|Free and fair polls, what’s
The elections in the East are over but, not
so the rumblings of dissent. The winner, the ruling United
Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), is fighting to select a chief
minister and the opposition United National Party (UNP)-Sri
Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) combine is screaming that the polls
were a ‘daylight robbery’.
As is usual in the post election period, the victors are
claiming that the peoples’ will prevailed, while the vanquished
are complaining that the death knell has been sounded for
democracy. Indeed, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said
that the poll signals the end of universal franchise in this
This is a now familiar refrain. Yet, it is difficult to trace
the origin of election malpractices in Sri Lanka and attribute
the beginnings of the win ‘by hook or by crook’ maxim. What is
clear though is that- in the absence of any countermeasures- it
is here to stay, unless some drastic measure is taken.
The UNP now plays aggrieved victim. But, it must remember that,
some of the worst election offences - including the infamous
1982 referendum - occurred during its tenure. The UPFA is no
better. Ironically, some of the architects of its notorious
‘Wayamba’ campaign are now in the UNP and complaining!
In last Saturday’s election, even before a vote had been cast,
unfolding events were casting their shadows. The Opposition and
other civic organisations complained that it was not a level
playing field, because one group carried arms: a virtual head
A ruling from the Supreme Court was sought and the court duly
instructed the Commissioner of Elections to take relevant
measures for the conduct of a free and fair election. But then,
that is easier said than done- especially, when the Commissioner
has failed to demonstrate the courage to act appropriately.
There is now a sense of déjà vu in this chain of events. In the
2005 presidential elections too, large numbers of voters in the
north and east were disenfranchised through threats and
intimidation - then, by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam-
and although many cried foul, nothing happened.
Let us note also that, rigging of elections is no longer the
spectacle of hired goons threatening polling booth officials and
literally, stuffing ballot boxes. The malpractices have now
evolved into a fine art that involves subtle intimidation,
organised impersonation and even removal of voters’ names from
For example, at the 2005 presidential election, the UNP was
heard to complain that its’ supporters’ names were erased from
electoral registers not in the backwoods of Bintenna but, in the
capital of Colombo. The perpetrators of this offence are yet to
be caught and no doubt, a repeat performance is on the cards.
In such circumstances, is it enough for an Opposition to just
moan and groan after an election? Does it also not have a duty
by the people, whom it represents, to take pre-emptive action?
Simply alerting the Commissioner of Elections before the polls,
is not enough. After all, what can a toothless tiger do?
The Commissioner of Elections assures us before every poll that,
he would cancel the results of polling stations and order a
re-poll, if malpractices are detected. Then, after each election
he painstakingly explains in legal jargon why he cannot do
anything more than issuing a placatory statement.
Clearly, there is something wrong, either with the law as the
Commissioner of Elections interprets it or, with the
Commissioner of Elections himself. And, if this is to be
remedied, either the laws that now govern elections must go or,
the Commissioner himself must go.
We know that the Commissioner is a man who is yearning to enjoy
his retirement, rather than be thrust into the hurly burly of
politics. But, in these days of dirty politics, the greater
tragedy is not the strident clamor of the bad, but the appalling
silence of the good.
And sadly, the Commissioner is a good man.
Health Minister heal thyself
In the aftermath of a strike at the Ratnapura Hospital,
following a dispute between doctors and nurses, the Minister of
Health was reportedly considering declaring the Health Services
an essential service, where it would be considered as being
similar to an armed force - with no option for trade union
Such a decision would have far reaching consequences and it does
not take a genius to predict that, plans for a declaration to
that effect would itself lead to another strike, but the
Minister will argue that desperate situations need desperate
remedies - and the situation is desperate, when strikes result
in the loss of lives.
That does not imply for a moment that the Minister or his
Ministry is to be absolved of all blame for the sorry mess that
the Health sector is in. In fact, most of the crises in the
sector are of their own making, compounded by politically
motivated decisions and the wielding of enormous power without
A declaration that Health is an essential service, stems from
the argument that the right to life is a basic human need -
especially, in a country which prides itself of a free
Healthcare system. Therefore, it must follow that unionists
should not be allowed to hold patients to ransom to win their
But, that should be accompanied by suitable compensation for the
medical and paramedical services - not the paltry pay cheques
that are being doled out now. The armed forces, for example, are
well remunerated for their sacrifices. What is difficult to
gauge is whether the Government will keep that end of the
This Minister, in particular, has been guilty of unpardonable
arrogance towards Health sector professionals, who loathe him
unreservedly. Therefore, if he wants to declare Health an
essential service, he would have to do much more than just sign
a gazette - he would have to climb down from his pedestal as