Elections without democracy

The government ban on media coverage of the elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya, citing security reasons, is revealing. It coincided with the passing, once again, of Emergency Rule in Parliament, with the Prime Minister justifying it on account of the need to “silence the guns” of underworld elements. On the first count, it is quite clear that the government will ensure it wins the elections, even if it does not win the majority of the votes of people. On the second count, it is equally clear that the government will not rescind Emergency Rule anytime soon. Calling it the normalisation of the exception, Asanga Welikala from the Centre for Policy Alternatives in an article published online earlier this year goes on to note that “If nothing else, it ought to be the inexorable logic of the government’s own public presentation of victory in the war against the LTTE that the state of emergency must come to an end sooner rather than later. That the government refuses to lift the emergency, or at the very least, give a concrete and reasonably proximate date for its removal is, therefore, cause for disquiet.”

It is very likely the results of the elections held on Saturday will be heralded as the triumph of the franchise under democracy over terrorism. The reality will be very far removed from this. In Vavuniya and particularly in Jaffna, the TNA has not been allowed to campaign freely. The Economist last week reported that V. Anandasangaree had noted that intimidation by Douglas Devananda’s supporters made it impossible for his campaign team to hire vehicles. He claimed in the Economist that the election was “going to be a fraud” and that he was “working without a car”. There is an enduring fear and anxiety in Jaffna, where democracy withers cheek by jowl with a 9pm to 5am curfew, multiple checkpoints, government backed armed groups and a overall context dominated by the command and control of the Army. It is not reasonable to expect Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri, as the Governor of the Northern Province and a former high-ranking officer of the Army under whose command over two years the Peninsula witnessed hundreds of forced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and other human rights violations to really countenance the spread of alternatives to his political masters. As the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) notes in its report of a recent visit to Jaffna, another significant factor is that many of the registered voters are not present in the Peninsula, due to war over the last three decades and the resulting mass and repeated displacement. It is reported by CMEV that a total of nearly 42,000 polling cards remain undelivered in the Jaffna Post office as the recipients do not reside at the addresses on the cards. There is the strong possibility that many of these cards will, even without their rightful owners, find their way into ballot boxes.

Of course it can be argued that flawed democracy is better than the jackboot of the LTTE. But a flawed democracy is precisely that. Emergency Rule undermines the rule of law, due process and constitutional checks on Executive fiat. Moreover, it directly impacts the conduct of elections. And why ban media under a spurious reason if post-war Sri Lanka is so keen to demonstrate its democratic credentials? The government’s counter would be that media is in fact free to move around in these areas, but that residual terrorism poses a threat too great to risk their lives. Just as the war was conducted without witness, these will be elections with little independent oversight save for the election monitoring agencies who are already reporting on a context that is ripe for election malpractices, violence, exploitation, imposters and rigging.

A possible counter by Government to these significant concerns would be that the establishment of democracy in these war ravaged regions will take time, and for it to take root, economic development, infrastructure and livelihoods will have to be first strengthened, rebuilt and restored. This process it will argue is one best handled by those who won what was called an unwinnable war. The argument will then proceed to suggest that a degree of militarisation, minimum autonomy to Provincial Councils and inflexible, opaque, centrally designed and governed development plans are policies and measures taken in the best interests of stable governance in these regions. The question then arises as to what voters in Jaffna and Vavuniya in particular are really voting for in these elections. This was raised in the CMEV report based on a field visit to Vavuniya. Voters had noted that most of the candidates and political parties were talking about subjects and issues beyond their control and did not fall under the powers and responsibilities conferred under the Constitution to the local authority. Whether this is deliberate obfuscation or genuine ignorance by the candidates is hard to say and, frankly, irrelevant in light of the hugely detrimental effects on voter education by the disinformation and misinformation generated by such campaigns.

What we are seeing therefore is the construction of what the Government would like to see in Jaffna and Vavuniya, and not really a reflection of what its peoples desire. A poll in Jaffna conducted by Social Indicator, the polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in July 2009 flags some interesting points in this regard. 42.9% of those polled had no interest at all in Sri Lankan politics. Isolated for three decades and suffering at the hands of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army combined, it is unlikely that the rhetoric of post-war prosperity and peace that beguiles the Southern voter will win over these traumatised peoples. However, 83.2% said they would vote and 65.7% said their vote matters in shaping local government. This is offset by an exceptional lack of enthusiasm in other areas of civic participation. 60.7% said they did not discuss the election with relatives, friends and neighbours. 79.3% said they had not participated in political meetings or discussions related to the elections. Over 90% said they had not participated in pasting posters, leafleting or canvassing. It is almost the case that to vote, an act denied for so long in this region, is almost an act of faith for these people and that though peoples are very keen to vote, there is equal fear of being perceived by others to be partisan, or politically active and aware.

One hopes these first post-war elections will at least set in motion a process that soon unseats those with parochial and hegemonic plans to govern these regions through a fraudulent legitimacy based on flawed franchise. The long-suffering peoples of these regions so richly deserve much more, and a life and context no different to what we enjoy and take for granted in the South. It is very unlikely however the Rajapakse regime and its electoral puppets will live up to the promises made in this regard.

Published in the Sunday Leader, 9th August 2009.

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