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JR’s Referendum and Chandrika’s Referendum - Part 1
Myths about the 1982 Referendum

By C .A. Chandraprema
Since the PA government has called for a referendum next month, JR’s referendum of 1982 has come in for much discussion. The 1982 referendum was the only instance when the provision’s for referenda in the present constitution were made use of. Much has been said of the referendum of 1982 almost all of it negative. That referendum has been immortalised in local folklore as the ‘laampu kalagedi sellama’.

The 1982 referendum

Was the 1982 referendum really rigged? It has become almost an article of faith, that JR’s referendum was full of electoral abuses. Most people who say that the 1982 referendum was full of abuses have not read then Election Commissioner Chandananda Silva’s report on the referendum which was released in late 1986 or thereabouts. It should be noted that Chandananda Silva’s report on the 1982 referendum made him at that time, a hero to the opposition and in large part would have contributed to his being offered the Defense Secretary’s post for his ‘impartiality’ when the PA came into power.

At the time this report came out, I was working for the ‘Christian Worker’ which was at that time the main intellectual mouthpiece of the left movement and it was I who read the election commissioner’s report and prepared extracts for publication. Today’s readers may not believe this, but according to this report, there was no wholesale stuffing of ballot boxes at the 1982 referendum as in the case of the Wayamba election in 1998 or the Parliamentary election last year. The election commissioner’s criticism of the referendum was on very different grounds.

At the 1982 referendum, what form did the alleged abuse take? People in the is country will be surprised at the actual contents of the Election Commissioners report. By today’s standards, the alleged abuses that took place during the referendum were so slight that they can easily be declared negligible. The propaganda skills of the socialists have turned the referendum into something like an electoral ‘holocaust’ on which everybody looks back in horror. Today’s generation who have neither had a direct experience of the 1982 referendum nor have read the election commissioner’s report on it, have got used to thinking of it as the primeval defilement - like the fall of man from the garden of Eden or the first manifestation of craving in Buddhist mythology (Agganna sutta) or like the rape of a virgin. All that is absolute nonsense and a product of the socialist myth mill of which I myself was a member at that time. The actual abuses reported at the 1982 referendum were as follows.

There was no ‘stuffing’

1.Firstly, the elections commissioner points out that using a referendum to extend the life of Parliament has no precedence anywhere even though referenda had been used to extend the terms of Presidents in countries like Haiti and Tunisia and so on. (The elections commissioner had however omitted to mention the extension of the life of Parliament in Sri Lanka in 1975 without a referendum and with just the government’s two thirds majority. In Sri Lanka JRJ brought the proviso that in order to extend the life of Parliament two thirds majority was not sufficient and that the people had to ratify such a decision at a referendum. A referendum was not used to extend the life of Parliament in any other country for the simple reason that in those countries, a two thirds majority of Parliament would have done the job! That is why the 1975 extension of Parliament has escaped the notice of the elections commissioner in his report. So the referendum was an additional safeguard that JRJ had introduced and not an abuse.)

2.The most conspicuous abuse reported at the 1982 referendum, was the display of electoral symbols after the cut off date. The government’s sign the lamp was prominently displayed in public places after the cut off date.

3.Then on election day, apparently, voters at certain polling booths were seen openly displaying their marked ballot papers. The elections commissioner on the one hand says that this could have been a cheap way of displaying political loyalties, but also that it could have been due to intimidation by outsiders who may have been watching hawk eyed at the ballot papers for detractors! The report says that such a display of ballot papers was unprecedented in previous elections where all voters had guarded the secrecy of their ballot. Despite that, 1982 was one of the UNP’s best years. It could well be that the UNP voters were openly displaying their cards in a show of bravado especially since they had won the previous Presidential elections and the outcome of the referendum was but a foregone conclusion.

In any case there was no stuffing of ballot boxes by goons. All the elections commissioner surmises is that people were displaying their ballot papers out of fear. That means that there were UNP goons outside each and every polling booth who either had exceptionally good eyesight or were equipped with binoculars to scrutinise from a distance the ballot papers of each and every voter as he went in to cast his vote. The country has over 9000 polling stations. Is that kind of scrutiny possible? The figures of the final result do not bear out the view that the public was unduly influenced in their voting in a manner as to change the outcome of the election. (see below)

4.Then the elections commissioner avers that polling agents were not present at some polling stations. This he says could have been due to intimidation. Considering the fact that the UNP had won the Presidential poll overwhelmingly just three months earlier, its is hardly surprising that opposition polling agents would have failed to show up at certain stations. And in any case, there were no ‘candidates’ as such at this referendum to organise and motivate the polling agents. Looking at the final figures, it is clear that even the absence of polling agents does not appear to have changed the result of the election in any substantial way.

