This was meant to be a happy day for me. I am no stranger to Batticaloa. This is a place where my great grandfather Richard Aiyathurai Hoole served faithfully as Secretary of the District Court Batticaloa and was by proclamation of the Governor allowed to keep, upon retirement, his title Mudaliyar for life. A photograph on the occasion taken with the entire parish in front of St. Andrew’s Church across the field by our venue is a treasured family possession.
To my disappointment, however, this morning’s news said that Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, Faiszer Musthapha had postponed local government elections by three months. Batticaloa has not had the Local Government elections due in 2013. Maritimepattu and Puthukudiyiruppu have had no elections since 2011. 4.17
We have been battling with Musthapha for long. Finally he gazetted the ward boundaries and number of representatives for wards in April. Without attributing reasons, he made the effective date of the gazette 1 July. So we waited.
He also had to correct mistakes in Act 12/2012 with several flaws without doing which we could not hold elections. Among the many flaws are 1) In the so called original Sinhalese version, for the term polling district (chandha kottasaya) with about 1500 voters, the term ward (kottasaya) with about 5000 voters had been used. (There being no mistakes in English exposes the pretended nationalism where the drafters work in English and claim to have worked in Sinhalese, which makes the flawed version the authentic one). 2) The counting place for postal votes was specified as a place where the chief counting officer would not have access to the result to declare a winner. and 3) Candidate deposits were hugely increased to make it impossible for small parties and independent candidates.
The corrections were drafted, after 2 years of our requests, as a bill on 02.06.2017 which is awaiting enactment in Parliament. We were elated. After 19 months on the Commission mainly doing voter registration and education, transfers and permissions to retire, we looked forward to conducting a real election.
Then Mustapha pulled a fast one. On 1 July, he issued a new gazette postponing the effective date to 1 October. He is a fox indeed! Even after 1 Oct. there is no guarantee on enacting the Bill.
The Egg, the dog, the Thief and the Gold
A thief told the master of a house, “There is an egg thief going about. Leash your guard dog to the chicken coop.” The Master did as advised. While the dog waited chained near the coop, the thief went to the house that night and cleared off with the gold.
We of the Election Commission are the guard dog. We are here to tell you of our democracy and guard the integrity of the voter register. But of what good is the voter register when you have no election to vote at? While we divert your attention to voter registration, the thief, our government, has walked off with our prized possession, our elections. The Election Commission has been suckered into diverting your attention, calling ours a democracy and justifying it with ceremonies like today’s, while you really are denied your right to choose who governs us.
How did these thieves take over? 1947 saw the time when rogue MPs had been bribed with Ministerial positions to disfranchise the hill country Tamils. Clean politics came with SJV Chelvanayakam who eclipsed every politician. Many politicians of that period agreed with this assessment. In the 1956 elections, he had entrusted “Pottar” [later Senator] Nadarajah with filing his nomination papers. Upon reaching the GA’s office and realizing that SJV had forgotten to sign the papers, Nadarajah went out, forged SJV’s signature and filed them. The Federal Party swept the Tamil areas.
C. Suntharalingam who was defeated in 1956, somehow got wind of this and filed a complaint. SJV was advised that saying it was indeed his signature would solve the problem. But SJV insisted “I will not tell a lie.” The party panicked. At the inquiry he testified, “I sent Nadesan with my full authority to act for me. When he signed my name, it was my signature.” His position was upheld and he served as MP.
And today? Pottar was murdered by the LTTE for participation in the District Council. Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran of the FP is being propped up by Suresh Premachandran’s EPRLF, PLOTE, Tamil Congress, EPDP and Sri-TELO. I need say no more. On 2 July Uthayan newspaper announced that CVW, in trying to fill the two ministerial vacancies, had asked for the CVs of those interested. He was trying to show that he is on the side of probity while the rest of the FP was not. He wrote to a person showing interest that he cannot be considered because he had played a role in the murder of Sivaram (nom de plume Taraki). At the time newspapers stated that the vehicle of Tharmalingam Sitharthan, MP had been used. Intrigued, I made enquiries. That letter of CVW’s is in the possession E. Saravanapavan, MP, who is prepared to release it to the public if the story is challenged by CVW. The Provincial Council Member allegedly involved in Sivaram’s murder is a PLOTE representative from Nedunkerny. He is so blood curdlingly brutal that he had once shot someone in Vavuniya. However, upon hearing that his intended victim had not died, he returned on his motorcycle and shot that man dead as he lay on a wailing woman’s lap.
