22 September 2013

The 'Ugly' rises again

When the first provincial council elections were held on April 28, 1988 hundreds were killed.  The JVP in its Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya avatar decreed that the first to cast his or her vote in each and every polling station was ‘fair target’.  Emerging from the fires that engulfed the country and its youth towards the end of the eighties and clothed with a democratic new-look, the JVP, in time, actually contested the PC elections.  That’s another story, however. 

The worst PC election in remembered history is ‘Wayamba 1999’ held during the Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency. For the thuggery unleashed on opponent and voter, voter impersonation, intimidation of election officials etc., Wayamba ’99 is second only to the elections held during the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya and the 1982 Referendum. 

The 17th Amendment of 2001 which yielded an independent Elections Commission and an independent Police Commission cured many but not all the ills of ‘democracy’ with respect to elections and election campaigns.  If one played ‘Relative Merits’ then Sri Lanka has come a long way from 1982, 1988-89 and 1999, but that is a dangerous game which in effect can only stifle processes of further democratization, especially since the 18th Amendment did away with the 17th and all the checks and balances therein.

One day before the election, TNA’s Jaffna District candidate Ananthi Sasitharan’s house in Ariyalai came under attack.  The lady alleges that there is a concerted move to eliminate ‘witnesses to what happened during the last days of the war’.  Since she is the wife of former LTTE political commissar for Trincomalee District Sasitharan alias Ezhilan, detractors including victims of LTTE terrorism and their loved ones can and will say that what she suffered was ‘mild’ and not amounting to ‘just deserts’.  But a terrorist’s wife is not necessarily a terrorist.  She has done nothing illegal.  Association will mark her no doubt, but association does not imply culpability.  Her candidacy is as legitimate as that of anyone else.

As observed by election watchdog PAFFREL, although there is no evidence that the Army or Police was involved in the attack, the large presence of personnel from these entities naturally raises suspicion of involvement.  PAFFREL also points out that if police officers or soldiers were not involved it means that armed gangs intent on unleashing violence are roaming around the district with impunity. This amounts to tacit support for such acts from the Government.

As disturbing is the printing of a dummy version of the popular peninsula newspaper ‘Uthayan’ clearly aiming for confusion by claiming the TNA called for a boycott of the election (no prizes for guessing who would benefit from such an eventuality).  It is a mischievous move and an illegal one that thumbs the nose at the democratic process and its spirit.  A poster with the TNA’s Chief Ministerial hopeful C.V. Wigneswaran with a ‘wrong’ preferential number (probably by a rival candidate of the same party) is another instance of mischief-making; not the first and probably not the last but one which indicates that as a whole Sri Lanka is yet to mature as a democracy. 

Wayamba 2013 is nothing like Wayamba 2009 of course, but the shameless ‘gifting’ that marked the campaign, especially by a minister’s son raises many questions such as ‘Where did the bucks come from?’

Overall, though, things are less black than they have been in the eighties and nineties, although those who want to will not hesitate to take the black spots of this election and offer a totally blackened canvass for the consumption and follow-up action by people and countries wanting regime-change at whatever cost, including loss of lives.  For this, the Government can only blame itself, though, especially since it has the greatest swaying power given resources, ability to bend or break rules at little or no cost and its history of abusing state resources.  It has not helped that those opposed to the Governments have not exactly been angels, as is evidenced as much by intra-party violence as irresponsible and inflammatory manifestos and campaign rhetoric, but the onus is always on power-wielders rather than power-aspirants. 

If we haven’t as a nation slipped back to 1999, 1988-89 and 1992, then it is not due to the Government but a vigilant and politically mature voter, honest efforts from honest elements within organizations such as PAFFREL (whatever their faults may be), dedicated election officials and courageous media personnel.  The law, sadly, is not on the side of clean elections. 

Therefore, if we are to get better, it is imperative that the institutional arrangement be revisited and reformed. 


Sylvia Haik said...

The provincial elections are meaningless, if the elected, at great risks to themselves, are not in a position to be responsible to the communities. Here they are at the mercy of the ruling party in government. E.g. the development of the infrastructure is greatly acclaimed, but the locals must have a hand in awarding the contracts, supplies etc. that may create local jobs and businesses. Otherwise the only benefit for the Northerners are the roads to practically ghost towns.