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
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
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
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
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!