Today Sri Lankans will go to the polls to decide a race that has become too close to call. The election itself has been the most bitterly contested one in recent times. It has also seen the most one-sided utilization of state machinery in favour of the ruling party candidate in a long time. Religious leaders have felt impelled to issue calls for the government to implement the law with regard to the need for balanced and fair coverage by the state media and for all contesting parties to ensure an environment for free and fair elections. The Election Commissioner even removed the competent authority he had appointed to ensure balanced and fair media coverage in the state media and accused the authorities therein of having humiliated his appointee.
The blitz in the state media included documentaries on Hitler and Idi Amin and numerous commentaries on the danger of those with military backgrounds getting into politics. There is no doubt that these too were part of the government’s election campaign to dissuade voters from choosing former Army Commander, retired General Sarath Fonseka, who has emerged as incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s main opponent. The state media’s propaganda campaign was further supported by the massive billboard and poster campaign which the law enforcement authorities failed to put a stop to for the most part, despite directions from the Election Commissioner.
In addition to the propaganda abuses, there were numerous occurrences of election-related violence that were primarily directed against the supporters of General Fonseka’s candidature. This also sent a strong message to the electorate that the government was determined to win this election at all costs. However, unlike in the case of the government’s abuse of the state media, to which the opposition activists had no real answer, they had an answer to the election-related violence that was unleashed against them. They too started their own violence, meeting force with force.
The escalation of election violence however was controlled by positive steps taken by the leaderships of the two rival camps. The party secretaries of the two main parties publicly and jointly called for an end to the violence. It was noticeable that the level of election related violence was reduced in the final days of the campaign. The Police began to act more decisively to crack down on violence. But ironically this might also have been due to the fight back of the opposition at the street level. The increased assaults of government supporters by those of the opposition would have persuaded the government to finally crack down on election related violence by getting the law enforcement authorities to act more even handedly.
Despite government claims to the contrary, and public opinion polls that government controlled media have publicized, most independent analysts have predicted a closely fought election. The danger in this situation is that if President Mahinda Rajapaksa only manages to secure a victory in which the margin of victory is small, the opposition will be positioned to challenge the legitimacy of that victory. They may be able to create an impression amongst the general public that it was the assorted variety of governmental violations of the election law and principles of free and fair elections that obtained the victory for the incumbent President. In the event of a small majority they may be able to project the President’s victory as an illegitimate one that was won by illegitimate means.
For the past few weeks, but now increasingly in the last few days, there have been allegations by the opposition that preparations are being made by the government to even rig the polls. The utilization of old electoral registers due to the inability to hold a census in the north for the past three decades and the alleged printing of more ballot papers than available voters has caused concern of possible rigging. Another allegation is that the issuance of temporary identity cards for voters had shortcomings in them. The most credible warning has come from the head of the Police himself who has warned of a plan by unnamed groups to deprive voters of their identity cards in order to engage in election malpractice.
The more or less one-sided utilization of the state machinery to bolster the chances of victory of the incumbent President has created an indelible impression of a government determined to win the elections by all means at its disposal. Under normal circumstances, a victory by President Rajapaksa might have indicated a stronger possibility of continuity in policy, which would create a more stable environment in which economic development and political reform could occur. The President has also dominated his party coalition, and is its main strength, which may be why he decided to contest the Presidential Elections a full two years before his term ended.
Although the powers of the presidency are very great, they can be fully utilized only if the incumbent President has a Parliamentary majority backing him. A hostile Parliament can cripple the functions of the President by its control over the allocation of national finances. This was seen in 2001 when former President Chandrika Kumaratunga lost her Parliamentary majority. She became subordinate to the Prime Minister when it came to decision making. General Elections are due by mid-year the latest, with the dissolution of Parliament having take place by April with the completion of the full six year term of Parliament. The President may have felt it necessary to set a winning momentum by contesting first.
Due to the serious shortcomings in the campaign period, a narrow victory by President Rajapaksa can be adduced to be evidence that unfair practices made all the difference between the winner and loser. The opposition might seek to utilize this belief to mobilize its supporters on the basis that the election was neither free nor fair. This political mobilization can also serve the interests of the opposition parties, as it will provide them with a focal point for unity to face the General Elections together as well. Such a scenario would ensure that instability, uncertainty and confrontation will not end with the Presidential Election but will continue at least until the General Election and even thereafter.
Given the alliance of political parties that are supporting him, the most salutary feature of a Fonseka presidency would be the likelihood of a more multi-party mode of governance. General Fonseka does not have a political party of his own, nor has he given any indication of wishing to form one. Instead he is contesting as the common opposition candidate and his candidacy is being supported by the two largest opposition parties, the UNP and JVP, which have never worked together before. In addition, the two major ethnic based parties, the Tamil National Alliance and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress have joined the opposition alliance. Governing with such a diverse multi party coalition can become a complicated balancing act never before attempted in the country.
While a victory by General Fonseka would see a greater sharing of power within the political system, it could also lead to more fragmented decision making in contrast to the monolithic style of the Rajapaksa presidency. A Fonseka victory could soon lead to a tussle within the opposition alliance which could prevent reforms in the important areas of constitutional and economic reform. The desire of the ethnic minority parties for the devolution of power to the provinces could be met by opposition from the JVP. The UNP’s desire to foster market-led economic growth and cut back on the burgeoning size of the public sector and engage in privatization could also be opposed by the JVP.
Both President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka have promised a plethora of reforms if they are elected. But until the reforms take place, the actions and intentions of the newly elected President will have the most decisive impact on the future of the country. There are many burning issues that have been highlighted in the course of these elections. These include the cost of living, corruption and impunity with regard to the rule of law. There is also the issue of the post war rehabilitation and compensation of the people of the war affected north and east. As they live faraway from the centre of power in the south, and constitute a minority, their concerns would not ordinarily have been uppermost in the minds of political candidates seeking a majority of national votes. But, ironically on this occasion it is they who may make the difference.
Whatever the outcome of the Presidential elections, these hotly contested elections demonstrate that the people’s desire for democracy remains vibrant and change is possible. After nearly three decades of war, terrorism and economic under performance, Sri Lankans of all persuasions are looking to a new era of peace and economic prosperity. One of President Rajapaksa’s campaign promises was to take Sri Lanka from being a third world country to being a first world country. The difference between these two categories of countries is not only the level of economic development. It also lies in government operating within the confines of accountability, transparency and the rule of law, the absence of which was sorely felt during this election campaign. We need a President we can trust to uphold the rule of law over the idiosyncratic rule of individuals.