Elections, democracy and civil society

The election campaign to the 13th General Election of Sri Lanka came to a close yesterday with all parties in the fray ending their campaigns with their final rallies. This election campaign was less violent than recent ones although regrettably four people were killed, in separate incidents, in the Eastern Province, which is now on the boil. But as we Sri Lankans say, ‘the match is not yet over’. Polling day usually marks the climax of the excitement and violence and quite often this is followed by post- election violence.

Violence, malpractice and corruption invariably have its origins in the contestants themselves and future violence in this election will depend on the attitude of political leaders.

Our observations indicate that by and large the masses conducted themselves fairly well despite the gross attitudes adopted by some leaders, particularly on TV. It was evident that that the media was being abused and we need not take upon ourselves to identify the performers. The public saw it all on the idiot box.

But what was the reaction of the public to such antics? No doubt they will give vent to their feelings on their ballot paper. It was quite apparent some leaders were taking the people to be buffoons.

Lying through their teeth, these politicians were apparently intoxicated and convinced by their own rhetoric. This kind of histrionics can keep the faithful cheering but not discerning voters.

In countries with an alert and active civil society, politicians and bureaucrats cannot get away by conning the people. By civil society, we mean true representatives of society, not a cabal of NGOs and not-so-well-known academics that have banded themselves together and are the oracles on any given subject - ethnic issue, foreign affairs, diplomacy, Sri Lankan history, sociology, women’s rights, human rights, archaeology, psychiatry, peace negotiations, election monitoring and of course the media and journalism. Today, this band of individuals numbering about a hundred are advisers to all Sri Lanka governments, foreign governments, foreign missionaries, well endowed foreign foundations and even the United Nations! They are all-purpose specialists with sure cures - Kokatath Thailaya -although what they have cured remains unknown

Where are our youth societies and youth organisations of political parties, the once very active trade unions, professional organisations, women’s’ organisations, consumer societies, long established religious organisations such as the YMBAs, YMCAs, YMMAs and their counterpart women’s organisations? They remain mute. If there is to be a vibrant democracy, such organisations must be rejuvenated and their voices heard on all vital issues. Governments on eve of elections can drastically reduce prices of consumer goods without having the foggiest idea of how the Treasury is to fund increased expenditure when a new government comes in. The people remain silent and in a few months the prices are jacked up sky high. This has happened before and we the citizens have been like donkeys following the carrot. Those foreign organisations who are quite generous in parting with vast sums for ‘strengthening democracy’ should realise that just one hundred odd individuals cannot constitute Sri Lankan civil society.

The emergence of Buddhist monks as a political party is clear proof of the absence of genuine grassroots level organisations to represent various sections of society. Its manifestation has obviously been catalysed by the anti-national cabal that is posing off as the sole representative of Sri Lankan civil society.

Hundreds of foreign election monitors backed by thousands of Sri Lankan monitors are to observe this election. We await their performance particularly in the north and east. To some of these local individuals, strengthening democracy has come to mean the strengthening of a terrorist organisation!

The Elections Commissioner, Mr. Dayananda Dissanayake has attempted to do his best, so far. Quite obviously the election machinery has to be strengthened and even revision of the constitution of the Elections Commission should be considered.

It cannot be a one-man show which Mr. Dissanayake was compelled to perform when his retirement application was refused by the Supreme Court and the President refused to appoint an Elections Commission. A powerful and fearless set of Election Commissioners is required to stand up to political leaders vested with unlimited executive powers. Mr Dissanayake had tried his best but that was not enough to prevent the gross abuse of the state media, particularly TV.

The Elections Commissioner has so far performed his duties to the limits of available power and resources. After elections it will be the responsibility of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Commander-in-Chief of the police and armed forces to maintain law and order.

Your comments to the Editor