5.The final charge of the elections commissioner about the referendum is that it was the first poll to be held while the emergency regulations were in force.

That in brief is the sum total of the election commissioners findings about the abuses at the 1982 referendum.

Anecdotes and gossip

In fact the elections commissioner himself says that there was a lack of evidence and of complaints about incidents and that talk of electoral abuses at the 1982 referendum remain in the realm of ‘gossip and discussion’ only. Knowing the heat generated by politics in this country, its incredible that there could be a paucity of complaints (not to the Police but at least to the electoral authorities) if there had been widespread abuse. The SLFP itself could have collected complaints through their polling agents. Can the display of electoral symbols, and the display of ballot papers and things like that be considered electoral abuse by today’s standards? The election commissioner’s report on the 1982 referendum which was widely used by the SLFP and the left parties to depict the referendum as having been rigged, never said anything of the sort. In comparison to the Wayamba election of 1998 and the Parliamentary election of last year the referendum of 1982 was a very free and fair poll.

The only genuine electoral abuse that the UNP indulged during the referendum of 1982 was to put Vijaya Kumaratunga in jail on trumped up charges of a ‘Naxalite’ conspiracy. Vijaya was a first class campaigner who could change the status quo simply by the force of his personality. At the 1982 August Presidential elections, Vijaya campaigned against the UNP with a second rate candidate in the form of Hector Kobbekaduwa and managed to increase the SLFP votes by seven hundred thousand after just five years in the opposition. And that mind you was in a context where the SLFP which he represented had nothing but a record of disaster behind it - a disaster moreover which was still fresh in the minds of the public. In contrast to this the UNP had only success behind it and they were enjoying one of the best periods in the party’s history. Having recognised Vijaya’s political skills, JRJ put him in the cooler until the end of the referendum. Now that certainly was a gross abuse not only of Vijaya’s natural rights, but also of the rights of the entire SLFP and the opposition, which lost the services of its best campaigner.

1981 Jaffna DDC election

In contrast to the referendum of 1982, the District Development Council election held in Jaffna in 1981 might be said to have been wanting in propriety. What happened in Jaffna in 1981 was that the TULF agreed to the DDC’s but the terrorist groups opposed them on the grounds that to contest the DDC’s would be to compromise on the call for a separate state and they threatened to disrupt the election. People went from Colombo to ensure that the elections were held and they did hold the elections but as Prof. Wiswa Waranapala said ‘amidst mob violence’. At that time the main Tamil opposition party was the TULF but they were fast being marginalised by the new terrorist groups they themselves had nurtured. The 1981 DDC elections was not a contest between the TULF and the UNP which were in agreement over the DDC’s - rather, it was a point scoring match between the government and the terrorist groups who wanted a boycott of the election.

The UNP did not want to win the Jaffna DDC rather they wanted to see that the TULF won despite the threats of the terrorists. And the TULF did win handsomely, getting no less than 83% of the valid votes and winning all ten seats in the Jaffna DDC! Unlike at the 1982 referendum where there was no stuffing of ballot boxes and the ‘lifting’ of ballot boxes, at the 1981 Jaffna DDC elections, ballot boxes were ‘lifted’ and reports about this appeared in the newspapers. It is obviously those people from Colombo who spirited away the ballot boxes. But that was not for the UNP to win but on behalf of the TULF. Amirthanlingam the leader of the TULF was quite satisfied with the DDC result and he expressed very positive views about the DDC system in an interview with The Sunday Island in November 1981. The TULF at that time was the main opposition party and the 1981 Jaffna DDC election was a unique case of the government ‘lifting’ ballot boxes to ensure that the opposition won!

Trash and take policy?

It is now time to de-mythologise the referendum of 1982. All this hype about the referendum of 1982 being rigged is because of the perception within the PA that the UNP managed to stay in power for seventeen years only by rigging all the elections. The PA is operating under a grave misconception. Because they erroneously think the UNP stayed in power through electoral abuse, they think they too can stay for as long as they like by stuffing the ballot boxes. This is an instance of socialists being misled by their own false propaganda. The fact is that the UNP was able to stay in power for seventeen years because of the massive social support they had. Any electoral abuse that would have taken place had only a very marginal secondary role in the UNP’s longevity in power.

