Elections sans democracy

The very public lamentation by former Minister Mangala Samaraweera that he was responsible for helping to bring into power the murderous, brutish Rajapakse regime, made on TV after the assassination of the Editor in Chief of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickremetunge was tellingly one that did not resonate very much with voters in the South. With military victories in the North overwhelming very serious concerns over democratic governance, humanitarian issues and human rights, a Rajapakse regime exuding triumphalism will capture the public imagination and sweep all elections held this year in Sri Lanka. It is that simple and there is little civil society, NGOs, the UNP, the JVP, donors, Tamil, Muslim voters and the international community can do about it.

Consider the evidence.

As brought out in the August 2008 Peace Confidence Index (PCI) survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, with regard to President Mahinda Rajapakse’s performance in maintaining law and order, a majority of the Sinhala (79.9%) and the Muslim (51.7%) communities express their satisfaction. On the other hand, a majority of Tamil (86.6%) and the Up-Country Tamil (49.6%) communities express their dissatisfaction. 50.9% of Sinhalese polled believe that the Government defeating the LTTE is how we can end the war and arrive at peace. 78.7% of Tamils and 77.5% of Muslims polled believe that we can end the war and arrive at peace by conducting political negotiations. With regard to President Mahinda Rajapkse’s performance in maintaining international relations, a majority of the Sinhala (79.4%) and the Muslim (53.5%) communities express satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, a majority of Tamil (63.1%) and the Up-Country Tamil (28.2%) communities express their dissatisfaction.

There is a clear and widening divide along ethnic lines on perceptions of war, governance and peace. Sinhalese polity and society believe in the Rajapakse regime’s bona fides, whereas Tamils and Muslims are at best sceptical. The implications for the elections this year are significant. The Provincial Council elections in mid-February, this year’s first, will invariably see the SLFP win the majority of votes. A UNP pathetically unable to generate significant numbers protesting the assassination of Lasantha Wickremetunge in Colombo is not a party that can win elections. The SLFP Ranil Wickremesinghe contests and campaigns against today is qualitatively different to the same party has faced in the past. One cannot rule out cross-overs from the UNP and other parties to the SLFP. Mahinda Rajapakse’s alliance with the NFF makes mockery out of the JVP shrill yearning to be noticed as a legitimate political force. It is quite possible that the SLMC will find it increasingly difficult to cast aside the shenanigans of Pillayan in the Eastern Province, which in turn could lead to an alliance between the UNP and SLMC if (when?) General Elections are held. And on that note, many expect General Elections to follow soon after the capture of Mulaithivu, when the Rajapakse regime’s popularity will be at its zenith.

Caught up in an all-encompassing struggle for votes and power, democratic governance and human rights will be issues at best on the margins of party political machinations. Parties opposed to the incumbents are so deracinated by recent military successes against the LTTE that they are struggling to maintain their relevance. For example, concerns over the significant deterioration of media freedom, the freedom of expression and the growth in systemic corruption are issues that have little or no traction in a the mindset of the average voter in the South. Question on the economy too are muted in the vernacular media, with the result that very dire economic forecasts published in English media do not influence voters in the South. This results in a very strong power base for the incumbents, with those in rural areas largely shielded from the regime’s monumental macro-economic mismanagement and corruption by populist budgets and rhetoric. That said, it is unclear whether this power base is shielded enough from the fall out of the country’s macro-economic troubles from an inflammable combination of rising inflation, expensive short-term foreign debt, declining forex reserves (down to a month and a half as of January, with some experts noting that the situation is so dire as to warrant an IMF bailout in the near future) and a high deficit.

The international community and particularly key donors have been rendered toothless to intervene in the country’s party politics, as was visibly the case during the UNF’s rule when the CFA was still in place. The United Nations system, Bretton Woods institutions, the ADB and others are silent on the regime’s brinkmanship and outright incompetence in economic management. The Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon on his visit in January noted that India’s relations with Sri Lanka have reached “an unprecedented level of depth and quality today”. Clearly then, Indian concerns over the humanitarian fallout of the on-going war have been dispatched, and how! State media reportage in English and Sinhala have painted the regime in such a favourable light that any contrarian viewpoint will be dismissed as unpatriotic and unfounded.

The spontaneous outburst of celebration after the capture of Killinochchi earlier this year, far greater than even celebrations heralding the new year suggest that those inclined to see the significant failure of democratic governance, human rights, media freedom and human security – to name a few – are in an endangered minority. The murder of the Editor in Chief of the Sunday Leader, with complete impunity, suggests the even more frightening prospect of a terribly violent and viciously intolerant parastatal militia operating independently of the Commander in Chief, who is also the Executive President. No other political party commands this force, and it is one that will doggedly eliminate any competing political and social forces against the rising hegemony of the SLFP under the Rajapakse’s.

Sri Lanka is left then with what has always been the case – regular elections without any significant democratic tradition, or seen another way, elections anchored to voters who are unable to think critically, unable to think impartially and unwilling to interrogate the Orwellian doublespeak of the SLFP today. Voting for Mahinda will be patriotic, and to not be such today is anathema. And so, despite all the flailing and rants of a vitiated opposition, the Rajapakse regime, warts and all, will be an immovable force in electoral politics over the coming year.

Published in Montage, January 2009

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