Ballot or bullet?

Sri Lankans, by nature, are political animals. Given the country’s relatively modest socio-economic development, its citizens are extremely conscious of their political rights and affiliations. In the context of a democracy, this would usually be considered as a positive phenomenon.

But then again, is it so? That is the question we must ask ourselves in view of the events of the past few weeks.
Elections are welcome in any virile democracy. But such elections should also be free and fair. In most democracies, however, there will be the odd incident of election malpractice or even violence, but that, in a mature democracy, would be the exception rather than the rule.

For Sri Lanka, though, election violence and malpractices now appear to have become the rule rather than the exception and there could be no better example than the polls that were held yesterday.
Ever since provincial council elections were announced for the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces and campaigning began, the regions have become mini-battlefields where the war for national political supremacy was being fought by proxy.

The incidents that tarnished the exercise of a free franchise in these two provinces are too numerous to mention here. But they could well be the stepping stone for an extremely sinister and dangerous spiral of violence that could only end in disastrous consequences for the nation.

It is difficult to precisely pinpoint the origins of mass-scale election malpractices in Sri Lanka. Some would lay the blame at the door of J.R. Jayewardene’s infamous 1982 referendum. Others would cite the 1988 presidential election won by Ranasinghe Premadasa, albeit during testing conditions in the midst of an insurrection.

If there was a tendency for a doctrine of ‘winning by hook or by crook’ being adopted during the 17-year reign of the United National Party (UNP) in the ’80s and ’90s, that was laid to rest by the amiable Dingiri Banda Wijetunge.
Wijetunge, much against the advice of his own party men but well supported by his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, allowed free and fair general elections that swept Chandrika Kumaratunga into power.

But the Kumaratunga government was not without its faults and the notorious Wayamba Provincial Council election has now become the ‘gold standard’ among election malpractices in this country – unless of course, yesterday’s elections surpasses that ‘achievement.’

For several elections now, the opposition has been crying foul. In the 2005 presidential election, it is an open secret that had a free and fair poll been allowed in the north and east, the outcome may well have been different. However, that was blamed on Velupillai Prabhakaran – notwithstanding allegations of a deal with the Tigers – and consigned to history.

But a startling revelation that came to light was that the names of thousands of voters had been struck off the electoral registers in electoral districts known to be favourable for the opposition candidate. To date, not much has been done to prevent a recurrence of this type of organised rigging.

Thereafter, the local government elections held in the east saw yet another phenomenon emerge. An armed group, the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) was contesting with government blessings. And they emerged victorious in what transpired to be a ‘trial run.’

Emboldened by this success, provincial polls were held in the entire Eastern Province and we heard of allegations of intimidation and rigging in a rather systematic and methodical manner. If anything, coming events were casting their shadows.

That the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Province polls would be the target of election violence and malpractice was, therefore, almost a natural expectation; so much so that the UNP and its avowed rival, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), considered pooling their resources to combat it. But it appears to have been of no avail.

The Commissioner of Elections laments his own plight stating that the current legislation allows him to only have his say but not his way. For instance, if an incident of rigging is not recorded by the returning officer because the officer himself is intimidated, there is absolutely nothing the Commissioner can do!

And in the midst of all this, the attitude of the Police, from the newly-appointed Inspector General right down to the Reserve Police Constable has been abysmal; ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ seems to be their motto.
After all, why should IGP Jayantha Wickramaratne jeopardise his chances of being appointed an ambassador or governor after retirement just so that the citizens of the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces can enjoy a free and fair election?

And, the 17th Amendment, which could have redressed and balanced somewhat with the appointment of a Constitutional Council, which would then have appointed independent Police and Election Commissions, is conveniently in limbo.

The danger of all this is that there is a limit to which the opposition – and more importantly the masses – will tolerate this nonsense. Thwarted time and again in the exercise of their democratic rights, there will come a juncture at which they would say enough is enough. And then, all hell will break loose.

The collective opposition thus far has been proactive and protesting – to no avail. But if they feel that future elections would also be futile exercises because they would be neither free nor fair, that could lead to a catastrophic, vicious cycle of violence. Deprived of the ballot, they may well take to the bullet.






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