Free and fair polls, what’s that?

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 country!

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 start.

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 registers.

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 action.

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 responsibility.

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 demands.

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 bargain.

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 well.