Colombo Telegraph

Barking Up The Jilmart Tree

By Ruvan Weerasinghe

Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe

So we come to yet another time of electioneering where politicians run a circus to amuse the rest of us. And, to a large extent we oblige, exchanging cartoons and videos via social media and even reading posters and cutouts smiling down on us from giant hoardings.

Almost exactly five years ago, I had to lead a team from the University of Colombo School of Computing to assist the Elections Commissioner in the final processing of results. As has been done at all Presidential and General Elections since 1982, our team ensured that an error-free processing was carried out during that election too. However, most readers would remember that particular election for the new term coined by an opposition politician, namely the computer jilmart, which was alleged to have taken place to make the incumbent win. In hindsight, this was completely understandable owing to the heightened expectations of the opposition at the time. It was however distressing to our team, since it marked the first occasion for aspersions being cast not just on our competency (which of course is important to us), but more crucially also our independence. While the independence of universities even since then has eroded, the University of Colombo School of Computing has in all its dealings at least with the Elections been fiercely holding on to our reputation of neutrality. Those who are even indirectly involved in politicking are not welcome on the team assisting the Elections Commissioner.

How then can we explain the ‘computer jilmart’ phenomenon, or the situation that prompted it – an apparently inexplicable defeat of a popular opposition candidate? Elsewhere I’ve written about the focus of the two campaigns – one on those aspects much more basic and lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the other on issues much higher on that scale such as the freedom of speech, anti-corruption and the rule of law. Here I wish to focus on something much more basic, and easy to understand: the entire election process.

It is our very own honorary citizen Sir Arthur C. Clarke who famously stated that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It is also in the human psyche to attribute things that are inexplicable to a fairly surface level logic, to that same ‘magic’. Given these two, it is not rocket science that enabled the esteemed opposition politician to conclude that the election loss, which so defied the logic of what happened on election day (fairly peaceful if my memory serves me), was due to the magic of technology.

Five years on, most serious observers are clear that the election of 2010 was not won or lost on Election Day – just as this one wouldn’t be. Rather, it is to do with a system that is doomed to have a general outcome that hugely favours any incumbent. While at the outset, incumbents (initially Prime Ministers sans the executive powers of the President of the 1978 Constitution) were not prone to blatant exploitation of a constitution that didn’t require them to step down before elections, the powers of the executive presidential system makes the population have to depend solely on the magnanimity of an incumbent in order to allow the utopic free and fair election to be held. This is hardly a hope that a hapless voter can hold on to especially at a Presidential Election. Its effects however will also often spill over to Parliamentary Elections as we have witnessed in the past. What is even more depressing however, is that today, they even reach down to Provincial and Local Government levels.

The Treasury is reported to have already released a preliminary estimate that the coming Presidential Elections will cost the government some Rs 10.5 billion – of which just Rs 2.5 billion is for the Elections Commission. This is without taking into account the enormous magnitude of the private funds that the country will spend on this election, in a context where the ordinary voter is hard pressed to eek out an existence amidst an escalating cost of living.

Far too few efforts have gone into enumerating the numerous and sometimes ingenious ways in which a typical incumbent uses their position of power during election time to use the state machinery for unfair advantage. This is party owing the difficulty in obtaining accurate information and partly owing to fear of over stepping the mark assigned to the media. Much of it is also in English rather than Sinhala or Tamil, which an incumbent can tolerate, with the sole exception of social media channels. The unfortunate fact is that social media information is often construed to only be partially true and more often exaggeration and not very accurate.

More recently however, some of these hidden modes of operation have begun to be seen by the public, often owing to over-enthusiastic politicians wanting to hit the radar of the incumbent himself. While expenses of a helicopter ride for political reasons cannot be readily identified by the public, a rally of heavy-duty SUVs or high-powered motorbikes is a much more identifiable misuse of public property for political gain. People are also becoming more aware of the costs of large posters and cutouts than before, since these have become commonplace now.