From 1977 to 1994, all those who benefited from the open economy closed ranks when it came to elections because the SLFP had not changed its old socialist ideology. There was a very significant section of the population who did not want the carnival to end. When in Britain the question arose as to how Margaret Tatcher had won three consecutive terms in office, the only answer that analysts could come up with was the observation that even though 20% of the population may be unemployed, the other 80% are employed! It was the same in the case of the UNP. Even during the Premadasa regime when the UNP splintered and Gamini and Lalith went their separate way, still the business community and a large section of the general public still were with the UNP and they were quite happy with the status quo despite Premadasa’ mad antics.

It was only after 1993 when Chandrika Kumaratunga came into the scene and pledged to continue the open economic policy that the people saw the PA as an alternative to the UNP. So it was not electoral abuse that kept the UNP in power but the self interest of the public. And what will bring them back into power will also be the self interest of the public. The PA must now be scratching their heads and wondering how the UNP managed to stuff the boxes and prosper whereas they have not been able to so the same. They have stuffed the boxes and are still in power but at a terrible cost to themselves. Their leaders these days cannot be getting even the minimum duration of sleep a humanbeing requires! All this is because the PA has been operating on mistaken assumptions.

What the figures say...

An analysis of the numbers also does not support the idea that the 1982 referendum was rigged in the manner the PA rigged the Wayamba election or the last Parliamentary election. At the outset, it should be kept in mind that JRJ held a Presidential election in August 1982 which the Elections Commissioner endorsed as free and fair - at least in any case, better than the referendum. In fact the Elections Commissioner had contrasted the August Presidential election with the referendum held just three months later in December to say that the December referendum had been full of abuses in comparison to the earlier Presidential poll.

The heat generated by the referendum would of course have been somewhat higher than at the Presidential poll because JRJ made the mistake of telling his MP’s that he would make the referendum a test of the personal popularity of the incumbent MP and that by-elections will be held where government MP’s lost. This would naturally have caused the sitting MP’s to take a very personal interest in the referendum unlike at the Presidential campaign where they were not really the contestants. If JRJ had not made the referendum a test of the personal popularity of UNP MP’s, there would have been very little heat generated. This was a mistake JRJ made. He should have just allowed all MP’s to hold their seats if the referendum was won overall, regardless of the performance of the individual electorates. Be that as it may, JR’s mistake infused a certain amount of heat into the referendum which had not existed at the earlier Presidential election. Despite this heat, there still was no wholesale stuffing of ballot boxes and that point should be taken note of.

Look at the evidence of the figures. At the Presidential poll which the Elections Commissioner specifically stated was free and fair, the UNP got 52.9% of the vote. The UNP won handsomely. That was quite understandable because the years from 1977 to 1982 were JRJ’s best years. The country was at peace and we were enjoying a hitherto unprecedented economic boom. Moreover the opposition was very weak and the main opposition figure Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike was not a candidate. At the referendum held three months later, the government side got 54.7% of the vote. An increase of only 1.8 percentage points. Had there been wholesale stuffing, the UNP would have got much more.

Furthermore, at both these 1982 polls, the total number of registered voters was 8,145,015. At the Presidential elections there were 6,522,147 valid votes cast. Which was an 80% voter turnout. The voter turnout is always higher at crucial elections where power hangs in the balance. The UNP got a total of 3,450,811 votes and won. At the referendum which was held just three months later, the voter turnout came down to 5,747,206 or 70% of the electorate - which was quite normal as with the UNP victory just three months earlier, the outcome of the referendum was a foregone conclusion and for elections which are not decisive in terms of a possible change of power, the voter turnout tends to be lower than at major elections. In tandem with the reduction of the voter turnout, the votes polled by the UNP at the referendum went down to 3,141,223. If the UNP had practiced wholesale stuffing, how did the UNP’s votes get reduced by 309,588?

At the referendum the joint opposition got 2,605,983 votes. Three months earlier, all the opposition candidates at the Presidential election had polled 3,070,353 votes. So at the referendum, the joint opposition got 464,370 votes less than at the Presidential elections. This is quite understandable as generally in Sri Lanka, the opposition goes to sleep after losing an important election. When one examines the figures, there is no evidence to show that there was widespread stuffing. Abuses no doubt would have taken place, but they were certainly not substantial enough to have changed the outcome of the poll. The alleged electoral abuses of the 1982 referendum were nothing compared to what we have experienced under the PA government.
(To be continued tomorrow)


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