By Laksiri Fernando –
Over 15 million are registered as voters and around 75 percent of them most probably would be voting at the scheduled parliamentary elections on 17 August. Although the 20th Amendment was proposed in Parliament, it was clear from the beginning that the next elections would be held under the prevailing PR system. This means preferential competitions within parties or coalition of parties, in addition to the bitter competitions between political parties. Under the circumstances, keeping electoral violence at a minimum should be a priority. Already, the first death is reported due to electoral violence from Ratnapura.
Strictly speaking, the present Parliament had a mandate until April 2016. It is best for any democracy to allow the representative institutions to function their full terms. In that case, the early election may appear as something not so democratic. While this is true in principle, the dissolution of Parliament became imperative given the increasing chaotic situation within it. It is not so long ago that some members opted to sleep at night in the well of that august body.
Early dissolution of Parliament also was a promise given to the people by the newly elected President in January. The promise was to dissolve it after 100 days. Instead, the Parliament was allowed to function over 150 days for one or the other reason.
*Maithripala and Mahinda| File photo
There was an apparent contradiction between the mandate the President received and the composition of the Parliament. This was primarily the result of the former President’s decision to go for elections prematurely, to gamble his ambitions for a third term. When it failed, the contradiction was created. This does not mean that the mandates would always be harmonious if the elections for the presidency and parliament are held proximately. But the likelihood undoubtedly is higher and good for democracy.
It is a known fact that the former President controlled his party supporters in Parliament as a gang. Anyway, the term of the Parliament was too long, previously fixed for six years. According to the new norm of five years, the legitimate period of the Parliament was already over. The proceedings were completely unproductive.
There were sincere attempts to pass the 20th Amendment before dissolving Parliament. However, the gazetted draft was quite a mess irrespective of its good intentions. It could have become messier if it went into the committee stage. For the last 19th Amendment, the agitated opposition proposed over 70 amendments. If that were the case for the 20th, they could have completely killed the electoral system.
This is apart from it being unfavourable to minority and minor parties particularly without a two ballot system. Therefore, the dissolution of Parliament was a good thing without dragging the country into an ignoble mess.
Free and Fair Elections
Election is the most important mechanism in a representative democracy. Voters are the kings, at least temporarily. When they hold the ballot, they can make an informed choice if the other conditions are in place. It is mainly up to the Election Commissioner and the Police to ensure a free and fair election. It is unfortunate that the Election Commission is not set up as envisaged in the 19th Amendment. There were obvious disruptors within Parliament for good governance and for the implementation of particularly the independent commissions.
It is possible that the ‘ghost voters’ are still in the electoral lists. Their presence was obvious when the figures of the registered voters, the population and voter turnouts were analysed for the last presidential elections. It is possible that they might lie low or become inactive under the present circumstances. However, the democratic parties, civil society organizations and election monitors should be vigilant.
The March 12 Movement has put forward a manifesto which can ensure a sound parliament if all parties adhere to the conditions when nominating candidates. Some of them are about ‘not being a criminal,’ ‘free from bribery and corruption,’ ‘free of anti-social trades,’ and ‘not abusive of authority’ etc. These are the most difficult things to come by given the created political culture in the recent past.
Reportedly, all parties have signed the manifesto, including the President, but Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) has not signed or not invited to sign. If the parties don’t adhere to these principles, then it is up to the voters to ensure the conditions, by not voting to them.
Traditionally, voter intelligence in Sri Lanka has been quite high. The average voter knew how to select the best candidate/s out of rogues. This has considerably dipped after the introduction of preferential voting. Similar distortions have occurred during the civil war period. There have been extreme polarizations of electors on ethnic and religious lines.
It is evident that the situation has changed at least partially leading up to and after the January elections. After a long time, minority parties in the North, united with the parties of the majority (South) against the former autocratic President. They may have to contest separately given the electoral system at the coming elections, but their solidarity for the promotion of democracy and good governance would remain intact.
In the long run, it would be good if Sri Lanka could adopt a compulsory voting system. I am saying this for the first time. The voting is not only a right but also a duty. Compulsory voting is another means of curtailing voter impersonation.
Too Many Parties
There are too many organizations accepted as registered political parties; 66 of them altogether. Some of the office bearers of these parties even cannot be found. This is an apparent weakness in the electoral system. Democracy does not mean everything is free for all. There should be some strict rules in accepting a political party for registration. A persistent membership, proper organization, credible office bearers, record of reliable activities and legitimate funds could be some of them.
There is no much point in accepting a political party for parliamentary elections unless that party has some representation in provincial councils or local councils. Political party registration for provincial councils or local government could be more relaxed. This does not mean that no political group can function as a political party for ideological or other purposes. There can be unregistered political parties.
Who Would Contest?
The main battle at the elections would be between the UNP led ‘relatively democratic’ forces and the political formations rotating under the Rajapaksa hegemony. I use the qualification ‘relative’ advisedly because within that camp too there are undemocratic and/or corrupt tendencies.
It is still not clear whether MR would contest directly or indirectly from the opposite camp. What he has declared from Madamulana just few hours ago is “we will contest.” It is unlikely for him to get nominations from the SLFP or even the UPFA. If Maithripala Sirisena’s (MS) standing (not to mention powers) is of any worth he should be blocked.
At a personal level, it would be foolish for MR to contest. He would soon be a septuagenarian. He entered parliamentary politics in 1970 and completed 45 years. He was a MP, a Leader of the Opposition, a PM and then the President. If not for his attempt for a third term, he could have ‘ruled the country’ until next year. He has certain things for his credit, and certain other things for his discredit. The best thing for him would have been to gloriously retire. But some people cannot obviously change their ‘genes’ or habits. MR apparently is such a person.
Apart from perhaps his genes, there are strong political compulsions at least to contest as a ‘national list’ candidate from another front. The compulsions come from the political forces that he himself created. He obviously changed the SLFP particularly at district and local levels. From a people’s party, he tried to change it into an Arachchi party of course with a popular appeal.
It would be interesting to investigate the socio-economic or class forces behind these changes at a later time. These are the roots of authoritarianism as well. Some indications of these social roots can be gleaned from now telecasting tele-dramas like Meedun Amma or Sath Pathini.
Role of Sirisena
There are some who have expressed the view that President Sirisena should be neutral at the coming elections. The argument is too formalistic. MR obviously retreated when he handed over the SLFP and thus the UPFA to the President. MS has and should seize this opportunity. The task is to democratize the SLFP and if possible the UPFA. This an important task of democratization of the country.
Last few months, MS has been toiling like hell ‘collecting jumping frogs into the proverbial lahe’ (washing vessel). Both collecting and washing them are difficult tasks. Whatever the results, President should lead them at the elections. It is true that it is better if he could have handed over this task, for example, to CBK and be neutral. But CBK has her own limitations (age) and follies (unsavoury speech) in addition to male opposition against her based on misogyny.
President can become neutral and truly independent after the elections.
It is also important to have a countervailing power to the UNP, within the democratic camp, through a ‘democratic’ SLFP because the UNP is not spot clean. Far from it. The unfortunate bond issue is one example. Ranil Wickremesinghe also has not changed his bad habits or ‘genes.’ As Dayasiri Jayasekara happened to express at a recent Satana, not only the Sinhala horu (rogues), but also the English horu should be dispelled under democracy and good governance.
However, if the President Sirisena embraces Mahinda Rajapaksa and makes him the prime ministerial candidate or the leader of the SLFP/UPFA group contesting the elections, it would be a blatant betrayal of the January victory of democracy.