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PC elections, a test for democratic process

The essence of democracy is in the election process, and by that token we prove ourselves worthy of our reputation. We are accused of human rights violations by organisations such as Amnesty International and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), but we have answers for them. Every once in a while we admit to a few violations and appoint a few commissions.

The international community is always right when they are saying good things about us, just as they are always wrong when they criticise us.

Sarcasm notwithstanding, we all get a taste of this freedom. For instance, a common enough trend is where prominent and respected intellectuals are reluctant to put their names to articles they write.

Some even decline to contribute because of fear of identification. I don’t want to romanticise this response on the part of this elite group. Perhaps they have ulterior motives. Perhaps they are simply making excuses. At any rate they made a careful, self-conscious choice.

But what is more upsetting is the predicament of a considerable number of ordinary people whose options are even more restricted.

There are a couple of alternatives to be considered in this scenario we loosely refer to as a fear psychosis. Some may have personal agendas, others maybe suffering from paranoia.

But the crux of the matter is this. When ordinary, normal, decent middle-class men and women have become too scared to put their names in print what can we say about freedom of speech, the freedom to hold alternate views, and so on?
I think that this fear - and I cannot believe that large numbers of ordinary people will be scared without cause – is in a sense more insidious, more damaging than the human rights abuses that receive publicity abroad.

The real tests of democratic freedom are the simple everyday ones.
Daily accounts of the election campaigning in the East for the forthcoming Provincial Council elections clearly show that civil society has broken down. No one is agitating for the urgent restoration of normalcy.

In the South, this breakdown is more subtle and this too must be contested with all the resources available. This inability to put one’s name in print for fear of reprisal from some powerful external force has today become a symbol and a symptom of the precariousness of our democracy and our freedom.

Even if this were a psychosis, it is clear that blaming this disease merely on terrorism is facile. It is a condition for which the government and the state apparatus must take responsibility. It is a condition that they must be forced to take responsibility for, and to remedy immediately.

This issue of real fear and its imagined consequences, this fear psychosis if you will, takes on sinister ramifications now that the “democratic” process of elections is activated. Can people who are afraid to put their names to a list perhaps, vote freely without pressure?

More pertinently, how can countervailing pressures be exerted so that voters will not feel intimidated or constrained in anyway, in their homes, at work and on election day? Unless and until voters are able to assert that they feel no fear, threat or harassment, the façade of democracy is worth nothing.

Confrontational politics
The Provincial Councils in the east have been dissolved and elections are scheduled for May 10th. The trends are already clear. But what makes this confrontational politics crucial is not mere curiosity as to which party is more popular, but, rather, the fact that the credibility of the entire democratic system is at stake.

The last few elections have been conducted, to put it mildly, under less than satisfactory conditions. Moreover, allegations of intimidation and thuggery, impersonation, misuse of power and ballot box stuffing were rampant. In fact it is accepted mainstream wisdom that the last free and fair election was the 1977 general election, while the 1982 Presidential election is seen as having been free. That election is not considered fair since the main opponent of President J. R. Jayawardena was disqualified from contesting.

The Election Commissioner’s Reports on the other polls outline some concrete examples of malpractice and the impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators. In addition to the North-East war, the JVP insurrection rendered the elections in 1989-90 a grotesque fiasco. Voter turn-out which has historically been in the region of 80%, declined in some areas such as Hambantota to a mere 5% during the Presidential and General election of 1988 and 1989, and that too after the stuffing of ballot boxes which inflated numbers.

The right to vote is legally and constitutionally guaranteed, and is politically well-entrenched within the electorate. However, election-related violence and malpractice can be widespread. One of the more insidious examples of this was when voters were prevented en masse from exercising their right in the Presidential election of 2005: The LTTE prevented electors of the areas under its control in the northern and eastern provinces from voting.

Generally, elections are regularly held, although some local government and provincial elections have been postponed. Upon the application of civil society organisations (CSOs) and representatives, the Supreme Court has intervened in compelling the Election Commissioner to hold certain elections in the past. In the conflict affecting the northern and eastern provinces, however, the holding of elections has been more problematic. Voters in “uncleared areas” have been regularly deprived of their right to vote due to logistical issues, as well as security-related impediments. Both the government security forces and the LTTE have been involved in practices that hinder the right to vote.

In this context, the vast majority of people in this country no longer believe that election results accurately reflect the people’s preference.
That these elections were conducted under ideal conditions is nobody’s claim.

UNP’s argument

The main thrust of the main opposition UNP’s argument after the last elections was for instance, not that violence and intimidation was within tolerable limits, but that the UNP suffered more than the others. In other words, that the elections weren’t free and fair is uncontested.

This is why we lay the onus of the well-being of democratic institutions and processes on the forthcoming elections. The very argument that sometimes the victorious party was affected more than the others, and the election must be deemed valid is utterly bankrupt, notwithstanding the dubiousness of the initial premise.

Democratic principles surely require more than the Lowest Common Denominator.
We require a free and fair election without any fraud or harassment where the people are willing to accept the result, whatever it may be.

Nothing short of this is acceptable or worthwhile. The real and imagined terror of 1989-90 is no longer a factor now. This article in no way is suggesting that a satisfactory Provincial Council election is sufficient to ensure that democracy is alive and well in the seven provinces of the South of Sri Lanka. The test is a minimal and negative one: An unsatisfactory PC election in the East would seal the coffin of the democratic process.

As a positive gauge within the present framework, however, the people would also require free and fair Parliamentary and presidential elections as well as fundamental changes in the functioning of the state.