Elections and citizenship

Approximately fourteen months before their respective terms of office would have expired, the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils were dissolved by Proclamation of the respective Governors in May and June 2008. Elections in both Provinces will be held on 14th February. There will however be little love exchanged between the contesting parties leading up to and on Election Day. As reported by the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), violence and election malpractices in both Provinces is on the rise. Schools and public property are being used for electioneering along with ministry vehicles, some without any license plates. Until the 6th February, CMEV had logged amongst a number of other violations, three incidents of grievous hurt, 16 assaults, 9 cases of threat and intimidation, 2 robberies and 4 cases of arson in both Provinces. In Kurunegala, Puttalam, Kandy, Matale and Nuwara Eliya in particular, UPFA candidates and their supporters are running amok and with complete impunity. For example, the violence and election malpractices aided and abetted by the Deputy Minister of Livestock and his supporters in Puttalam was flagged by CMEV as that which severely undermined the ability of Police in the area to maintain law and order and ensure a free and fair election. So this is democracy in Sri Lanka. It is essentially ugly, violent, intolerant and unfair. The veneer of academic debate on the pros and cons of power sharing by some in Government as well as those in civil society oftentimes tends to gloss over this muck and the scum who perpetuate a mockery of meaningful electoral processes.

Your author was speaking with some young thinkers, writers and bloggers in Galle and Colombo recently and was unsurprised to note the apathy and even outright hostility with which the electoral process (and democracy in Sri Lanka writ large) is viewed by new voters. Who can blame them? As brought out in CPA’s Peace Confidence Index (PCI) survey in August 2008, while a majority of all the communities (Sinhala: 51.8%, Tamil: 53.2%, Up-Country Tamil: 74.1%, Muslim: 64.2%) don’t know or are unsure whether the Provincial Council system is the best solution for the country’s ethnic conflict, 27.2% of the Sinhala community, 26.1% of the Tamil community, 16.3% of the Up-Country Tamil community and 20.2% of the Muslim community believe that it is. Clearly then, whereas Presidential and General Elections get voters animated to some degree about vital issues, there is a high level of apathy amongst voters in how they see and elect local government. Analyst and officials have pointed out the weaknesses within the Provincial Councils. PCI also highlights the fact that the majority of voters are simply unaware of the reasons for weaknesses inherent in local government structures and authorities in Sri Lanka. Tellingly though, a considerable section of the Tamil (25.1%) and the Up-Country Tamil (27.3%) think that these weaknesses are due to the central government’s unwillingness to devolve power. It can be argued how Provincial Council elections, and local government in general, is perceived, understood and engaged with varies according to ethnic groups. For the majority Sinhalese, Provincial Councils are very much an appendage of Central Government. No real problem here, since faith in Central Government’s all conquering patriotic prowess is at its zenith as we head into the elections a week hence. As a result, there’s no real interest in voting out and addressing corruption, incompetence, violence, the lack of transparency and local government authorities than shun any meaningful citizen engagement and participation. For other communities and identity groups, things have always been a bit less rosy and optimistic. As the results of the State of Democracy in South Asia survey conducted in 2004 highlights, Tamil and Muslim voters in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in particular want to see more meaningful devolution of power to regional authorities. The survey noted that 75% of all ethnic minority groups polled supported more powers to Provincial Councils. On the other hand, only a meagre 34% of the Sinhala community concurred.

The up-coming Provincial Council elections give us a taste for what many expect will be General Elections later in the year, after Prabhakaran’s LTTE has been summarily dispatched. The United National Party (UNP) is almost anachronistic. It is hardly united and its appeal far from national. Candidates from the UNP in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council elections are largely invisible. Given the mood in the country at present and despite pronouncements from the party leadership that it was never really against war with the LTTE, the UNP has lost whatever hold it had on the public imagination a few years ago. Its political capital dissipated and burdened with an affable and well meaning but utterly ineffective leader, candidates from the UNP will be seen as pariahs to a voter base primed and unhesitatingly ready to support a regime going for Prabhakaran’s jugular. Once an emergent ‘third force’ in electoral politics, the JVP is defanged and deracinated by Rajapakse regime’s appropriation of its rhetoric and ideology. Through deft MoU’s first with the JVP and now with the slicker NFF, the regime has ensured that voters partial to the JVP’s signature cadence of hate and harm against anyone opposed to what they believe in espoused far more effectively through the likes of Gotabaya Rajapakse, Sarath Fonseka and the pronouncements of Executive himself.

