The polls-related irregularities which occurred with disconcerting rapidity in the lead-up to the just-concluded Southern Provincial Council election compel us to revert to the demand that the authorities stringently ensure the prevalence in this country of the Rule of Law. While who will emerge victorious in our usually keenly fought local electoral contests is always a matter of priority concern for most voters, it is the success with which the Rule of Law is upheld by the state and its agencies which would have a decisive and long standing impact on this country’s well being.
While the relentless politicization of almost all our state institutions over the decades has made the achievement of fairness and justice a near impossibility in most public spheres, we believe it is up to our senior public servants in particular, to go more than the extra mile to make these crucial democratic ideals a reality. If they prefer to take the ‘line of least resistance’ in this momentous undertaking and throw in their lot with wrong-doers and miscreants, out of a concern for personal interests in particular, they have failed appallingly, both as servants of the people and as humans. It could be said that they have lived in vain and compounded the problems faced by this country rather than rendered their mite to resolve them. Through their permissiveness and faint-heartedness, they become living travesties of what public servants ought to be and are destined to be indistinct non-entities in public sector history.
Most elections in this country have proved to be ‘bloody’ affairs so far and force on us the conclusion that the laws of the land are more silent than operative at the time they are conducted. In the case of the Southern PC election, it was clear that a plethora of election irregularities were permitted to flourish, including brutal attacks on opposition candidates; not to speak of the bloody internecine battles among UPFA candidates themselves.
Laws were violated with wanton disdain by some sections until electioneering officially came to a close, and it was plain to see that some opposition parties were locked in an unequal struggle with state-linked groups in their efforts to carry out election chores. We wonder whether complaints of assault by opposition candidates against UPFA-linked lawless elements have been probed and the wrong-doers brought to justice? If the answer is in the negative, the conclusion is inescapable that the laws are silent. And if the laws are silent, state personnel, such as the law enforcement authorities and the Elections Commissioner have a lot of explaining to do.
A redeeming feature in this bleak electoral picture was the decision by the Supreme Court a few weeks back, to call on a number of state personnel, such as the Elections Commissioner, the Attorney General and the IGP, to stringently enforce electoral laws in the South. That this directive was not carried out or was weakly enforced, was evident in a decision by the Elections Commissioner to call a news conference as late as the middle of last week, and warn that if the Police did not put an end to polls malpractices, such as the continued display of banners and cutouts of candidates, he would be compelled to cancel the poll in some areas of the South, such as Hambantota.
This action by the Commissioner of Elections Dayananda Dissanayake smacks of late action of a very desperate kind. He is in effect closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. What caused him to dilly-dally until so late an hour? Obviously, the Commissioner was mechanically going through the relevant forms to guard against the criticism that he did nothing to stem the rot in the South. He was depending on the fig leaf of a late warning, to stave off the blame he had earned over his inaction to stem polls malpractices in time.
That the authorities have a lot of explaining to do, is evident also in a complaint made by the JVP to the Supreme Court, alleging the adoption of double standards by the Road Development Authority (RDA), in a matter concerning the display of party symbols. Essentially, the JVP case is that the RDA had overlooked the display of the betel leaf symbol on the roads of Tangalle but had complained to the Police against the JVP on spotting a bell symbol on a road. If true, this is a case of blatant discrimination, besides proving that a blind eye has been turned on the unlawful display of symbols.
Evidently, Sri Lanka has learned nothing from her tormented post-independence history scarred by the emasculation of the Rule of Law, misgovernance, power abuse, inefficiency, favouritism, opportunism and many more evils which seem to only draw new blood as governments come and go.
There is news in the air of a new constitution. As long as such constitutions truly serve the people they are welcome. But a number of basics should be put in place by these constitutions if they are not to prove the big disappointment most other constitutions of this country have turned out to be so far. If power in a few hands is the sole aim of these grand plans, the people of this country could consider themselves further doomed. But if the equal empowerment of people is anticipated, the new constitutional plans could be given a try.
However, careful consideration should be given to the long-overlooked Separation of Powers doctrine while giving effect to these constitutional arrangements. Senior public servants would not be seeking cover behind fig leafs today and attempting to pass the buck for their lapses if their powers and responsibilities were not tampered with by those wielding political power. It is our position that the public servant should be left absolutely alone to carry out the tasks entrusted to him and he could do so only if he is absolutely independent.
The political elite of Sri Lanka needs to see in an independent public service, a national asset of great worth. It is the elite’s hankering after absolute power which has helped in accelerating the process of national degeneration. On the other hand, if senior public servants, such as the Elections Commissioner, are allowed to carry out their responsibilities unhindered, the institution of democracy would be greatly nourished and this would lead to relative peace and prosperity.
Accordingly, the people need to receive today’s electoral verdict from the South with enormous equanimity. For, the troubled election campaign should have brought home to them how far Sri Lanka still is from perfect democratic health.