ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 9, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 41
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Elections in the East – and the future

Tomorrow, some minor local government councils and the main municipality in eastern Batticaloa go to the polls to elect their representatives for the next few years.

Elections are the life-blood of democracy, and despite all the hiccups and aberrations along the way all these years, Sri Lanka has managed to hold its elections more or less on time.

It has been a functioning democracy with all its flaws; and when the question is to be asked whether flawed elections are better than no elections, the answer has to be in the affirmative.

Elections and rigging are two sides of the same coin, and this has been the case ever since elections were held to the State Council 75 years ago. The nadir of election-rigging in recent years was the Wayamba Provincial Council election under the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration, but the ultimate test is whether the eventual winner was a true reflection of the people's mandate at that poll.

Election rigging now comes in many forms, and when a large segment of the people are prevented from casting their vote -- as was the case at the November 2005 Presidential elections when the people of Jaffna and many in the East, were prevented from casting their vote -- the final outcome does impact on the eventual winner, as was indeed the case in this instance.

The Government has been very keen on holding these local council elections, fresh from the victories of the battlefield against the separatist terrorists. And this is as it should be. Elections were the sine qua non after the military victory of the liberation of the East from the clutches of the terrorists.

And elections are what make the difference between the rule of tyranny by the AK-47 wielding minority over the rule of law by the majority.

But what seems to have happened with tomorrow's elections is the replacement of one fascist group with another. The Government will say that these are the consequences of a transitional phase -- and that such a phase is inevitable to revert to the status-quo ante when mostly peaceful and largely free and fair elections were the norm.

That one cannot travel to the good old past without this transitional phase. And that this is even more so when the terrorists have not been entirely vanquished; and when there is every possibility that they will continue to make their presence felt, especially at this time when they are said to be 'on the hop'.

Of the recognised political parties, only the ruling UPFA and the Muslim Congress have fielded candidates for the polls. The winners are a foregone conclusion and were known on the day of nominations. It is actually a no-contest election.

The Government appears wanting to pump up the southern psyche with the news that it has wrested control of a bastion of the Tamil-speaking people. That the great unification of this country and its multi-ethnic people under its banner, is on the way.

Provincial Council elections are said to follow soon after, and tomorrow's elections are just the curtain-raiser, or trial run before what would surely be a significant move towards the politics of not just the Eastern Province, but the entire country.

The East has been a much brutalised and yet much ignored region of Sri Lanka. Not much has come the way of the people of the East in the form of economic development since D.S. Senanayake launched the Gal Oya development scheme shortly after Independence. The Mahaveli waters were later diverted into the area, but in-between and ever since, their lives have been characterized by ethnic conflict, displacement and economic stagnation. The Government has announced a major re-awakening programme for the East, but most of it is limited to paper.

Elections are one sure-fix for defeating terrorism. Terrorists stand exposed when they claim to represent a people -- without actually being elected to the title. But there is also a need to ensure free and fair elections -- and a level playing field for all those who believe in the democratic process.

While flawed elections may be arguably better than no elections, no elections are better than sham elections. Sham elections then become the slippery slope to a mock democracy where only the façade is in place. And the road to dictatorship is then a very short run -- a hop, step and another sham election -- away.

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