The NPC has others of similar ilk. Such a man had looted a cooperative store. The LTTE had fined him Rs. 83 lakhs. It is thought that he did not pay the full fine because the LTTE’s demise intervened. The man then asked the FP for nomination and was turned down. He then went to Suresh Premachandran and received the FP name tag under the EPRLF quota. He is now a member in CVW’s corner.
How does this happen?
This fiasco for democracy happens because good people will not stand as candidates and we ourselves vote for bad people.
Standing for election is expensive. We need to be known for people to vote for us. Once we spend our money, we are broke as an uncle of mine married to SJV’s niece was after he successfully contested for a seat at the Jaffna Municipal Council for the FP. Supporters had to go house to house, and be served tea and lunch. Notices and posters had to be printed; campaign platforms built. He ran the illegal post office. He went to prison for his participation in the Tar Brush campaign. After two MMC terms he was flat broke. He went abroad and settled his debts but his supporters felt let down, asking me: “Thamby, your uncle has left us in the lurch to make money.” They did not know how expensive politics is.
What do politicians who spend themselves broke do after winning? The wife of a minister in this government told me that her husband had put her house as collateral for a loan for campaign finance and she would not know where to turn if he had lost. The poor woman was unwittingly telling me that by winning he had the chance to recover his investment.
Little Girls from Vincent Girls’ High School
Politicians who spend to win, then make money through corrupt deals and favours. Only a fool would spend his personal wealth and not want to recover it. Corruption is intrinsic to our politics.
The only solution is through laws limiting spending on campaigns and paying credible candidates from government coffers. These are both successfully done in many democracies.
But why do We Vote for the Corrupt?
The study of elections is a degree level art. A standard textbook is W.W. North, Daron Shaw, Matt Grossmann and Keena Lipsitz, Campaigns and Elections, 2nd edn, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 2015. The authors list five factors influencing, in order, how voters choose:
1. Social identity. The class background, ethnicity, and religion of the voter affect whom voters choose in an election. Parties cater to social groups in order to garner loyalty, and during a campaign are likely to “remind” any aligned social groups of their identity – for example preferring the Sinhalese national costume to their usual shirt and trousers. For us, language, religion, caste and whether English-speaking or not, are determining.
2. Party Identity – Again Identity! Party identification is voters’ psychological attachment to a political party. Usually, citizens learn party affiliation early in life, from family or social ties, as well as the political context during which a citizen grows up. In Jaffna, a young boy running about in the 1960s shouting “A Cross for the Federal Party” would find it difficult to do otherwise even after the party has changed. Sivaram’s killer getting elected is because he had the House symbol.
3. The National Economy: It is seen as a reflection of incumbent performance. Voters respond rewarding incumbents when the country prospers, and punishing when not.
4. Policies: Certain voters vote based on specific policy. Candidates accordingly adjust their positions on these issues to ones which they believe will gain them the most votes. In most cases, however, issue voters still tend to vote on party lines, so policy issues are still secondary.
5. Candidate Traits: Conflicting evidence exists on whether candidate traits affect voter choice. Most campaigners assume that voters are swayed by physical attributes and personality. These, however, will matter significantly only after party affiliation. So light-skinned men effeminately dressed in white, and cinema actresses winning is more likely because of their party rather than appearance.
We need to move towards policy and economy rather than identity. But when we ignore identity when rival groups do not, it would affect our community badly in our charged system.
The Election Commission hopes to gazette a call for nominations on 2 Oct. for the Sabragamuwa, Eastern and North Central Provincial Councils. But these elections will not be national in scope to be a referendum on the government’s performance. Observer Groups that met the Election Commission said their cooperation for a postponement had been sounded out and there was talk of a constitutional amendment to postpone even these.
*Edited version of a speech in Tamil delivered on 3 July 2017 at the Divisional Secretariat, Batticaloa