By Javid Yusuf –
The announcement by President Mahinda Rajapakse that the Northern Provincial Council Elections will be held in September this year gives rise to the hope that at long last the process of devolution set in motion in 1987 will proceed towards completion.
Despite increase in the intensity of the voices that have been raised against the holding of elections to the Northern Province Council in recent times, it is a welcome decision of the Government to give effect to the scheme of devolution that is currently provided in the Constitution.
Since the Indo Lanka Accord of 1987 which gave rise to the Provincial Council system, there have been many criticisms of this second tier of governance. Among the more common criticisms has been the argument that although Provincial Councils were originally intended to meet the demand of the Tamil people for a degree of self governance, Provincial Councils were set up everywhere except in the North. This criticism will be addressed once the elections are held in September.
Another criticism is that it creates additional expenditure that the country can ill afford by creating another layer of governance. This is an exaggerated criticism because the bulk of the administrative structure would still have remained even if there was no Provincial Council system.
But the current call by the anti devolution segment of the polity tries to play on the fears of some that a Provincial Council system will set in motion a process which will lead to the secession of the Northern Province. Whether it is a genuine fear or merely a reflection of the ideological opposition to devolution is a moot question.
It is more likely that it is the latter reason because the opponents of devolution do not suggest an alternative to the demand for a degree of self governance by the Tamil community of the North. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission too in its report has recommended that a political solution be found for the National question. The Provincial Council system that exists today has within it the seeds of a political solution or if viewed differently can be looked upon as interim to the political solution that can be eventually worked out.
Another reason trotted out by those who argue against holding the Northern Provincial Council elections is the fact that the Muslims and Sinhalese who were displaced from the North should be first resettled before elections are held. In normal circumstances this would be an important factor in deciding on an election. However four years after the armed conflict has ended this should not be held as a reason not to hold elections particularly because Presidential and Parliamentary Elections have been held in the North even during the period when fighting raged in that part of the country.
In any event the deprivation of the voting rights of the displaced Muslim and Sinhalese can be largely mitigated by the adoption of the system of clustering polling booths which the Elections Department implemented during previous elections in the North.
The fear of separatist tendencies can also be addressed in at least two ways. Firstly there are Presidential powers in the Constitution to prevent such fears becoming a reality. However such powers should not be used taking into account political or other extraneous considerations but rather having regard to the need to give effect to the principles of devolutionary government.
Secondly by the Central Government providing a constructively supportive role to the elected Provincial Government and to the people of the North a sense of loyalty to the Centre will be developed. No political party or movement will obtain the support of the people for such secessionist tendencies if they realize that the Central Government cares for their welfare and treats them as equal citizens. Every segment of Sri Lankan society has much to gain if they remain a part of one Sri Lankan nation and feel that they are equal and valued citizens and only a process of societal or government exclusion can make them even think of a contrary course of action.
Elections to the Northern Province will result in several other benefits to the country. Firstly it will bring the people of the North into the process of governance and make them stakeholders in chartering the future direction of the Sri Lankan Nation. This will also to some extent give dignity to the people of the North who are currently demoralized and feel a sense of alienation from the Sri Lankan State.
Secondly it will give the Government an opportunity to test the feelings of the people of the Northern Province with regard to the resettlement of the displaced people as well as the large scale infrastructure development that has taken place in the North.
Thirdly it gives the Northern people an opportunity to taste and practice the working of democracy which was not available to them during the days the LTTE held sway. A new layer of political leadership will emerge in the North who will be honed in the ways of democracy and the empowering effect of discussion and debate which will enure to the qualitative upliftment of Tamil politics and eventually of the Sri Lankan nation.
Fourthly through these representatives the Sri Lankan State will be able to feel the pulse of the Northern people and understand their aspirations better. Through these process they will be able to understand and correct the mistakes that are currently being made in the reconciliation process.
Fifthly the elections will also provide an opportunity for the main National parties, the SLFP and UNP, to reassess their role vis a vis the minorities and play an important role in the reconciliation process. In recent times the two National parties have chosen the path of least resistance and preferred to outsource their dealings with the minorities to communal parties which are both opportunistic and self serving.
