And so to the polls
The campaign ends at midnight today and the people will vote on Wednesday for a new government after what has undoubtedly been a hard fought election campaign. Given the violence weve seen up to now, with over twenty killed in election-related incidents according to some polls watchers, it is no surprise that most ordinary folk fear the worst both on polling day when the contenders for power are expected to use not just their muscles but goons and guns, as well as the post-election scene when victors are prone to settle political scores.
We can only hope that the bloodshed will be minimal, that the election will be free and fair and that a stable government capable of addressing the many pressing problems of this country and its people will be elected. Whether that will be so remains to be seen. What is clearly visible is increasing public disdain for the politicians of all parties seeking the peoples votes to govern them for the next five years. Many of them have track records as Members of Parliament and some as ministers or deputy ministers. People know how good or bad they have been in office. Ordinarily, that would suffice to decide whether they deserve your vote or not.
Sadly, the choice is not that simple. The voter must also decide on a party. Parties too have their own records like their candidates and given those of the major contenders, a selection has to be made of the lesser of the evils on offer. There are no knights in shining armour charging forth to rescue Lady Lanka in this her hour of distress. Theres just a bunch of very ordinary politicians, some with records that do not bear examination, seeking election they say to serve the people who know pretty damn well that most of what will be dished out will be of the self-service variety.
Weve heard PA stalwarts, Anura Bandaranaike and Sarath Amunugama among them, telling us what we already know: that whatever the outcome of this election, President Chandrika Kumaratunga will continue to sit on the presidential throne enjoying those despised powers that enabled her to call an expensive election one year after the last one after her government was reduced to a minority in the legislature. That happened, according to the president and her cohorts, due to a "conspiracy." Even though we are notorious for our short memory as a nation, the event complained of was recent enough for most to remember that it was Kumaratunga herself who kicked out Rauf Hakeem from the government, precipitating the end of the PA administration.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, who granted interviews to the Sunday papers last week, certainly had a point when he says that people voted for a party more than a candidate, and if an MP wants to switch sides, he should quit his seat. In the old pre-PR days of the Westminster-style first-past-the-post, such healthy conduct was more possible than now because the departing MP could have gone before the people at a by-election and sought their verdict. But today, the next man on the party list gets the vacant seat. In any case, the last example of honourable conduct in this regard that readily comes to mind is that of Mr. Gamini Jayasuriya who did not like JRJs Indo-Lanka Agreement and not just quit his ministry but also his seat even though there could be no by-election where he could well have emerged a hero.
While we do concede Wickramanayakes argument, we note that he has not said how the same logic did not apply when the PA took Sarath Amunugama, Wijayapala Mendis (once roundly condemned over a land deal), Nanda Mathew, etc. from the UNP and made them ministers at the tail end of the last parliament. The long and the short of these things is that these principles are only for other people, not yourself. We didnt hear the UNP whimpering about the crossovers then, at least so loudly. But they certainly have been able to embrace the likes of S.B. Dissanayake at whom bell, book and candle were thrown after October 2000 on various scores including electoral malpractice. And Wijayapala is back where he started. JRJ had an anti-defection formula, but that allowed one way traffic - from the opposition to the government!
Mr. John Cushnahan, a Member of the European Parliament whos leading an European Union Election Observation Mission here very pertinently said last week that violence was murdering democracy in Sri Lanka. He was here with a similar EU mission last year too and has drawn attention to something that should have struck us Sri Lankans even more forcefully than it did him and his team: that there were so few prosecutions following the high level of violence at the October 2000 election. "How is it possible?" he has asked. How indeed. As he has unequivocally said, it is the government in power that has a particular political and moral responsibility in ensuring that the entire security apparatus of the state is mobilized to keep violence out of the political process. But what we have here is that the ruling party utilizes a goodly part of the forces to unleash violence on its opponents.
We would wish that the Election Commissioner himself used the powers of the 17th Amendment to more purpose than was evident in the campaign. Hopefully he would do so even at this stage, adding lustre to the office he holds and setting a precedent for his successors. His obligation is to be strictly independent and not be bulldozed by anybody, whether in government or opposition, to allow the election to be tarnished in any way. The support of the masses to this principle will strengthen the hands of the authorities greatly. After all we had a good election in 1994 under President Wijetunga when his party lost office after 17 years and a smooth transition to a new regime even though the president and prime minister belonged to different parties.
Your comments to the Editor