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Battling political violence

Election related violence has manifestly taken a turn for the worse. Goons have graduated from pulling down cutouts to taking precious lives. Three persons have so far perished at their hands. The situation is expected to deteriorate within the next few days as the stakes both sides have in the forthcoming presidential polls are extremely high––absit omen!

The blame for this kind of violence should be placed at the doorstep of the government. It is the ruling party that resorts to violence with impunity by virtue of being at the levers of power in spite of its responsibility to enforce the law and maintain order. Obviously, most of the recent attacks have been carried out by government politicians and their backers determined not to leave anything to chance in a bid to win. Not to be outdone in this dirty game, the Opposition has struck back by killing a government supporter.

The question that concerned citizens ask is what must be done to reverse this frightening trend. Many of them believe that the appointment of the Independent Elections Commission is the solution. It, no doubt, needs to be set up, though whether it in itself will constitute a remedy as such is a moot point, if our experience with constitutional safeguards is anything to go by.

The Elections Commissioner, too, has a great deal of powers vested in him but regrettably he finds himself in a situation where he cannot make use of them effectively. Simply, because a remedy is prescribed by the Constitution, there is no guarantee of its workability. For instance, enshrined in the Constitution are our fundamental rights, but they are far from protected, aren't they?

On the other hand, there was time when elections used to be free and fair and devoid of violence, though an Independent Elections Commission was never heard of. The Elections Commissioner managed elections on his own. Thus, it may be seen that the fault basically lies with the kind of politicians we are saddled with. They are quite capable of driving a coach and horses through the Constitution! So long as they refuse to mend their ways or continue to joust for power according to Rafferty's rules, the rot is bound to persist.

The two main parties, the SLFP and the UNP, have taken turns––so to speak––in plunging the country into this unholy mess. The 1982 presidential election and the referendum which followed opened a new low in electoral politics. They were marred by unprecedented violence and rigging. We had the SLFP crying blue murder about political violence and election malpractices at that time but later after grabbing power it became the perpetrator.

The UNP is now playing the role of a damsel in distress to win public sympathy! The JVP is on a much publicised crusade against election violence but what did it do in the late 1980s? It unleashed unbridled terror to scuttle elections from 1987 to 89 but in vain. Its killer squads gunned down dozens of people for the crime of exercising their franchise in defiance of its orders to boycott polls. (The LTTE may have taken a leaf out of the JVP's book on sabotaging elections!) The EU polls monitors have pointed out that the TNA MPs owe their election in 2004 to the LTTE, which resorted to violence and mass scale rigging.

These politicians may join forces in a rare moment of unity and make laws aimed at achieving lofty goals but if we think they are sincere, we are only fooling ourselves. For, given half a chance, they will subjugate laws to their personal interests unflinchingly.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa stands accused of having acted in contravention of the Constitution as regards his failure to implement the 17th Amendment and making appointments to high posts. Former Army Chief Gen. (retd) Sarath Fonseka says he would implement that constitutional amendment if he were elected President. But, on his own admission, he, too, believes that the end justifies the means; he takes pride in the fact that he flouted rules and regulations in the army as regards promotions etc to win the war. He was also accused of not complying with some Supreme Court rulings in his capacity as the army commander. (Former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva has now thrown in his lot with Fonseka!)

The most effective way of dealing with the problem of political violence is for the people to reject violent politicians at elections. But, divided along party lines, they unfortunately seem to condone violence unless they happen to be at the receiving end. (After all, this is a country where the so-called civil society even refused to condemn terrorism!) That may explain why some ruffians get elected.

The police, certainly, need to be faulted for their failure to curb election violence. They do not deserve the salaries they are paid with public funds and IGP Mahinda Balasuriya has proved that he is not worth his salt.

However, the long arm of the law alone cannot deliver us from political violence. We believe, nothing short of a concerted effort by the police, politicians and the general public to work towards doing away with the prevailing culture of violence in the post-war period will help rid the country of the scourge. Most of all, there must be no room for double standards.

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