The UPFA’s predictable victory in the local government electioan, while it represents a decisive result, needs to be weighed against many negatives that have come to light throughout the campaigning period up to and including Election Day. Most obvious was the violence. Less obvious are the qualitative aspects of that violence, the profile of its perpetrators and the changing picture that emerges, of the electoral struggle.
When election monitors describe this election as being relatively ‘peaceful,’ they mostly refer to the conditions that prevailed on Election Day. Their observations on the run-up period are based on statistics, e.g. the number of cases of murders, assaults, damage to property etc. By their very nature these reports do not enlighten the reader on certain other aspects of the contest that nevertheless have come to light.
For example it was reported in the media that out of 140 arrests made in connection with election-related violence no less than 15 were the candidates themselves.
We cannot very well expect the election monitors to carry separate columns in their ‘excel’ sheets for “offences committed by candidates,” or “candidates arrested.” (Maybe they will have to add them in future!)When asked to comment on the nature of the offences allegedly committed by these 15 candidates, Senior DIG (Elections) Gamini Navaratne said “Some are criminals.” Asked if this meant that some of the persons presenting themselves as candidates for election in fact had a criminal record, he said: “If they commit harm, it shows they have a criminal mind.”
This is indeed a sorry reflection on the profile of those who solicit the people’s vote. Members of local authorities are persons who are likely to contest parliamentary elections and may become the future lawmakers of this country. Do we want law breakers as our law makers? For every one of these 15 candidates who were arrested there would be dozens of ‘supporters’ who also committed offences, for which they may or may not have been arrested.
The battle among candidates of the same party competing for the preferential vote or ‘manape,’ has become typical of elections under the proportional representation system, and has resulted in at least three deaths this time around. Two in Galle district on March 4 and one in Kegalle district on Election Day. In Peraliya, Galle, it was a case of shooting by men on motor bikes. In Kegalle the UPFA supporter who died was reportedly “slashed with a sword” by a fellow party member. This was not the only incident involving this particular mode of violence. UNP deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya strongly condemned an incident in Beruwela (Kalutara distict) where a UNP candidate’s “hand was cut.” The crime was allegedly committed by a UPFA rival, a candidate himself.
In Walasmulla (Hambantota district) armed goons attacked a rally addressed by UNP MP Sajith Premadasa. But here the action did not go according to script, and the thugs themselves fell victim to their crime when they reportedly got electrocuted by power lines that collapsed when they fired in the air. With one dead body and another hospitalized one would think the police have enough leads to make swift progress in the investigation, but a stony silence surrounds the case.
In Dambulla it was reported that UNP candidate Manjula Rajapaksa was hospitalized after being assaulted by a gang led by a Provincial Councillor. In Biyagama UNP candidate Manoj Abeysinghe was hospitalized after being beaten up by an ‘unknown’ gang. The list goes on.
Where do the guns and hand grenades come from, in the many incidents involving weapons? Are there underworld connections? Are political leaders unable or unwilling to screen applicants so that criminal elements are kept out? It may be useful to take a step back in time to trace the path of the selection process.
At the time applications were called for, it was evident there was a huge demand to get onto the nomination lists of the main parties. The period for handing in nominations was Jan. 20 to 27. On Jan. 21 neither the UPFA nor UNP had finished compiling their lists. According to UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha, the main constituent party of the UPFA - the SLFP - alone had received over 12,000 applications, out of which a total of approximately 5100 names would be selected for nominations countrywide. (These applications would exclude those received by the UPFA’s partners such as EPDP, SLMC etc.)
UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake on the same day said the UNP (contesting alone) had received over 15,000 applications, for a similar number of nominations countrywide. Both party secretaries indicated there was no qualification as such required to be nominated. The available slots were filled by newcomers after accommodating the existing local government members of their parties. After selections were completed, the total number of candidates from all political parties and independent groups contesting the election was a staggering 29,000. They were competing for a total of 3022 spots.
It is difficult to believe the tens of thousands of persons clamouring for nominations do so out of a burning desire to serve the people, or the party. The attraction would seem to lie in the prospect of getting a foothold in the power hierarchy, and the opportunities for self-advancement that seem to go with it. Such was the pressure to secure a spot on a nomination list that many of those who were disappointed by one party would waste no time in crossing over to another, or contesting as independents. Needless to say, the profile that emerges of the typical applicant for local government election candidacy does not exactly present a prospect for anything like ‘good governance.’
It may also be noted that there was a stark contrast between the intensity of the scrum among candidates to get elected on the one hand, and the distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of voters, on the other. There is reason to believe that for some voters it was not just apathy that kept them away from the polls, but anger. This seemed to be the case with the people of Dimbulagala (Polonnaruwa district) who complained they had been without electricity for years. They reportedly put up banners forbidding any politician from campaigning in their village. On Election Day TV broadcasts showed them ritualistically burning their ballots. What this signals is not just disillusionment with one party or another, but a loss of faith in the system itself.
The intense campaign activities of candidates, it would seem, had little to do with wooing the voter and were instead focused on beating fellow party candidates, often by foul means, to secure a foothold in the power structure. Given that there was little more than a 50 per cent voter turnout at this election, political leaders including the victors would do well to consider for a moment what the other half thinks of them.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist