By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Suppose, per impossible, there had been international human rights conventions in force…. How could Torquemada have fared? Or Calvin….? Or the Vatican and its Inquisition?….. How would the United States have fared in connection with slavery?” – AC Grayling (Towards the light of Liberty)
It is becoming a habit – this discovery of uncounted ballot-papers, discarded in some obscure corner, post-election. The first time was after the Presidential election, when 67 ballot-papers were discovered, marked for Gen. Fonseka and abandoned in a ditch. Initially the government claimed that these were photocopies, and hinted at an ‘Opposition/International conspiracy’.
Almost two years later, the Election Department confirmed that the ballot-papers were genuine.
This week, another batch of uncounted ballot-papers was discovered in Puttalam. The Elections Commissioner, in a continuance of his blasé attitude to electoral malpractices, acted as if the find was a mere bagatelle, claiming that the uncounted ballot-papers would not have caused a change in the final result.
A free, fair and a just election means, ipso facto, an election in which every single ballot-paper is counted. An election, in which a thousand ballot-papers are found, uncounted and abandoned, is a flawed election, by definition.
As the turnout figures indicate, the Southern voter is beginning to lose interest and/or confidence in elections. Malpractices such as the non-counting of ballot-papers would cause an even greater dent in the already fractured public confidence in the electoral process. Value of values tends to change, especially in conjunction with the dominant commonsense. Many malpractices which would have caused anger and shock once – such as the abusive-use of state resources by the governing party – have become ubiquitous and thus near-normal[i]. If his process continues, elections will lose all meaning and become nothing more than costly shows put up by the Rajapaksas to give despotic rule a democratic sheen.
An International Shield?
The recent round of elections proves, again, that international involvement is of critical importance in any successful national effort to check the Rajapaksa juggernaut.
Without international pressure, there would not have been a Northern election. Without international monitors, the military would have been able to downgrade the nature of the TNA’s victory from phenomenal to marginal.
And many an uncounted ballot-paper would have been discovered in the North as well.
Even with the presence of international monitors, the military (plus the Tamil-acolytes of the Rajapaksas) attempted to browbeat and cheat the Northern voters. Commenting on the attack on the house of a TNA candidate the day before election, the head of the SAARC group of observers stated, “I am 101 percent sure that the army was involved….”[ii] In its post-election statement the Commonwealth team observed, “We learned that opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as voters at large, faced instances of intimidation and harassment, and that the freedom to hold campaign meetings and openly interact with the electorate was restricted”[iii].
The problem areas identified by SAARC and Commonwealth observers fits in perfectly with the macro issues highlighted by the UN Human Rights Commissioner: militarization, constraints on fundamental freedoms, media self-censorship, abuse of state resources….
And the 18th Amendment; the re-empowering of the Elections Commissioner is a key recommendation made by international observers.
The Elections Commissioner’s Department functioned as an ‘independent government department’ since its inception. It was turned legally into a presidential appendage by Mahinda Rajapaksa, via the 18th Amendment. When previous election commissioners allowed political interferences in the electoral process, they were unambiguously in derelict of their duties and responsibilities. Post-18th Amendment, the Election Commissioner’s primary duty is to obey his/her legal-master, the President. Prior to the 18th Amendment, elections commissioners could not use the cowardly excuse of ‘following orders’ to justify political-partisanship. Post-18th Amendment, the Election Commissioner’s first duty is to follow presidential orders.
The replacement of the democratising 17th Amendment with the anti-democratic 18th Amendment was prioritised by the Ruling Siblings precisely because of its seminal necessity for their political future. Without that execrable measure, President Rajapaksa would have had to retire at the end of his second term (as his predecessors did) and Lankan politics could have returned to its familiar groove.
The Rajapaksas were able to remove presidential term-limits while enhancing presidential powers – just as they were able to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake falsely and illegally – because the international community was not committed to the preservation of the 17th Amendment. The battle against the 18th Amendment was purely a national contestation, between a ruthless marauding government and a weak embattled opposition. Given the structural unevenness of the battlefield and the total imbalance in the disposition of forces, that battle could have had only one conclusion.
The 13th Amendment has survived, so far, because it has a powerful regional patron (India) and because the West is interested in its fate.
This is the context in which President Rajapaksa’s New York diatribe against ‘international intervention’ should be considered. The Rajapaksas do not hesitate to accept anti-people economic conditionalities from the IFIs in return for loans for their pet-projects. They rage against ‘international intervention’ only in matters political because such ‘intervention’ acts as constraints (however marginal) on their capacity to violate the fundamental rights of Lankan people.
The Rajapaksa obsession with a successful Commonwealth extravaganza has made them extra-vulnerable to Indian/Western pressure. But this is a purely conjunctural opening. Once Mahinda Rajapaksa sits on top of the Commonwealth-heap, the Siblings will feel free, once again, to flex their anti-democratic muscles.
The world may not be able to have its way with the Rajapaksas, post-Commonwealth; but it will continue to have a say. And we will need that voice.
It is not just Tamils or Muslims who need international help to safeguard their basic rights from Rajapaksa assaults/encroachments. Sinhalese do as well, though many would not realise it until they themselves are at the receiving end of Rajapaksa wrath or injustice.
Accepting the need of international help in national struggles does not mean supporting military intervention or socio-economic sanctions. Both are absolute non-options. The best international reaction is the sort which makes a clear distinction between people and the leaders and is carefully calibrated to punish the leaders and not the people. Thus, not a boycott of Lankan exports (the cost would fall on the people) but a boycott of the Rajapaksas and their closest kith and kin. If the Rajapaksas and their nearest and dearest cannot fly to this or that Western country (often at public-expense) for everything from education and health to shopping and sight-seeing, that will cause far more sleepless-nights to the Siblings than all the homilies, resolutions and sanctions put together.
The Siblings seemed to have won the Commonwealth battle, unsurprisingly. After all, the UK and Australia had no problems allying themselves with more abominable tyrants, from Pinochet to Suharto. But the world will begin to react to Rajapaksa-excesses with more than mere words, someday. When that moment arrives, it is better that the world opts for such measures as travel bans and asset freezes targeting the Ruling Family and their cronies rather than imposing blanket economic sanctions. Non-targeted measures will hurt ordinary Lankans while giving the Rajapaksas a golden opportunity to strut about in the guise of nationalist and anti-imperialist heroes.
[i] This practice is a threat not only to a free and a fair election vis-à-vis the opposition but also to the free and a fair expression of candidate-preferences. Those candidates who have a powerful kin or kith invariably get an unfair advantage over the more ordinary UPFA contestants.