A level playing field for all a must


Saturday will see a watershed in contemporary Sri Lankan election history-the first provincial council elections for the Eastern province. It is an event that has to be hailed no matter what the drawbacks are and despite what the skeptics may say.

There has been many an analysis on the polls ranging from how significant the elections are to predictions about the eventual outcome. Nevertheless, a democratic process to elect peoples’ representatives is being enacted in a region hitherto under the terrorists’ writ.

There is one school of thought that elections, no matter how they are conducted, are welcome. But, recent history in this country tells us that this is not necessarily so.

The 1982 referendum, the Kalawana by-election that resulted in two sitting members in Parliament for the same constituency, the Mahara by-election where the results changed after a power failure in the counting centre and, more recently the Wayamba provincial council election are other ‘landmark’ elections that the country would rather forget.

That is not to say that we have prejudged the Eastern provincial poll. But the curious alliance of convenience between the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) and the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) suggests that the government wants to win the race-and the fear is that it will, at any cost.

The opposition has responded with an alliance of convenience of its own between the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the United National Party (UNP) which should theoretically at least-going by past results in the region-sweep the poll.

But, just as much as the ground situation in the Eastern province is in a state of flux, so is the political climate. The government has unleashed a barrage of development programmes and made a million more promises, all in the hope that it will sway the Eastern voter.

That is an advantage any ruling party has and if it chooses to use that to its advantage, so be it. It is up to the masses to decipher the realities from the rhetoric, the practicalities from the propaganda before they mark their cross on the ballot paper.

Nevertheless, it is also incumbent upon the government in office to ensure that free and fair elections are held. It is the ultimate yardstick on which the sincerity of a regime will be judged. To imagine that winning at all cost will solve the crises that threaten an administration is simply wishful thinking.

The main bone of contention here is that the TMVP while contesting the elections; continues to carry arms. Its power therefore, flows from the barrel of a gun-and in that sense, it is no different from its erstwhile brethren, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

It is indeed laudable that the TMVP, a former terrorist outfit, has now opted to be elected through democratic means. Theorists and pragmatists may argue about its leader Pilliyan’s complicity in the Arantalawa massacre and therefore whether he is more suited for the gallows rather than for the chief ministerial chair.

Even after casting such complexities aside, the bottom-line is that for the Eastern provincial council elections to have any meaningful impact on the political landscape, it needs to be conducted in a manner that would convince even the government’s detractors that the polls were free and fair.

Not to do so would not only irreparably erode the government’s credibility; it would also cast doubts about its intentions in forthcoming elections; after all, the general elections are now less than two years away. And, that would also be a blessing in disguise for insurgents-in-waiting in the south of the country to cast the first stone, citing the government’s intimidating tactics in the East.

Therefore, we must hope that saner counsel would prevail on Saturday and that there will be a level playing field for all contestants. If that can come to pass, it would be a moral victory for the government-no matter what the outcome of the poll and regardless of who the Chief Minister will be.

Ahmedinejad’s visit perfectly timed!

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is not a stranger to controversy-nor is he shy to go off the beaten track.
Last week he visited Colombo to inaugurate two large scale programmes, an oil refinery and the Uma Oya development programme, both funded by Iran.

Some, of course, saw many political connotations in Ahmedinejad’s visit to Colombo, what with the propaganda overdrive dished out by the state media and with Eastern provincial elections only days away.

Arguably, Colombo may have had its political agenda particularly in the timing of the Iranian President’s visit, but that should not detract from the fact that Ahmedinejad was willing to include Colombo on his Asian tour.

Sri Lanka, we must not forget, could not get Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Colombo in February for the country’s diamond jubilee independence celebrations.

Such diplomatic snubs and the constant haranguing from regional and global powers have been Sri Lanka’s lot in recent times for which incompetent Foreign Office mandarins in Colombo also have to take some blame.

The country has been at the butt end of criticism for alleged human rights abuses and the world at large has chosen to ignore the fact that Sri Lanka is battling probably the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world.

Its requests for military aid have been met only grudgingly and often with many strings attached. Even countries which would otherwise have helped Sri Lanka, have been muted in their generosity in the face of Colombo’s isolation.

And in these circumstances, enter Ahmedinejad. The man may have his faults and may not be the epitome of democracy but as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, he has been a friend in need and a friend indeed!