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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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