By Jehan Perera –
The prominent role of civil society in the polity has been highlighted during the course of the elections by the activities of the election monitoring organizations. However, even before the declaration of elections, civil society was in the news. The government media used to regularly vilify sections of civil society and non-governmental organizations as engaging in anti-national activities. Although this was not their intention, the state media highlighted the important role that civil society was playing in the polity, by keeping alive ideas of good governance, ethnic and religious pluralism and reconciliation to mention the ones that were most under threat. In the election campaign the debates of the political parties took up most of the space in the media. But there was also frequent reference in the media to the findings and opinions expressed by the election monitoring organizations with regard to the violations of electoral laws and the remedies that were being pursued.
The government has accused some of the election monitors as being biased and working for the agenda of international powers. All the main election monitoring organizations have pointed out that the lion’s share of the election violations have been committed by the government. In particular they have highlighted the enormous abuse of state resources. But the government still permitted these organizations to do their work unimpeded. This is to the credit of the government. It is also to the credit of all involved, especially the Elections Commissioner and his staff, and the police, and the election monitoring organisations that the level of violence did not rise as sharply as the ferocity of the political debate. During the election campaign, the area of weakness that could not be adequately addressed was the abuse of state resources by the government. PAFFREL for instance reported that the abuse of state resources was three times greater this time than at the previous presidential election.
The issue of civil society participation, and partisanship, in the political process was addressed by the head of the country’s largest civil society organization at an urgently convened media conference on New Year’s Day by Sarvodaya leader A T Ariyaratne. There was no endorsement of either candidate as might have been expected. Dr Ariyaratne made it clear that his organization would not be taking a partisan position or endorse either of the candidates. But it would continue to address issues of governance through its field activities and educational programmes. He added that the Sarvodaya Movement would launch its Deshodaya Movement for National Awakening after the election. It was an important affirmation that civil society is heterogeneous and not uniform. And also that the work of civil society organisations in complementing, supplementing and holding government to account will not end with the announcement of the election result on January 8.
However, the Sarvodaya Movement’s non-party approach to politics, while it is shared by many other civil society groups, is not the only civil society approach. The present election saw a large scale mobilization of civil society in favour of the opposition. There is a resemblance in this which would be causing foreboding within governmental ranks, to the presidential election of 1994 that saw the defeat of the 17 year UNP government. Trade Unions, university lecturers, human rights activists, fisher and farmer groups, artistes and NGOs mobilized themselves to campaign in favour of the opposition. President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was then an opposition parliamentarian was one of the stars of the civil society movement for a change of government. As a fiery member of the opposition, he had developed a positive working relationship with civil society groups to stand up for human rights during the fearsome period of the JVP insurrection of the late 1980s, and had even been a campaigner in the citadel of human rights in Geneva.
There is a similarity at the present election, except that President Rajapaksa is no longer the hero of the cast, but has to all appearances become its opponent. During his period of presidency, the space for civil society shrunk, even while the role of the government ballooned. One of the achievements advertised by the government in its election campaign is that it increased the size of the public sector about three-fold in term of numbers. This has itself squeezed out the space for civil society, which looks for gaps to fill that the government has left open. But there has also been a conscious policy of the government to do things by itself in a centralized manner, rather than share the responsibility with others. It is an over-centralization of power that has alienated a large section of civil society, and finally it seems the larger polity as well.
There has also been apprehension in civil society that the government is intending to implement more restrictive policies that could leave civil society organizations with little scope for independent activities. NGOs in particular have been targeted with suspicion. They have become seen as a possible threat to national security and placed under the Ministry of Defence for more effective supervision. Indeed, some NGOs were found to have collaborated with and supported the LTTE during the war. . But this has been used as a tool to tarnish the entire NGO sector as a potential security threat. In the North and East, where the war was fought, NGOs have had to get prior approval from relevant government authorities for their projects. The NGOs have been deprived of their freedom to operate.
In his presentation, and in answering questions, the Sarvodaya leader made it clear that his organization, together with other civil society organizations, had experienced a restriction in their space to work. He gave the examples of being prevented from going to a disaster-affected locality to provide some emergency humanitarian aid to the victims. A soldier on duty had said that permission for such assistance needed to be first obtained from the government authority. Such restrictions can be very disheartening to those who are trying to do their part for society. The ability of civil society organizations to assist those in poverty through micro credit schemes and also been restricted. Governmental policies of centralized supervision and control have made it more difficult to implement activities that are beneficial to the people. They have also permitted greater politicization of in the selection of beneficiaries.
In this context, civil society organizations may desire to have change in the way that the country is governed although most of them have no inclination to get involved in partisan politics and in electioneering. It is important that in midst of the political contest that civil society should maintain a stance on issues on national interest that is non-partisan. For instance, there are civil society organizations that work in post-war reconciliation that call for truth, accountability and a political solution to the ethnic conflict. These were not issues that were canvassed at the elections with both rival parties avoiding those issues. In the post election period, civil society will need to influence both the government and opposition to adopt the principles and positions that they believe will be in the national interest in the same way they did in the pre-election period.
However, the urgent need immediately after the election will be to prevent election violence. The pre-election campaign has witnessed a large number of acts of violence committed blatantly in full view of the general public. While no deaths have resulted, and the intensity of the attacks has been limited during the pre-election period, there is concern about the possibility of violence spiking up, either spontaneously or in a planned manner in the post-election period. There needs to be zero tolerance for post-election violence. It is the responsibility of political parties to ensure that their members do not take the law into their own hands or victimize their political opponents. In addition, civil society organizations, community and religious leaders and the general public need to exert pressure on those vested with state authority to enforce law and order and to do their duty. A violence-free Election Day and post-election period will provide a solid foundation for national unity of purpose to achieve the promises of the election campaign.