Party politics aside, I return to the significant problem of voter apathy. Regular elections in Sri Lanka are often portrayed as a sign of a healthy democracy. It is simply not so. Violence – real, bloody, brutal violence – racism, extremism, intolerance, vengeance, petty personal viciousness and plain stupidity are salient and enduring features of our elections. The argument that we deserve the governments and politicians we elect is not without merit. In Colombo for example UPFA candidate Duminda Silva’s buffed body adorns the streets and hoardings, glossing over the fact that, at a time he was partial to the UNP, he was remanded for the alleged rape of an underage girl in 2004, caught with pornographic material and last year stood accused of threatening to kill popular film star and model Anarkali Akarsha and her mother if she refused to marry him. That Sri Lankans even consider those of this ilk to be fit to contest public office is shameful. No better are some (most?) candidates in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils. Underlining all this is the approach to and understanding of political power – that the end justifies the means. Therefore, from local government upward, to get and thereafter retain absolute power for as long as possible by any means necessary trumps any meaningful emphasis on democracy. With public trust in Provincial Government / Councils the lower than even Pakistan and India (as brought out in the State of Democracy in South Asia Survey last year), there is a great need for a continuous process of voter education on the role and relevance of local government authorities. Though it sounds like the thing to do, central government has a vested interest in keeping voters as precisely that. Citizens create significant problems for authoritarian governments. The lackadaisical animal commonly known as the Sri Lankan voter on the other hand casts a ballot when asked out of a sense of duty, without too much of thought going into the process, and shut up afterwards. This is also why the constitutional issues framing the Provincial Council elections are largely the stuff of rarefied academic debate and discussion without any traction in the public imagination. My colleagues Asanga Welikala and Rohan Edrisinha note in an article published on Groundviews (The Dissolution of the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils: The Constitutional Issues) in June 2008 that,

“Like in the experience of the Eastern Province, the elections contemplated for the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces would in all likelihood be held without the implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution which provides among other things for an independent Elections Commission, Police Commission and Public Service Commission. The recent elections to the Eastern Provincial Council was a sad demonstration of the futility of attempting to conduct free and fair elections in the present political environment without independent institutions to administer and monitor such elections. The Commissioner of Elections’ consistent refusal to assert his powers, the abdication of responsibility, due to fear and intimidation, by Senior Presiding Officers and other election officials (public servants) and the politicisation of the police, all clearly demonstrated in the Eastern Province elections, highlight the need for elections to be held in conformity with the Rule of Law. In these circumstances, the regrettable consequence will be that the legitimacy of the forthcoming provincial elections will be the subject of partisan contestation and the further erosion of public confidence in democratic institutions.”

Ironically however, it is the case that low public confidence in democratic institutions is no guarantee that the same public will vote in favour of candidates who can effect change and stand up against the continued violation of the constitution. Seen another way, while the problems arising out of the non-constitutional of the independent Elections Commission et al are significant, who amongst the candidates contesting the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils has made this into a real campaign issue? The fear that drives candidates in Provincial Council elections is that if one were to highlight egregious shortcomings of the incumbent regime, it would only serve to alienate oneself from a vote base partial it war rhetoric. Every candidate is a patriot and we all know that patriots can’t and don’t question corruption, mal-governance or human rights. The central problem therefore with the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council elections, and the ones to follow, is that they embody and perpetuate violence through a party political system that has for decades had no real connection with peoples and no real interest in fostering the growth of citizenship. It is this political architecture we are then led to believe is the bedrock of a more peaceful post-war Sri Lanka – not.

Yet given the nature and prevalence of violence in the lead up the Provincial Council elections in North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Western Provinces – no different to other elections in the past – is a change of this profoundly disturbing political culture nigh or even possible? My young interlocutors in Galle and Colombo – renowned bloggers as well as undergraduate students – were sceptical. They noted that if rapists, liars and cheats were those one had to choose from, they would rather not vote. Which I told them was a political statement that had to be made more expressively amongst their peers and a larger constituency. Sri Lankans know that our current crop of politicians at local, provincial and national government levels are generally rotten. Yet there is an almost karmic defeatism that commands engagement with who with have today, because there is no alternative. Yet there is an alternative. To many I am speaking with today – young, articulate, impatient, politically and web savvy, English speaking, Tamil and Sinhala elites with a deep sense of concern over the direction Sri Lanka is going and who want to do something about it – that’s just not good enough. To them and your author, Provincial Council elections around the corner showcase all that is wrong with Sri Lankan polity and society. From the Executive to Parliament and the Judiciary, this country alienates, marginalises and silences real democracy – a political culture that in spirit and action celebrates dissent, pluralism and diversity. What we have today is a country run by vicious confidence tricksters, who hide their bigotry and racism under the cloak of patriotism, and ask us to choose from amongst those we will entrust our future to.

I have a two-year-old son, Naren. I can’t wait for the day Naren looks back and sees with critical eyes this moment of time five, ten or fifteen years hence, at a time I really hope mainstream party politics will once again be a theatre of civil and progressive participation and debate.

Published in Sunday Leader, 15th February 2009

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