Columns - FOCUS On Rights

His face said it
By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Quite apart from the frenzied allegations and counter allegations that have now come to dominate much of public talk on Sri Lanka's Presidential Elections this Tuesday, one profoundly pathetic image dominates my mind, putting into doubt the very basis on which I will decide whether or not to exercise my vote in future elections in this country.

This is the image of Sri Lanka's Elections Commissioner when, in an edited news telecast, he 'declared' the results on late Wednesday afternoon quite some time after the official time of the announcement of the results had been specified. This was both the classically poignant face and demeanor of a broken public servant. Most particularly his observation that "I was informed by certain people that all I had to do was to protect the ballot boxes. But now it has come to a point where I cannot do even this.'

The plight of the Elections Commissioner

The reference that all that the Commissioner was supposed to do was to protect the ballot boxes related to an attack made on the Commissioner during recent months by one of the chief propaganda hounds of the government, castigating the Commissioner for trying to work in accordance with the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The Commissioner's highly charged and deeply emotional vow never to return to his post was in natural consequence of the serious irregularities with the electoral process that he raised, including not only the total disregard of his directions by the state media but also the chasing/abusing of his officers from their posts during the polls.

Is this what we should celebrate?

This was only one aspect of Sri Lanka's day of shame. The surrounding of the hotel where General Fonseka was staying at a time when votes were being counted on differing excuses as well as the denial of access to internet sites (even soberly positioned ones such as the Sri Lanka Guardian and InfoLanka news room let alone other more controversial and politically aligned sites) are further issues. A journalist continues to be abducted, another journalist has been arrested and the local media is under threat to an extent not even seen during the time of the war. Is this what we should celebrate?

The nature of the challenge

It could, of course, all have been so different. This column had always acknowledged the fact that despite severe dissatisfaction with government corruption and the high cost of living, the President still remained hugely popular on a personal level in the country's rural belt. That said, General Sarath Fonseka was rightly credited with having posed a serious challenge to the incumbent. This was despite his extremely unwise aligning with individuals lacking credibility and commitment towards constitutional governance as well as hasty pronouncements made to the media. With far more political sense, President Rajapaksa refrained from personal attacks on his challenger while leaving his unprepossessing henchmen to do the job.

However, whatever may have been the motivations for the challenger to have entered the political fray (undoubtedly personal as they may have been), it took tremendous courage to grasp the nettle as it were and confront a supremely authoritarian regime, acknowledging the inevitable consequences that may follow in the event of a possible defeat as is indeed seen to be the case. For this, due credit must be given.

Unrealistic assessments and unseemly beating of breasts

It is being sought now to say that the support for the General was a mirage existent only in the minds of the city elite. Assessments by some foreign as well as local analysts comparing the UNF's percentage of the victory in 2005 to the electoral showing by General Fonseka this week maintain that if the UNP had stood alone against the incumbent only, there may have been a different result. However, what these assessments conveniently miss is that by late 2009, the leader of the UNP had been resoundingly and effectively demonized by the war propaganda machine of the Rajapaksa administration as 'unpatriotic' and as a traitor. In the absence of any strong counter in the post-war environment, severe internal divisions in the party and an absence of effective leadership, there was a world of difference between the UNP leader in 2005 and what he had been reduced to in 2009.

There is little doubt therefore that if the opposition leader had challenged the incumbent, (standing alone as it were), what would have resulted would have been twenty percent of the votes as against eighty percent for the incumbent. As was widely expected earlier, this kind of electoral victory would have made the obtaining of a two thirds majority at the parliamentary elections a given. The fact that such an overwhelming mandate had been prevented by a veritable infant in the murky arena of Sri Lankan politics should be of immediate note and not this unseemly beating of breasts.

It was precisely because of the context and the contest that Sri Lankans went to vote in such overwhelming numbers. The fact that the challenger (even on the official results) was able to garner even forty percent of the votes against a once virtually unchallengeable incumbent is cause for congratulations and may have indeed been seen as such if not for the overly hyped campaign of his backers which lacked any solid work done at the grass roots level.

The fact that some serious discussions took place during the past months on the country's democratic processes as a result of this challenge cannot be gainsaid. Indeed, it was on this basis that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was compelled to answer on his record of governance, including his lack of commitment to the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

Manifold challenges before us

The challenge is now manifold. The opposition (particularly the United National Party) faces an immediate and imperative challenge to publicly disclose the nature and extent of the election irregularities that are now being alleged. If the perception is that publicly disclosing the nature and extent of the alleged subversion of the vote may lead to voters being discouraged from even exercising their vote in the future, it has to be clearly said that this discouragement is already evident. Staying silent would only make it worse.

The President faces a much bigger burden. Will he preside over a country in which, (much as was the case in Pakistan), citizens remain in doubt regarding the basic validity of the vote that they have cast, resulting only in Pyrrhic victories? Assuredly this will not change until an independent Elections Commission is in place. Never again should we be treated to a sight so terribly demoralising as the Elections Commissioner's face, seen on national television this Wednesday afternoon.

Above all, ultimately, the ordinary people must decide the systems by which they are to be governed regardless of whichever party is in power. If the integrity of Tuesday's electoral process is in doubt, these must be cleared through sustained and strong public concern and action.

Whether we engage in this or not will indicate whether Sri Lanka is destined to go Burma's way.

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