|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
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
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
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
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
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