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'The Government Machine was Used to Rig the Poll'
Web-only interview with Sri Lankan opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe

October 12, 2000
Web posted at 11:50 a.m. Hong Kong time, 11:50 p.m. EDT

As an estimated 75% of Sri Lanka's 12 million eligible voters cast their ballots on Oct. 10 to elect members to the 225-seat parliament, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the main opposition United National Party (UNP), spoke to reporter Waruna Karunatilake. Edited excerpts:

TIME: How critical is this general election for the future of Sri Lanka?
Wickremesinghe: It is very significant because this election will determine whether Sri Lanka will move forward as a developed economy, or stagnate and deteriorate.

TIME: What are the main differences between the United National Party and the ruling People's Alliance (PA) in terms of economic policies?
Wickremesinghe: The UNP has a track record of good economic management and practical policies. The UNP has always supported liberalization and joining the global economy. PA's record has been one of a socialist party, which now claims to have adopted free market policies. They know the phraseology but they are unable to comprehend how a free market operates and neither do they have the capacity for managing the economy.

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TIME: The key issue facing Sri Lanka is the ongoing separatist war [with the Tamil rebels]. How would you tackle that problem?
Wickremesinghe: We would look at a political solution to bring the war to an end. That would mean talking to all the parties represented in parliament, Tamil groups, and the Buddhist clergy to find a common position. Then we'd go ahead with talks with the Tamil rebels. We would also manage the armed forces in a professional manner -- officers would be competent, only weapons that were needed would be purchased, and we would fight corruption.

TIME: President Chandrika Kumaratunga has said that she can win the separatist war, and end the ethnic problem by introducing a new Constitution. Do you think the war can be won militarily?
Wickremesinghe: It would be difficult to win the war militarily. In the last six years the war has been mishandled. And the resources of the nation have been sucked into the war.

TIME: What were some of the other key issues in this election?
Wickremesinghe: They include the cost of living, unemployment, education, and the destruction of the agriculture sector. The cost of living has increased -- in the last six months it has become unbearable and lots of people can barely make ends meet. Unemployment has gone up. There is no foreign investment, and local investment has slowed. Education is in a mess: the recent reforms have not taken root. Trying to combine the British system with that of the United States has also come under a lot of fire. We are the only country to try to do that. The system is outdated. The liberalization of imports of agricultural produce has also resulted in the total collapse of the agricultural sector. The government had not looked at the futures market when allowing imports to come in, and did not allow farmers to become competitive. If there was a planned program where farmers became more competitive, then they would have survived.

TIME: What are the sectors in the economy that Sri Lanka has the potential to do well in?
Wickremesinghe: We have identified many sectors, including tourism, information technology, telecommunications and financial services. And we still have room to improve our apparel industry.

TIME: Are you satisfied with the way the election was conducted?
Wickremesinghe: We are concerned about the activities in some areas. In the whole of the Kandy district, there was no free and fair election. The government machine was used to rig the election in favor of certain governing party candidates. This is so of some other constituencies as well. In other areas, thanks to the presence of European Community monitors and Commonwealth observers, the elections have been conducted free and fairly, as much as possible, and the outcome will not be affected adversely. But what has happened in other electorates is quite alarming and we have to take steps now to correct it.

TIME: One of the issues referred to in every election in the past 20 years or so is democracy itself. Why is that?
Wickremesinghe: Firstly, our constitutional development has not kept pace with individuals' rights. We have a chapter on fundamental rights in the Constitution of 1978, but its scope is restricted. The Supreme Court also still does not have the power to strike down passed legislation that conflicts with the Constitution. These are issues that came up in different elections. But what is now worrying is that for the first time the concept of free and fair elections is under threat. This was not so previously. We have to be able to handle basics things like ensuring free and fair elections in this country.

TIME: If you come to power in this election, what would you do to ensure free and fair elections?
Wickremesinghe: First of all we would introduce an Independent Elections Commission. Similarly, we'd have a commission to guarantee the independence of the public service and the police. During elections they would come under the control of the Elections Commission. There are other changes, like reducing the life of parliament to five years from the current six years. These are some of the initial steps we want to take.

TIME: What about the executive presidential system itself? There is widespread opposition to the system in the country.
Wickremesinghe: We support the abolition of the presidential system. We want a Prime Minister who is elected by the people, very much like the Israeli system.

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