a daily basis to woo voters.

In the past few days and weeks a basket of economic benefits have been offered to every strata of society, which if and when implemented would pile on the fragile economy an unbearable burden. The economic goodies offered on election platforms in the past few weeks by the government amount to a mini budget and a good thing too that a proper budget was not presented in November. For had a budget been presented the deficit would surely have multiplied by now, making it a mockery.

Among the latest offerings is a pay hike for teachers and principals with retrospective effect from July 2009. Add to that the Rs. 2000 allowance promised to the senior citizens, the handsome salary increment and welfare benefits offered to service personnel and various other pay hikes. As things are, the thumping state sector salary bill already accounts for 50% of the taxes collected.

Government revenue on the other hand is likely to shrink with the many price reductions that have been announced. Chief among them is the reducing of petrol prices by Rs. 15 per litre. This price reduction is all the more controversial for it comes at a time world fuel prices have been escalating.

One cannot help but recall the argument put forward by the government when no less an entity than the Supreme Court ordered the government to reduce petrol prices to Rs. 100 per liter in its landmark hedging case judgment last year. At the time fuel was being retailed at Rs. 132 a litre. In an unprecedented move that amounted to a slap in the face of the Supreme Court the government decided to defy the highest court in the land and reduced the price of petrol by a token Rs. 2 bringing the price down to Rs. 130.

The world market price of crude was hovering in the range of $50-60 a barrel at the time. It was widely believed that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation was making unconscionable profits with every litre of fuel sold, yet the government announced that the Corporation was operating at a loss.

Contrast that scenario with the present when world crude oil prices have climbed to the $70-80 a barrel range, the retail price of a litre of petrol has been brought down to Rs. 115 a litre. No economic pundit in the government has so far come forward to offer an explanation on the economics of it all with even the ever-eager to explain Bandula Gunawardena keeping a safe distance from the subject.

Another item where prices could have been reduced much earlier but was not done due to reasons best known to the government is the price of wheat flour. With elections being announced the price of wheat flour was also reduced with a loaf of bread costing Rs. 3 less than before the announcement of the presidential poll. Economic analysts have pointed out that it must take quite an effort on the part of the government to keep a straight face when making these price reductions.

One move that particularly raised eyebrows last week was the sudden decision of the Nivard Cabraal governed Central Bank to relax foreign exchange controls allowing Sri Lankan citizens the freedom to invest in foreign companies and stock markets and also make deposits in foreign banks. The grapevine was working overtime trying to figure out which section of the community would benefit most from this move. Many were the emails doing the rounds opining that this created the required conduit to take out of the country the wealth amassed by certain people over the past few years.

The business community was also worried that funds available for local investment would now easily flow out of the country, with neighbouring India offering lucrative investment opportunities with a rock solid economy and stable political climate.
In the final analysis the cost of winning an election in this third world country is enormous – both for the candidates and also the hapless taxpayers who are called upon to foot the bill for hundreds of state sponsored banquets and tamashas, extravagant campaigns using every conceivable media, abuse of government resources such as vehicles, bungalows, buildings, loss of man-hours due to state officials being used for electioneering, and the economy itself grinding to a halt, for business takes on the business of backing candidates and waiting to see who gets elected before committing to new projects.

And as for the people what could they expect by way of relief on January 27 following this unprecedented plunder of their wealth? If the status quo remains, another, greater dose of the same.

1 Comment for “The Cost Of Winning”

  1. ARUN JAYA

    PRESIDENT BRIBING MASSES WITH PAY HIKES/ CONCESSIONS / PRICE REDUCTIONS DURING ELECTION PERIOD & INCREASE PRICES IMMIDEATELY AFTER ELECTION AS GOVT HAS TO COVER COST OF PRESIDENTS ILLEGAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN. ONLY WAR IS A VICTORY THANKS TO BRAVE ARMED FORCES MEN. OTHER AREAS ARE A FAILIER. NO ONE CAN JUDGE THE ECOOMY ONLY BUY THE BUILDINGS & ROADS THAT HAVE COME UP. ONE MEAY COUNT HOW MUCH HAD GONE TO RAJAPAKSA BROS CO ., FROM THESE PROJECTS.
    IF THE PRESIDENT CANNOT DESCIPLINE HIS MINISTERS OR ACCEPT A SINGLE SHORTCOMMING ON GOVT’S PART, AND DO NOT ALLOW ANYONE TO ENGAGE IN POLITICS AS PER INDIVIDUAL’S CHOICE, THAT PRESIDENT MUST GO HOME.
    IF PRESIDENT HAS FARED WELL DURING 4 YEAR PERIOD WHY DO YOU SLING MUD ON OPPONENTS AT A VERY LOW LEVEL, WHY IRRECT 40 FEET – 50 FEET CUTOUTS, WHY ATTACK USING KUDU MERVYN’S GOONS.
    PRESIDENT HAS PASSED THE SUBJECT WAR ( THANKS TO OTHER GENERALS) BUT HE HAS FAILED ON ALL OTHER SUBJECTS. HE PASSED IN THUGGERY / INTIMIDATION / CORRUPTION.
    GENERAL HAS A DISTINCTION IN WAR . HENCE NEED TO APPOINT HIM AS PRSIDENT.

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