PC elections, a test for
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
The international community is always right when they are saying
good things about us, just as they are always wrong when they
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
That these elections were conducted under ideal conditions is
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
Democratic principles surely require more than the Lowest Common
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
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.