However, behind these kinds goofs that some crass supporters make, come ever more sophisticated and subtle ways of abuse that is below the public radar. Even today, the news and information channels most widely accessible to the majority constitute of those almost solely under an incumbent administration. Whether TV, Radio or Newspaper, these project almost solely a single view, with even the mildly critical views getting zero airtime/space. Even the most obvious of ‘gimmicks’ such as temporary price reductions obviously are successful in communicating subliminal messages to an economically challenged populace. The shameless purchase of opposition MPs and coercion of own MPs with threats of disclosure are both mostly under the table dealings that an incumbent is well placed to exploit. ‘Progress review’ of ministries with the incumbent are another subtle subversion of the system, often exercised using the legitimate powers of Secretaries of Ministries. These are even better guised, since they are called by these CEOs of the respective Ministries, who have the power to take action against those who do not comply. Owing to the level of executive powers vested in any incumbent, and their increasing tendency to use all at their disposal, the bureaucracy is often compelled to comply or jeopardize their careers. We need to salute the very few independent individuals who made that ultimate sacrifice of relinquishing their public office or being demoted or transferred on account of valiantly trying to stay neutral. Some of them, such as CJ43 are respected and could even be reinstated some day, while others in much lower positions, such as Government Servants or Police Officers, will never be quite known or recognized.

So, what hope is there for a non-incumbent to win an election? Very little, in the new dynamics of absolute power and sophisticated concealment. If an opponent can only match an incumbent in terms of issues facing the country, he is almost doomed to lose – he has to far surpass the incumbent in order to come anywhere near his 50% goal. Almost any campaign that is fought fairly on issues, is bound to be won by the incumbent owing to the reasons above, as well as to the general fear of the unknown of the masses. Enfranchised Sri Lankan society initially had fairly short memories and kept electing alternate parties to power till 1977. Since then however, the pattern has changed drastically. It is not to do with longer memories that we were suddenly bestowed with, but rather the exercise of the increased executive power by the incumbent, which renders it almost self-destructive not to use such power during elections. If we put ourselves in the shoes of an incumbent, would we have what it takes to defy all our advisors and supporters and desist from using the powers that we legitimately enjoy under the constitution that we govern under? I like to suggest that the answer is yes, if we have a higher sense of accountability than the letter of the law. However, that kind of magnanimity would be rare not just in Sri Lanka, but also in much (if not all) of the developing world.

What does all this mean to us at this election? Please, please, don’t wait for the election day, and then call foul – spelt j-i-l-m-a-r-t in Sri Lanka now. The jilmart happens before the election, as it has happened in increasingly more sophisticated ways ever since the executive presidency began in this country. It is embedded in the constitution, it powers the campaign of an incumbent, it is in the valiant and disproportionate efforts of opportunistic junior (and even more disappointingly inept senior) politicians, it is in the thousands of squandered man-hours of disempowered public officials, it is surprisingly in the prospering business community benefiting from direct and indirect cronyism (in the name of ‘stability’) and it is in the voices of the destitute who’s only hope is to hang on to meager handouts already received, in the hope for more in the future.

Does this mean that a change of regime would solve this problem? Obviously not! While successive Executive President’s have misused their powers to differing extents, it is clear that none have been able to be completely magnanimous in desisting the use of their legally bestowed powers. This is why, the only way out of this cycle – or rather, this downward spiral, is to get rid of the inordinate powers vested in any future President. The present incumbent, more than any other could have done it with the massive majority he had in Parliament. Most would argue that these powers were needed for wartime, though some would dispute that too. Some would go onto argue that such powers are needed for rapid economic development, though most would dispute that. This argument however hinges on the emergence of a so-called benevolent dictator which by now even the most optimistic Sri Lankan should relegate to wishful thinking. There is probably more sense in waiting for Godot. In such a context, it appears that there is no other option in this post-war era in Sri Lanka, but to change the executive presidential system by whoever wins the election on January 8th.

Whether the incumbent wins, or the challenger is successful, we as citizens of this country, need to make it clear in no uncertain terms that we have had enough of this system, and demand that our voices be brought to bear on any future Sri Lankan government. The vote on the 8th of January is not so much to do with which of the main contenders are more worthy of our allegiance, but rather whether Sri Lankan society has come of age, to send a clear signal to whoever who wins, that we do not trust anyone with the absolute power that the presidential system endows them. It is ultimately whether voters can give a clear message to whoever becomes President that their vote is for ushering in a new kind of democracy based on the principles of meritocracy rather than of cronyism.

Ruvan Weerasinghe – Former Director, University of Colombo School of Computing.


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