These parties shift their allegiances to whichever party is in power in return for perks and privileges without any enduring benefits to the communities they represent. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Muslim political parties.
The Northern Provincial Council Elections can be used as an opportunity by the two National parties to create a new leadership in the region which subscribe to the policy of inclusivity and working with other communities to create a new National vision without compromising the needs of the communities which they represent.
These new leaders can constitute a breath of fresh air to the internal policy formulations of the National parties by bringing the concerns of the people they represent to the table when Party policy is being formulated, After all it is the policy (or lack of one) of National parties that determines the trajectory of Government policy when decisions are taken at the highest levels.
It will also give an opportunity to the national leadership of these two parties to get a true picture of the thinking of the Northern people rather than depend on individuals who have the ear of the leadership and may not accurately reflect the concerns of the minority communities.
But to successfully achieve this the two National parties must select candidates who genuinely subscribe to the policy of the respective National party while being at the same time principled men and women of integrity who will not sway with the winds of political change.
In this selection process, the pitfalls for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party are greater.
Being in Governmental office, the SLFP today attracts all types of opportunists out to enjoy the privileges and perks associated with Governmental office. Addressing SLFP members of local bodies elected to office at the first local government elections held after his assumption of office in 2005, President Mahinda Rajapakse warned them to be on guard against new friends who would befriend them after their electoral success.
Not only has this happened but today the quality and mettle of those in active politics has reached such a low that practically everyday one hears of public indiscretions of politicians ranging from rape and murder to assaulting public officers. The level of public contempt for politicians can be judged by a recent incident.
Last week a television station reported in their 7 pm news broadcast that a politician and his supporter riding on a motorcycle had been stopped by two police officers. In the ensuing incident the politician and the police officers got into a fight which resulted in both the politician and the police officers sustaining injuries. The news item did not reveal details of the incident but went on to conduct a poll via sms to ascertain the thinking of the viewers as to who was likely to have assaulted the other first-the politician or the police officers.
The results of the poll was announced in their 10 pm news broadcast on the same day. Over ninety percent of the viewers expressed the belief that the politician had started the fight. They came to this conclusion without the benefit of any details of the incident which is a telling indictment on the perception of politicians in the eyes of the public.
In their choice of candidates for the elections to the Northern Provincial Elections, the two National parties must not look towards wresting power at the forthcoming Elections. Rather they should look towards getting a foothold in the Province by getting as many as possible men and women of integrity from their party elected to office so that they in turn can draw in the people of the Northern Province to the National polity at future elections.
To do this the Government has to implement a number of confidence building measures between now and the September elections.
The Civil administration in the North must be restored and the military should recede to the background. If as is claimed security considerations require a military presence in the North that could be ensured in an unobtrusive manner. But it should not extend to impacting on the democratic process and the space for the conduct of a free and fair election should be ensured.
The Rule of Law and impartial policing should ensure all violators of the law be brought to book. If 38 attacks have taken place on the Uthayan Newspapers and the perpetrators of such attacks have not been brought to book in even one case it does not inspire much confidence in the Law enforcement machinery. It is stretching the imagination too much to believe that our Police is so inefficient that they cannot complete their inquiries and apprehend the perpetrators in at least 10 (or even 5) of the 38 incidents relating to the Uthayan newspaper.
The Tamil National Alliance (and other Tamil political parties) should act prudently and not make rash statements that are counterproductive to the process of restoring democracy to the North. The recent call by some sections of the Tamil polity and civil society for an interim administration apart from defying reason is unhelpful. It will also give momentum to the call of those who do not wish the Northern Province elections to be held.
The Tamil National Alliance must immediately prepare and place before the people a Manifesto which they intend implementing in the event they gain office at the Northern Provincial Elections. This will help to gradually transform their mindset to that of becoming administrators in addition to being spokesmen for Tamil grievances.
The early release of such a manifesto will also compel the National parties to give their mind to what they can offer the Northern people and to place before them a manifesto that will address their concerns. This will also serve the National Interest by helping the process of increasing the degree of national consensus in post conflict issues.
It is therefore imperative that the Northern Provincial Council be held without any further delay in order to restore democracy in the North as well as a step in the process of National Reconciliation.
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