With an unerring sense of timing as it were, a giant cut-out of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made its appearance at an important location in Colombo. Apparently, die-hard supporters of the President have lost no time in reacting to the announcement of the date of the presidential poll. Right now, such extravagant shows of support may perhaps not be violative of election-related laws but they could be making short work of our municipal and connected regulations. Nevertheless, with such exuberant but intimidatory gestures of political allegiance, we may be receiving a bitter foretaste of what is to follow by way of strident political campaigning with unsettling law and order implications.
No-holds-barred, heady campaigning is part of a country’s electoral process and it is only the naïve who would expect things to be otherwise, but the country would in no way stand to gain by violations of the law and it is not only the ruling party which is capable of playing ducks and drakes with the law and order situation of the land, as should be evident by now. In a keenly fought electoral contest, violations of the electoral law could be expected and our request is that the Elections Commissioner and his team be proactively engaged in upholding and maintaining electoral regulations. It should be clear to them that nothing could be left to chance.
As a senior public servant with an exceptionally and unusually long tenure, Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake could consider himself as having been through the proverbial mill of holding elections amid the most adverse conditions. Given his experience and exposure in this regard, he could have no excuses for not holding the scales evenly in an electoral contest which cannot be expected to be a model one, although we hope we would be proved wrong on this score, given the unusually high stakes on offer. Therefore, our hope is that conscience and discretion would be the ruling forces among those who have been entrusted with the task of holding a free and fair presidential election on January 26, next year.
The experience of this country over the decades is that state resources are severely abused at election time by ruling parties and coalitions. This has been the case irrespective of which party has been holding the reins of power. This is one of the biggest threats to a free and fair election and the democratic process in this country would be impoverished and undermined to the extent to which this is permitted by the authorities; in this instance the Elections Commissioner and the law enforcers.
How could the abuse of state resources be prevented, therefore, emerges as a key question and we hope the relevant authorities are addressing their minds to this issue. In this connection, we regard as the height of ‘double talk’ and ‘double think’, an allegation by Minister Keheliya Rambukwella that Retd. General Sarath Fonseka is abusing the facilities given to him by the state by inviting into his present residence ‘unauthorized persons and vehicles’. The Minister has tried to grab the moral high ground on this issue by accusing Fonseka of acting ‘unethically’ by granting admission into his state-owned residence of ‘unauthorized’ persons, but it is our view that none in the current administration could point an accusing finger at others on this score because everyone in the chain of authority gleefully and greedily make most of the official resources at his command.
However, we call on the state to probe this issue impartially because the impression should never be created that the state is on a vendetta trail, now that Fonseka has made plain his intention of entering politics. We need to admit that the unauthorized, ‘forceful’ entry of uniformed personnel into the residence of a key political personality, for whatever reason, could be construed as harassment by the state of the person concerned. To the extent to which this is true, to the same degree has the state abused its authority. Therefore, it would be best for the government to clear the air by probing the incident impartially and justly.
The relentless proliferation of the mass media in this country over the years and their pervasive reach has made control over the media a key issue in local elections, as indeed it is in the majority of modern states. Except in situations where the incumbent regime has been extremely unpopular and therefore shown the thumbs-down by the people, ruling administrations have, generally speaking, managed to remain in power by virtue of the control they have been able to exercise over the state-controlled media, besides other factors.
This is an issue that the election authorities and other concerned sections need to address their minds to. As we see it, the issue needs to be settled right away because thorny questions such as these tend to mar the democratic process through the plethora of disputes they spur among political parties and contestants. Therefore, the Election Commissioner would do well to draw-up some ground rules on the use of the media and other vital resources at election time, in consultation with political parties and other connected sections of democratic opinion. We need to recognize that this one area where power abuse is possible.
The labours of the election authorities cannot end here. They are required to go into every aspect of electioneering to ensure that the free and fair nature of the polls is preserved. We hope that this time around the necessity would not arise for no less an institution than the Supreme Court to remind them of their duties. We urge them to go about fulfilling their obligations proactively, so that the electoral system would be fool proof by the time of the elections.
The spectre of a bloody election should not be allowed to haunt this country. We should be glad that whatever this country may otherwise lack, it is not without some of the basic features of representative governance. This is a valuable legacy which we need to bequeath to succeeding generations without a break. It is the conduct of clean, democratic elections which would enable us to preserve this legacy. The Election Commission, the law enforcement authorities and the democratic forces of the country play a crucial role in perpetuating this tradition of representative governance. Nothing could be timelier than a consensus and resolve among these sections to ensure the holding of free and fair polls.
Towards this end may there be continuous and meaningful consultations: this is our wish.