Slaying the hydra of election malpractice

The attitude of the two main parties, the SLFP and the UNP, towards election malpractice is the same as that of the developed world towards terrorism. They condemn it in public but make use of it on the sly to further their interests. Polls rigging and election violence become problematic for them only when they are out of power and without recourse to illegal means to win elections.

The UNP, the SLMC and the JVP have flung their arms in horror at what they describe as large scale rigging and violence at Saturday’s PC election in the Eastern Province. The UNP has threatened to expose the government and resort to legal action.

We don’t intend to discuss the allegations of polls malpractices in the East, as conclusive evidence has yet to be furnished. We only have a look at how political leaders of all hues have created the monster that the Opposition wants slain.

The country witnessed isolated incidents of malpractice at post-Independence elections under UNP and SLFP governments but in 1982 the situation took a turn for the worse. The presidential election held in that year marked a new low in Sri Lanka’s electoral history. The JRJ government with a five-sixth majority was guided by Rafferty’s rules in trying to retain the presidency. It left nothing to chance. There were mass scale rigging, violence and intimidation. Government goons detailed to stuff ballot boxes did such a thorough job that SLFP presidential candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa’s vote had already been cast by the time he went to his polling centre! The infamous referendum of 1982 was rigged to the core. Ballot boxes were stuffed while elections officers looked on helplessly. UNP politicians unleashed unbridled violence against the Opposition, won the referendum and extended the term of Parliament without an election. Thus, they retained their five-sixth majority with which they made many laws and even introduced amendments to the Constitution including the Thirteenth Amendment!

In the late 1980s, the situation was not conducive to any electoral exercise at all. The country was a veritable killing field where the law was silent. The JVP was on a killing spree with vigilantes matching its terrorism. But, PC polls, a presidential election and a general election were held. The JVP killed scores of people who dared cast their votes in defiance of its orders. Rigging knew no bounds. Provincial Councils were set up, a president was installed and a government formed on the basis of the outcome of those flawed elections. The 1991 Local Government election was marred by widespread rigging and the then British High Commissioner David Gladstone, who made an issue of election malpractice he had witnessed at a polling booth in the south, was declared persona non grata and sent back by the Premadasa government!

There occurred a reversal of roles when the SLFP-led PA formed a government in 1994. The SLFP, which had been campaigning for clean elections until then, outdid the UNP in rigging polls and using violence against the Opposition.

It was under the Kumaratunga government that the worst ever election took place. At the 1999 PC election in the North-western Province (Wayamba) , the PA flouted all the election laws, unleashed terror on the UNP and stuffed ballot boxes. In the run up to that election, UNP supporters including women had been stripped naked and paraded on roads to instill fear into the public mind. Ironically, President Kumaratunga’s trusted lieutenants who led Operation Wayamba from the front are now with the UNP. They are Mangala Samaraweera and S. B. Dissanayake. The then Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa also made a huge contribution to the PA’s ‘victory’ in Wayamba! All the elections that the PA government held were rigged and the UNP was harassed in every possible way.

Members of the so-called civil society organisations have taken up cudgels for voters’ rights. They need to be commended for their concern for democracy. Pillaiyan is, in their book, a monster that needs to be stopped in its tracks. They are entitled to their opinion. But, unfortunately, those NGO worthies are mum on what Prabhakaran and his band of terrorists did at the 2004 General Election.

This is what the European Union Election Observation Mission 2004 said about the situation in the areas where the LTTE was active. "The LTTE-motivated violence was due to two factors. Firstly, the LTTE intended that no Tamil party (or Tamil candidate from the mainstream political alliances) other than the TNA would be able to claim to represent Tamil interests. A chilling message to this effect was sent early in the campaign when a UNP candidate and an EPDP activist were murdered. Incidents such as this seriously restricted the right of parties other than the TNA to campaign freely in the North and East…If the election results in the North and East had been a critical factor in determining who formed the government, it would have raised questions about the legitimacy of the final outcome. The events that took place in this part of Sri Lanka during the course of this election were totally unacceptable and are the antithesis of democracy." (Emphasis added)

Today, the TNA members so ‘elected’ help make laws, oppose them and even vote against the extension of emergency and budgets in Parliament! Those who are baying for Pillaiyan’s blood don’t give a tinker’s damn about this kind of perversion of democracy, do they? And what moral right do they have to campaign for democracy?

The allegation that the Eastern PC polls were rigged must be probed and the Opposition has a right to pressure the government to do so. But, such ad hoc remedies won’t be efficacious enough to remove the rot eating into the vitals of the political system; not even the appointment of an Elections Commission will help tackle the problem unless politicians of the major parties make a determined effort to clean up the mess they have created over the years.

Are we hoping against hope?

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