By Jehan Perera –
The government is sparing no effort to ensure victory for itself at the forthcoming presidential election. The opposition alliance accuses it of offering their members large sums of money to cross over. This is rejected by those who have been accused of this practice, which leaves the electorate in a state of disquiet and uncertainty, not wishing to believe the worst in those who ought to be champions of the national interest. Those who join the government do not seem to be negotiating any policy changes. Similarly, the situation where it concerns the various groups who are being provided with tangible benefits would be calculated to make them feel grateful and obligated to cast their vote to their benefactors. So far at least the government appears to be focused only on providing short term material benefits to induce those who join it and the electorate in general.
The problem of ensuring free and fair elections in these circumstances has grown to be so challenging in these circumstances that election monitoring organisations, in an unprecedented manner, have issued a joint statement on this matter. They said that “As election observers, whose primary objective is to ensure a free and fair environment for elections, we are concerned about the prevailing conditions. The sovereignty of the people is foremost in a democracy and the legitimacy of the elected leadership arises from the free vote of a country’s constituency.” The main point that the Sri Lankan election monitors seem to be making is that elections should always yield in an outcome that truly reflects the will of the people.
The election monitors have made a serious charge against the manner in which the election campaign has been unfolding and the inability of state institutions to conform to the basic norms of a democracy. “It is a right of the people to be able to choose a candidate of their choice within the framework of a free and fair contest. Having observed events in the run up to the election, we note the following: There is unfettered use of state resources for election campaign purposes. There is unfettered use of publicity material including hoardings and posters in clear violation of election laws. The Police is not sufficiently active in dealing with election related violations, and violence which is in contravention of the regular laws of the country.“
The politicians who have crossed over to the government from the ranks of the opposition do not appear to have negotiated for the policy changes they advocated in the opposition. This raises the question whether they were motivated by conviction or by the desire for power and wealth. The government appears to believe that it can offer people material inducements, without the promise of policy change, and yet get their support. But there has been at least one recent crossover that has been based on another motivation. The relevance of Hirunika Premachandra’s crossover is not only in the number of votes she can bring to the opposition. It also throws some light as to how a section of the people who are being wooed for their vote might behave.
Hirunika Premachandra has been in the limelight ever since her father was shot dead in a clash that took place during the run up to another election. The accused gunman was a government MP. Her father was a presidential advisor and former government MP. In the aftermath of her father’s murder she demanded justice. When the government did not show much interest in pursuing the case, she protested publicly. Then in a surprising turn of events she joined the government and gave thanks to the President. The magic of the President’s personality, and his readiness to dole out patronage, seemed to have worked on her too. She contested the Western Provincial Council elections on behalf of the government and obtained the highest number of votes in the country’s richest and most educated province.
Hirunika Premachandra’s cross over to the opposition shows the tenuous nature of commitment based on material inducement. In an interview with the media she said, “It is difficult to stay in the same party with the people who were responsible for my father’s death. Three years have passed and justice has not yet been done.” She could not stay with a government that did not do justice by her late father. She could not work side by side with those who had participated in the killing and the cover up that led to the obstruction of justice. She had joined the government and enjoyed the benefits it offered. But this was not sufficient to win her loyalty. When the opportunity came for her to work for a more lasting policy change, she chose to leave and oppose the government.
As the election campaign heightens in intensity the government has begun to release large stocks of gold and jewellery that is in its possession which was taken by the LTTE from the people of the North. The government has begun to distribute these back to their owners. The timing of the release of these assets that belong to the people suggests a political motivation of obtaining their votes. The question is whether this action of the government at this time will actually translate into votes for the government. The war-affected people are likely to wonder why the government held on to their assets for five years, instead of returning it to them shortly after the war ended. Indeed, they are also asking why the government is holding on to their land, which it has appropriated to build army camps and hotels.
The quest for justice that Hirunika Premachandra has within her for what happened to her late father, and which has influenced her decision to leave the government, would throw light on the likely pattern of voting of those war survivors in the North. Their quest for justice is even more painful and long lasting because most of them have not given up the hope that those who are missing are still alive. The government has appointed a variety of bodies to ask them for details of their loved ones, but has not yet provided them with the answers as to what happened. It is good that the government is giving back to the people their lost gold and jewellery. But it would be much better for both the government and the war survivors if the government would give them closure with regard to their missing loved ones, by finding out what happened to them to the best of its ability rather than delaying ascertaining the truth of the matter. To paraphrase Hirunika Premachandra, five years have passed but justice has not yet been done.
The government appears to believe it can still obtain a fair share of ethnic and religious minority vote. The major ethnic minority parties, the TNA and SLMC have still to take formal decisions as to which side they will support. After the end of the war, the economy in the North and East has made significant gains due to government spending on infrastructure and other material developments. The government is also offering a continuation of the political stability that the country has enjoyed and contrasts it with the potential instability of the opposition alliance which, while promising all round change, has yet to evolve its own election manifesto. Although the government has done little over the past decade in terms of making policy changes that would ensure better protection of ethnic minority rights, it continues to be hopeful that the material and short term benefits it offers can sway their votes in its favour.