It is said that a cartoon, very much like a photograph, speaks a thousand words. Nowhere is this more appropriate than in the recent political cartoons on Thursday's local government elections.
They say it all. There are cartoons in the independent media depicting the Commissioner of Elections as a 'pambaya' (scarecrow) in the face of abuse of state resources by the ruling party and the unleashing of pre-poll violence; of him with a starter gun preparing to run the race along with Opposition leaders while carrying the leader of the ruling party on his own shoulders; of thugs coming out of his ears and mouth; of him as a midget carrying but a straw in the palm of a thug or a politician; and many of the same ilk. The drift is clear. These are not merely to give readers a good humoured laugh to start off their mornings, but are serious satire on the realities of the ground situation.
Democracy is not only about holding elections; there is much more to it. But when even elections are flawed, then it becomes one big joke for the whole democratic world to laugh at.
The Elections Commissioner must take the rap for the deterioration of the once exemplary Department he heads, and for losing the public's confidence more and more in the elections process of this country, under his stewardship.
He has often claimed that he wants to quit; that too has become a standing joke now. His standard excuse that his recommendations to a Parliamentary committee to change the laws and give him more 'teeth' to act decisively have not been approved is a tame and lame excuse. It should be within his responsibility to have them passed by Parliament. Merely saying that he has made recommendations and think he has done his job, is escapism that does not befit the high office he holds. Undoubtedly, his accomplice in this 'crime' is the Government and ruling party.
For instance, the Government dilly-dallied in commissioning the Elections Commission under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which it introduced in preference to implementing the 17th Amendment which empowered the appointment of a truly Independent Elections Commission. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, now preaching good governance, was largely to blame when at the time she was expected to appoint the independent Elections Commission, she pussy-footed by bringing up parochial political arguments not to appoint the Commission and thereby blunted its appointment.
This Government thereby has indicated that it is happy with the incumbent and the way the Elections Commission conducts the polls. Soon after the Presidential election, the Elections Commissioner moaned and groaned about how he was under intense pressure during the counting stage and that he no longer had the stomach to conduct elections. And here he is a year later, still at his job. The Opposition allowed this public remark to go unchallenged and without much ado. If we are to believe the Election Commissioner then he is conducting these polls with a virtual gun to his head.
In a country where the ratio of politicians to citizens is at a record high but tangible benefits to the people have not matched the proportion of elections, and with flawed elections every now and then, a natural apathy and voter fatigue are understandable. Unfulfilled promises are another factor. If conducted freely and fairly, these elections are nothing more, nothing less, than a litmus test for the ruling and Opposition parties to measure their standing among the voters of this country. It was, therefore, not surprising that in some areas, residents have put up banners urging candidates not to come to canvass their votes as they have had enough of this circus.
The Government failed to bring in the required amendments to the local council laws resulting in the same old proportional representation system with all its evils, which outweigh the merits, having to continue. The choice of candidates is arguably another reason for anticipated voter turn-off rather than turn-out.
This week, the world marked the centenary of International Women's Day. Even a UN report lamented the depleted number of women in elected bodies in Sri Lanka. Gender equality is a much flaunted western concept where there is a tendency to believe that women in this part of the world are discriminated. There is something in this position, but here is a country that gave women the right to vote before many European countries, including France. The introduction of free education and free health especially, made that vote bank of women potent and realistic.
It is fashionable to ask for quotas for women and youth in representative councils that are often hogged by old men. Recent experience, however, has shown that women, and even youth are no different when it comes to clamouring for the perks of office - duty-free vehicle permits and study tours abroad on tax-payers' monies.
Ask party organisers how difficult it was to fill the reserved categories for women and youth in the forthcoming local council election candidates' lists, and how possibly, better or more suitable candidates were left out simply to put youth on the list because the law stipulates so.
Already, candidates on party lists have begun jumping like frogs to the other side of the political spectrum, even before the polls are held. This is the new breed of politician the people are being asked to vote for next week. This is the new breed of politician that the courts have given recognition to by preventing political parties from sacking them. These are the politicians who are welcomed with open arms by political leaders on the other side claiming victory even before the race has been run. Not so long ago the frogs jumped after the polls, now they jump even before the polls have been conducted.
It is in this backdrop, that the people are asked to trudge to their respective polling stations, with polling card and national identity card in hand and go through the motions of yet another façade of an election in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.