By Jehan Perera –
The declaration of the results of the three provincial council elections virtually coincided with the announcement of the visit later this week of a three member team from the office of the Human Rights Commissioner in Geneva. The victory of the government in all three of the provincial elections conveys a strong political message that the government continues to hold the whip hand in domestic politics and that it is pragmatic to work in cooperation with it than in opposition. This is a message that will go to all sections of society, not least the political parties. On the other hand, the visit of the UN team in fulfillment of the resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year, and over the strenuous opposition of the Sri Lankan government, shows the international underside of the government’s triumph.
Independent election observers would not call the elections that were held as meeting their criteria of free and fair elections. The election campaign was grossly flawed by the abuse of state machinery by the government and politicians contesting on its platform. This conferred an unfair advantage on government candidates who utilized state resources such as vehicles and even government staff to their maximum and offered handouts and made public announcements of new recruitments to the public service to induce voters to their side. The Police and Election Commissioner were successful in controlling some unlawful campaign activities, especially in removing of illegal posters, hoardings and cut-outs. The Election Commissioner in particular used the limited powers at his disposal in a manner that evoked appreciation from election observers and the contesting political parties.
The Election Commissioner closed illegal campaign offices, stopped new recruitment the public service, prevented the distribution of goods to voters which were deemed to be inducements and ordered the seizure of state vehicles being illegally utilized for campaign purposes. These actions reflected the continuing integrity of the public services in the country in the face of difficult political circumstances. However, it is unrealistic to expect the Police and other government officials to be impartial where there is no structural mechanism to protect them when they act in a non-partisan manner. At the same time it would be difficult to dispute that the election results represented the actual balance of political forces at the community level. The day of polling was largely peaceful throughout the three provinces. The elections in the Eastern Province were remarkably different from the last occasion in 2008 which was carried out with military might that drove the opposition Tamil parties out of the contest.
The main highlight of these elections was the continuing show of strong electoral support for the government within the ethnic majority Sinhalese electorate. In the areas where the Sinhalese were predominant the government obtained more than 60 percent of the vote. By way of contrast, the performance of the UNP as the main opposition party slipped further down. The government’s strategy of rewarding those who support it with jobs, economic infrastructure and development projects would have weighed heavily in the calculations of voters. The misuse of the machinery of state is a continuing practice that has been taken to new heights by the present government. One of my colleagues told me that his village, which had traditionally voted for the UNP, had decided to vote for the government as this was the only way to access resources, such as an electric fence to keep out raiding wild elephants.
At the same time Sinhalese nationalism and the memory of war victory, which is fueled by regular government celebrations over the crushing of the LTTE, also showed itself to be a potent vote getter. This was most clearly seen in the Eastern Province and, ironically, at the government’s expense. One of the government’s coalition allies, the National Freedom Front, contested outside of the government umbrella due to pique over the allocation of seats, and bested the government in that duel. The main opposition party has yet to find its answer to the siren call of ethnic nationalism that precludes the possibility of inter-ethnic reconciliation. Its leadership still continues to be viewed with suspicion for the effort made to engage in a peace process with the LTTE which had the aim of a political resolution of the ethnic conflict rather than military victory.
The ethnic cleavage was most manifest in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province where the Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese populations are significant in terms of numbers. Although the government succeeded in winning the most number of seats in the province, it did not get an absolute majority as it did with ease in the other two provinces which had a substantial Sinhalese majority. The TNA which had boycotted the 2008 provincial election got the vast majority of Tamil votes to become the second largest party. This can potentially give it a strong say in the governance of the province even if they have to stay in the opposition. They are also in a position to form the provincial government in coalition with the main Muslim party, the SLMC, and in fact have already called on the Governor of the province to appoint them to form the administration.
The results of the three provincial council elections would be satisfying to the government which went into them facing a host of serious problems. The university teachers have been on strike for nearly three months and the higher education system is in shambles with thousands of students and their families in a situation of despair. Boatloads of Sri Lankans are leaving virtually on a daily basis to foreign countries in the hope of a brighter future despite government propaganda that Sri Lanka is well on its way to being the Wonder of Asia. The credibility of the government with international investors is low with scandals in the stock market and in major economic projects, such as power generation, going uninvestigated. The rule of law is in question with lawyers and doctors going separately on strike due to their lack of faith in the government’s sense of accountability where it concerns its own members who engage in lawless behavior.
The government’s ability to trounce its opponents even in these circumstances reveals its political strength and its general resonance with the majority population. This is a strength that the government will need to use if it is to deal with the international challenge that comes from a range of powerful actors including the international human rights community, the governments of Western countries and India. The challenges that they pose are long term ones and will not go away unless they are dealt with wisely. In the case of other countries, the international human rights watchdogs have bided their time, sometimes for 20 to 30 years before bringing their target to justice. The sooner the government gets this albatross of its neck the better. The key indicator that the international community is looking for is real progress on the ground in terms of inter-ethnic justice and reconciliation and a political solution that will consolidate these.
The outcome of the provincial elections opens up new possibilities for the government to increase its credibility as one that seeks reconciliation both within the country and with the international community. In recent weeks the government has come up with a plethora of policies and action plans that include the national policy on social integration, the national human rights action plan and the action plan on implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The manner in which the government deals with the Tamil and Muslim parties in the Eastern Provincial Council where they are now strongly represented will send a more convincing message about progress on the ground in terms of inter-ethnic justice and reconciliation. It is here that the government can best show the spirit of bargaining and mutual accommodation and concern for the victims of war that will be the foundation for a political solution that includes the sharing and devolution of political power.