By Jehan Perera –
Government supporters appear to be satisfied at the masterful manner by which they believe they have had the local government elections postponed. They deny there was to be an election to be postponed at all. They find fault with the Election Commission for not having minutes of the meeting they had to decide on the date, and for not having a quorum among their five members for that meeting—although all five signed a letter declaring March 9 to be the date of the election. There is also the second argument that the country has no money to set aside for elections. The government has set aside other areas as essential services for which scarce government money is available but holding the local government elections is not one of those. The government has been arguing that the country simply cannot afford an election at this time as it is bankrupt.
The government may be hopeful that both of these arguments will convince the majority of people that the elections ought to be postponed. If the local government elections were held on schedule on March 9 there is no doubt whatsoever that the government parties would be routed. After the economic collapse that the country underwent last year, and the unequal allocation of the costs which adversely affects the majority of the people, the government’s popularity has consistently plunged. According to a recent public opinion survey it is no more than 10 percent. It is likely that the government leaders are aware that their popularity is at a low ebb. Apart from the results of the public opinion they would be receiving briefings from the intelligence services. The more the government’s popularity wanes, the more it will rely on the security forces, both its brains and its brawn.
As a result, the government’s victory in getting the elections postponed may well be a pyrrhic one, a victory that comes at a great cost, perhaps making the political costs to its credibility to win not worth it. The political protests by the opposition parties against the government for its failure to hold the elections are likely to grow. The reactions to the protests by the police are growing harsher by the day. The international media coverage of the government’s crackdown and refusal to hold the elections has not been favourable. Many of the international media reports were headlined that “Bankrupt Sri Lanka postpones elections.” The country is still waiting for the IMF to give its loan which is constantly getting set back. This will not generate the confidence in the international community in general or international investors in particular in the stability of the country.
With the escalation of repression, it is the more radical and activist parties that are likely to get the support of people. The NPP, the party most likely to perform well at the now postponed local government elections, are out on the streets. Their protests are being blocked, and violently broken up, by police attacks on them. The distressing scenes are coming in on television, on the internet and onto the personal mobile phones of a vast number of people. First there is the phalanx of police that stands in their path on the public roads they choose to march on, then there is the water cannon followed by tear gas. Finally, there is the baton charge and the arrest of those unfortunate enough to be grabbed by the police and bundled into police vehicles.
There continues to be considerable prejudice against the NPP, which is the avatar of the JVP which twice confronted the state with a mixture of mass insurgency and terrorism. Tens of thousands died in those two periods, government property was burnt and there was a reign of terror that emanated from both sides of the divide, government and rebel. Those who oppose the NPP, both from the government and opposition, do their utmost to revive those memories of the past. But the sight of attacks on peaceful demonstrators that has been going on for the past several months is causing indignation in the rest of the population. If Mahatma Gandhi had been there he would be among the first to be arrested. He would have done so to evoke the indignation of the masses of people who are bystanders. He would also hope to awaken the conscience of the oppressor. This is the role that the NPP Is playing now. It is important that the struggle for democracy remains non-violent.
An erosion of confidence in the government by the people and the international community will not serve either Sri Lanka’s democracy or its economy well. I recall the anguish of the three-wheel taxi driver who told me how he used to buy each of his three little children a pack of Marie biscuits and a packet of milk each morning on their way to school. But now the price of these items has tripled while his income has remained constant. So he cannot give them each a packet. The big child can understand what the problem is, but the little two cannot, and so he said he cursed the government leaders. It was six months ago that he told me this story. If I met him now he would be cursing them even more as the price of electricity has more than tripled for the poorest while the cost of electricity for the richest has gone up only by around 50 percent.
If people like that three-wheel taxi driver get the chance to vote, there is no question at all for whom they will not vote. This weekend I was in Ratnapura. The community leaders I met with said that people were looking forward to the election to vote those local politicians they know to be corrupt out of office. I heard the same from an academic in the north who does community level research. He said that people were looking forward to the election to vote out the old and bring in the new. I saw in this the confluence between the expectations and hopes of the electorates in the north and south at the local level which will be frustrated by the postponement of the local government elections scheduled for March 9. The people, north and south, each want system change at their own level to begin with.
There is also a difference this time between the JVP uprisings of the past and the NPP protests of the present. The mostly young people who come with the NPP for its protests have no direct connection with the past. They are protesting for system change—essentially an end to the corruption and impunity that has characterized governance over the past four decades, sometimes better and sometimes worse, but right now the worst of all. They see the postponed local government elections as part of the process of reform. System change can be at many levels and the political parties are getting united in opposition to those who do not want it. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa who has been under attack by the NPP has issued a statement condemning the recent police attacks on them which have restricted their freedom of political expression.
In these circumstances, the government needs to review its decision with regard to the postponement of the local government elections. President Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to show the statesmanlike behavior he is capable of by assuring the people that the government will indeed find the money to hold the local government elections. The government needs to actively support the Election Commission to conduct free and fair elections that will restore the trust between the people and the government. The Election Commission has said it will give a new date on March 3. It will be in the national interest that this date should be one on which the election actually takes place. The restoring of the government’s democratic credentials by upholding the very basis of democracy, which is free and fair elections, will also serve to boost the confidence of the international community to invest its solidarity and money in Sri Lanka.