Eastern Province: First things first!

Democracy without elections is like a cat in hell. Both have the same chances of survival. Therefore, it is said, some election is always better than no election at all. Elections may not be one hundred per cent free and fair in some situations but they must be held on schedule lest dictatorial tendencies of the powers that be raise their ugly head. Franchise, as we argued the other day, must be exercised regularly like the human body to ward off disuse atrophy.

It is thanks to elections that this country remains a functional democracy. Elections have been marred by violence and rigging in the past but they have helped keep democracy alive. In a country embroiled in a protracted conflict with the military having come to dwarf democratic institutions, elections are needed more than anywhere else, if disasters are to be avoided. Similarly, elections are the best antidote to terrorism.

The UNP deserves plaudits for having conducted elections in the late 1980s amidst JVP violence aimed at sabotaging them and destroying democracy. Those elections were not free and fair but the fact that they were held stood the country in good stead. If the UNP had not replaced a general election with a referendum in 1982, perhaps the JVPís second uprising would not have occurred, as a change of guard or a reduced majority for the UNP government at an election would have obviated the factors such as arrogance of power and suppression of dissent that fuelled public consternation which the JVP capitalised on to take up arms on the pretext of opposing the Indo-Lanka Accord etc. Ironically, today, we have the UNP boycotting the eastern polls.

No true democrat will ever oppose elections under any circumstances. We are intrigued by the reports that a collective of NGOs has called for the cancellation of the local government polls in Batticaloa scheduled for March 10. We wouldnít have been surprised if that call had come from Pillaiyan or any other terrorist averse to democracy. Those civil organisations have demanded that the government disarm the armed groups in the area, prevent fuelling of ethnic tension, improve freedom of movement, allow Batticaloa IDPs to be registered as voters and reappoint the Constitutional Council. We canít but endorse these demands, which must be met by the government. But, should elections wait till all these conditions are satisfied?

This is not the first election to be held in the Eastern Province since the inception of the conflict. Presidential and general elections were held in the East under far worse conditions at a time when the LTTE was active there. Why didnít any civil society organisations object to those elections? We have also had elections in the North including some of the so-called LTTE-held areas. And several MPs have been returned on the basis of the outcome of past elections marred by large scale rigging and violence in those parts of the country. There are 22 TNA representatives in Parliament. But for the LTTE which used unbridled terror and rigging in their favour, their election wouldnít have been possible. And today, they are speaking for the Tamil people! Anyway, we have no alternative but to go on the basis that some MPs are better than no MPs at all!

Displacement of voters is, no doubt, a big problem. But, this is not the only election where the people have been deprived of their voting rights. Tens of thousands of Muslims, Sinhalese and anti-terror Tamils were chased from the North by the LTTE but elections have taken place there several times. Parliament has passed many laws with the participation of MPs elected from those areas. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers whose hard earned money keeps the economy ticking have been denied their right to vote. So, if the displacement of voters or denial of voting rights to some people is a reason for cancelling an election, then no electoral exercise is possible in this country.

The NGO collective concerned wants armed groups stripped of their weapons. One couldnít agree with them more! Only the security forces and the police must be allowed to carry arms. What about the North? Why didnít those outfits make that demand prior to elections in the North and the East when the LTTE was in a position rig them? And why is it that they donít demand that the government disarm all the armed groups including the LTTE? Do they believe the Wanni Tigers are more equal than the Eastern Tigers? And how do they think elections should be conducted in the North in the future? Will they urge the government to seize the weapons of the LTTE before holding polls?

Worthy members of the civil society may learn from their donors the importance of elections. The US-led forces went to the extent of invading Afghanistan and Iraq to rekindle democracy in those countries through elections. The elections they held were far from free and fair but the fact remains that they served a useful purpose as the people were empowered and entrusted with the running of their own affairs to some extent. The situation in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka is not as bad as that in either Afghanistan or Iraq, is it?

A prerequisite for demilitarising the Eastern Province is the strengthening of democratic institutions at the grassroots level through elections. There are, of course, problems, as the NGOs have pointed out. The Pillaiyan Group is running riot and the LTTE is resorting to the Montessori level terrorism or hit and run tactics. There are complaints of IDPs not being registered as voters. But, if we are to wait till normalcy returns to have elections in the East, we will have to wait till kingdom come.

The eastern democracy is like a patient recuperating from a major operation. It must be made to be on its feet however painful that exercise may be. That needs to be done for the sake of its well-being. Let other matters like Pillaiyanís violence, the reappointment of the Constitutional Council etc., be dealt with separately. First things first!


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