Columns - FOCUS On Rights

Living in clover

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Many may sing hosannas to the gods following a little celebrated local government poll in which the ruling party claimed a victory which was hailed by their supporters and media propagandists in familiarly superlative if now slightly wearying terms. But surely did an election claim such little interest among the general public in recent times as did this one?

Inability to be shocked

This time around too, we had Commissioner of Elections Dayananda Dissanayake, (besides quite amusingly characterizing this as a ‘pleasant election’), castigating government politicians for abusing state resources. Mr Dissanayake should conserve his energies and refrain from even making such statements when it is patently clear that he intends to do nothing about it.

A courageous and principled Commissioner of Elections would have acted very differently at a point long time ago. It is clear that there is neither courage nor principles involved here in any sense whatsoever. But it is also clear that the situation will not be very different even if we had an Elections Commission, given that its members would be appointed under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution on the President’s sole dictates with little effective intervention by a proverbially toothless Parliamentary Council.

The basic integrity of the electoral process in this country has become deeply suspect following the Presidential polls of 2010 when we witnessed the ghastly spectacle of Mr Dissanayake literally weeping and wailing, though not quite gnashing his teeth, on national television amidst laments that he could not do his job anymore. The fact that he withdrew his unseemly laments three short days later and seemed happier than ever to continue in his job is, of course, old news. But as much as when the nadir is reached, very little has the power to shock or surprise any more, reports of violence, chasing away of polls agents and the misuse of state resources and the state media at the recent polls fail to stir any interest. How can they when so much has gone on before?

Crossing the line

Let me be clear on this point. This is not to say that we had elections as pure as the driven snow in previous years. On the contrary, the Wayamba elections will always be an ugly scar on the face of the Kumaratunge administration and many were the instances in previous years when elections were marred by violence and fraud. However, there was always a sense that a line should not be crossed. Indeed, the Wayamba example is a good one in this respect. As ugly as it was, public outrage at the level of intimidation and violence was strong and compelled a political response on the part of the then government. We have little of that public outrage left now regrettably.

On its part, a weak and pathetically ineffective Opposition is only able to issue frivolous statements from time to time urging the masses to rise up in revolt against a corrupt government. Cumulatively, the collapse of the Opposition is to the detriment of not only itself or indeed to the wider public interest as a whole. It is also to the detriment of the government. History always teaches us that a government with no opposition, either from public opinion or from alternative political parties, will tend towards despotism and ultimately its own destruction. What we see in the Middle East is a good reflection. This is perhaps a fitting lesson that Sri Lanka will learn in the years ahead.

Ironies in the negation of the law

At each and every point, the ironies in the manner in which the law is negated, are enormous. In the old systems, as flawed and problematic as public offices were, there was a semblance of dignity and integrity about them. We are already painfully aware of the fate that has befallen the Elections Commissioner. Another example is our doing away with the office of the Bribery Commissioner and instead installing a Bribery Commission in place along with what was said to be a vastly improved law on bribery and corruption. The effects and results of this ‘vastly improved law’ (however true this may be in theory) are negligible down the years.

Even when efforts are taken by the Commission to bring corrupt officials to justice, these efforts are negated at various levels, either through insufficiency of state resources, political infiltration of the Commission and at a higher level, political infiltration of the legal process. How can the result be any different when the overpowering authority of the executive determines the manner in which decisions are taken at all stages of the legal process? The bringing of the Department of the Attorney General under the direct supervision of the Presidential Secretariat was no accident after all surely?

Living in corruption and clover

In the meantime, the spoils are there for the most visible taking. Those victorious at the jostling for seats at the polls this week are now for a grand time in office where the pickings at the local government level (though nothing compared to the stupendous corruption at the national level) will still suffice to keep them in clover for a considerable period of time. We should wish them well indeed.

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