26 August 2012

Abuse-free elections

There are all kinds of elections.  We have general or parliamentary elections. We have presidential elections, elections for local government authorities and provincial councils.  There are elections to all kinds of bodies.  So we have ‘election’ preceded by ‘general’, ‘provincial council’, ‘presidential’ etc.  And yet, that’s just description of event and not phenomenon.  The phenomenon called elections are associated more readily with words like ‘fraud’, ‘violence’, ‘rigging’, ‘impersonation’ and of course what has sadly acquired to-be-expected status: abuse of state property. 

We have come far from the days when D.S. Senanayake ‘protected democracy’ with a club.  We saw the hijacking of democracy first with the infamous referendum in 1982 to seek a 50% + 1 majority in order to keep a five-sixths majority in parliament, followed by malpractices at the election itself.   We have lived through the JVP threat, ‘the first to cast a vote will get a bullet’.  We went through ‘Wayamba 1999’.  We had perhaps the cleanest election in recent times in 2004, courtesy the 17th Amendment and the Independent Elections Commission.  We have come far but have a long way to go still. 

Today it is more about intra-party rivalry when it comes to violence. The incidence of violence too has dropped.  And yet, the staggered nature of elections, the considerable sway over the media and other political pleasantries enjoyed by incumbents compromise democracy, both its spirit and substance.  When all factors are considered, it is still hard to argue that recent electoral outcomes would have been reversed had the ruling party did not enjoy such benefits, but that’s a poor excuse for abuse. 

The strength of abusers indicates and is fed by the relative weakness of the people.  Sadly even those outfits which seek, in the name of the people, to play watchdog roles are compromised by party loyalties, preferred outcomes and donor-dependency, not to mention the various anti-people actions by prominent personalities who run them.  Still, even if messenger is compromised, message remains worthy of perusal and cause for concern.  Even if there are no funded-messengers, the people know that elections are not lovely, fraud-free affairs. They are not stupid. 

It is heartening to note that the Elections Commissioner, handicapped though he is by lack of teeth and absence of mechanisms to ensure independence, has decided not to hold back punches in combatting wrongdoing.  Offices used by people who have flouted election laws have been sealed.  Big name politicos known for strong arm tactics are being hounded as we write.  These are laudable acts and welcome signs that the abuse of state resources will not go unchallenged. 

What is abundantly clear is that despite ample evidence to the effect that for all its errors and excesses the majority still prefer this regime to any alternative, the people have more confidence in the ruling party than the ruling party itself.  That fear indicates that for all the braggadocio regarding outcomes, there is a shade of uncertainty, augmented by fear and also by the knowledge of the truth that they are not clean.  

Perhaps it is an occupational hazard; politicians don’t trust the people because they know that they themselves are not trustworthy.  This is what pushes the good to do the bad and once that happens there’s no turning back; it becomes a habit.  The truth is that the voter knows that saints don’t offer themselves for elections. They will, as they have, choose the best out of the bad lot.  The bad, as well as the less good, can always do better and no one is better positioned to help bring change in the sad political culture we are saddled with than those who call the shots, the ruling party.

People will go along with a result that reflects majority will even if there’s hanky panky.  People will applaud, however, a true result, i.e. one where those who are best positioned to tweak the law if not break it without batting an eyelid rise above themselves and the political culture to uphold the law pertaining to elections. 

For this, guts are needed.  For this wisdom is needed.  Will the ruling party have the guts and the wisdom?   Will its leadership show the way? 

['The Nation' Editorial, August 26, 2012]