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Saturday, 15 October 2011

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Conditions for violence-free polls

Last week, the governing United People’s Freedom Alliance should have been celebrating an unprecedented near-whitewash victory at the local authority elections, the third phase of which took place last Saturday.

Apart from the Colombo Municipal Council, the UPFA swept the board - in Kalmunai, the victory was by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a constituent party in the governing coalition.

Even in Colombo, the United National Party had to form a minority administration. The Municipal Councils of Kandy, in which the UNP had been undefeated for 58 years and of Nuwara Eliya, which it had held for 28, fell to the UPFA.

In much of the country, the Grand Old Party was rendered irrelevant, getting less than 30 percent of the vote and in some, less than a quarter.

Bitter medicine

The election has also apparently sealed the fate of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the enfant terrible of mainstream politics. It secured a handful of individual seats scattered across the island.


Elections strengthen democracy. Picture by Nissanka Wijeratne

Its biggest humiliation came in Sri Jayawardanapura Kotte, where it failed to win a seat, although it had been represented in the council since 1997 - but the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, contesting separately from the UPFA, did.

This must be bitter medicine for the JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva who, in the wake of the 1997 Local Council elections, said that the LSSP and the Communist Party were ‘now stumbling like lame ducks’.

The greatest victory for the government was that these elections took place at all.

There had not been meaningful Local Government elections in the North and East for three decades. Now only two councils in the Vanni remain, where landmines remain to be cleared.

Urban settlements

The extent to which peace prevailed was demonstrated when President Mahinda Rajapaksa went on an unescorted ‘walkabout’ in Colombo’s urban settlements, the dreaded ‘Koreas’ where the law did not penetrate and where drugs and prostitution remain rife.

However, instead of celebrating its victory the government, from the President down went into mourning for former parliamentarian Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, a trade unionist and presidential advisor.

Bharatha was popular with fellow politicians as well as with ordinary people.

Coming from a politically progressive family, he was involved in working class politics from his youth.

The shoot-out which led to his death was appalling, to say the least. The brazen nature of the ambush made it clear that the culture of impunity has not disappeared completely since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam two years ago.

The incident was most damaging from the point of view of the country’s attempts to escape from the image of a criminally violent banana republic, as its detractors have portrayed it.

Indian authorities

Although an arrest was made that same day, the BBC reported neither it nor the others that followed, including the apprehension on Thursday of two suspects by the Indian authorities.

Significantly, the Associated Press, in its report on the incident, published in The Australian, on Canada’s CTV and in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, commented that ‘Election violence is common in Sri Lanka.’

Similarly, Agence France Press said that ‘rights groups said the shooting underscored the link between violence and politics on the island.’

The President, in his press briefing on Thursday, made it clear that he was aware of the ramifications, both political and social, of the Walpola shoot-out. He said he had ordered the confiscation of all illegal arms and that security personnel should be in uniform.

He noted that the problem of political violence was compounded by the fact that some politicians depended on the criminal underworld for the purpose of protection and support.

Security personnel

Fear of terrorism made widespread the use of security personnel by politicians; but now a large entourage of security personnel and large motorcades has become a status symbol, an expression of personal power.

He also identified as one of the root causes of this violence the squabble between candidates for preferential votes. Many of those who get elected emerge from the same criminal milieu as the goons recruited for ‘security’.

It is an unfortunate fact that the general election of 1977 changed radically the culture of politics in Sri Lanka. While there had been political violence before, it had not been a part and parcel of the process as it subsequently became.

Criminal underworld

The preferential vote system played its part in institutionalising the mores of violent politics. The system favours candidates capable of spending large sums of money.

Whereas earlier politicians depended on volunteers to canvass, stick posters and to provide an entourage, now the norm is to do all this on contract. Candidates may be more representative of the people but incapable of the expenditure necessary to create the essential PR impact.

The system naturally favours the wealthy, especially those who have ready cash in hand.

The people who have this capability are either from or have strong links with the black economy and the criminal underworld.

The restoration of a political culture devoid of violence and impunity requires not only the overt action of enforcing the law. It also needs a reform of the political system to improve representation of the ordinary people.

An indispensable part of that reform is the replacement of the preferential vote system and the modification of the proportional representation system to bring back in some form the single-member constituency.

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