By Kumar David–
The Lankan government quite suddenly and quite unnecessarily dissolved three provincial councils a few days ago. Were you to search for a logical explanation you would find none, but seek for crafty motives and a game plan surfaces. The political climate is hotting up and the regime needs to distract the populace; what better than the drama of the hustings? But this is not explanation enough. The Rajapakse government is panning out, probing options, searching for a survival strategy. You can’t say the Rajapakses don’t plan ahead with assiduous care, but they have to. By all accounts, and now it seems in their own estimation as well, things are getting tougher by the day, so move before it gets too bad!
And there is a more lethal concern; this government cannot relinquish power and quit office because it will be the jailhouse for some, the hangman’s noose for others and investigation by the corruption watchdog for all. This is precarious for society, the government of the day is like a cornered wild animal, it cannot countenance downfall for that will be curtains, kaput literally. But a dictatorial grab for power is the royal road to uprising, carnage and revolution. As in Egypt and Syria there is no way out. In both it is not that the dictators do not wish to renounce power. They cannot! A vast empire of privilege, wealth and positions in the hands of the military are at stake in Egypt, and that’s not counting the necks of the mighty, vide Mubarak. If ever Syria’s Assad and his murderous henchmen fall into the hands of the mobs, it will be a lynching. Remember Mussolini, they hanged him from a lamppost. Notwithstanding its bungling and bumbling, Indians should be thankful that the rudiments of democratic muddling-through are secure in their country.
The game plan
The terms of the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils (PC) expire in September 2013, and the Eastern PC in March. There is no disturbance of the peace, no disruption of law and order, and no anticipated event signalling the fall of any of any the three Administrations. There is no rhyme or reason or breakdown; the dissolution is comes out of the blue. The game plan is that if Rajapakse’s UPFA alliance wins, then parliament will be dissolved in early 2013. The three PC elections are a dry run for the real thing, parliamentary elections. What’s the logic for early parliamentary elections in 2013 since the term of the current parliament does not end till 2016? Political speculators suggest that the government knows economic conditions are spiralling down, so it thinks “better hold elections early before everything hits rock bottom. An added benefit is that when the big prize, presidential elections, fall due (January 2016 is the cut-off date) it will be beneficial to have a pliant parliament in situ.
However, there is also a school of thought in Colombo which says the reason for calling early PC elections is that the international community’s pressure on war crimes, human rights, reconciliation and devolution has become hard to bear. If the government wins the three provincial elections it will thumb its nose at the rest of the world and say: “The people are with us, we have a mandate to do as we like. Go stuff your UNHRC Geneva resolution! ” Although the West is unlikely to fall for this given the degree of intimidation and rigging that has now become routine in Sri Lanka, the Indians, since they are not that intelligent, will fall for the bluff. Shivshankar Menon’s pleasure trip to Colombo is the umpteenth such ludicrous jaunt; nothing useful will come of Delhi’s policy on Lanka till Manhoman Singh’s government packs up, and probably the next lot will be no better.
The Eastern Province PC election is a particularly important gamble by the government since the population of this province is roughly 40% Tamil, 35% Muslim and 25% Sinhalese. If the government wins the EP it will crow that not merely the Sinhalese but also the minorities are behind it. There is a risk involved that losing the EP would enable its critics to make counter charges that it has lost minority support. The Tamils and Muslims (essentially the TNA and the SLMC) would be wise to forge alliances of their own, with opposition support, and emerge as a force that is not dependent on Rajapakse hand-outs and subterfuges.
The UPFA will win Sabaragamuwa, it’s a foregone conclusion. But if it does not it will be the end of the road for the Rajapakse regime; so that’s wishful thinking as yet. However the North Central province could be a fight. Farmers are angry about prices and absence of relief during a drought and a resolution expressing no-confidence in the Provincial Agriculture Minister is due to be tabled in the PC at the end of June. Again, in holding PC elections in the North Central province the government is taking a calculated risk. That it is prepared to take such risks in the Eastern and North Central provinces is an indication that the regime is extremely pessimistic about the economic scenario for the next two or three years and/or it is very unsettled by international pressures.
The elephant in the room is the provincial council election that is not being held; the Northern Province, the country’s only Tamil majority province. Although the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the Indo-Lanka Accord and the whole concept of provincial councils were advanced for the purpose of devolving a modicum of power to the Tamils, the irony is that this Tamil majority province is the only one in Sri Lanka that has never enjoyed devolution or elected a provincial council. The absurdity of Lanka’s political landscape could not be more profound!
The TNA as well as Lanka’s joint opposition consisting of the UNP, Mano Ganesan’s party and two left parties (USP and NSSP) have demanded Northern Province PC elections immediately and prior to the three farcical PC elections proferred up by the regime for its own tactical purposes. The Rajapakses will not hold Northern PC elections because they know they will be routed and international criticsm of the regime for war crimes and rights violations will be strengthened. Hence Sri Lanka stumbles from crisis to crisis.
Electoral abuses, intimidation and vote rigging
Foreign readers are unlikely to comprehend the scale and nature of electoral malpractice after Rajapakse assumed power. Of course people living in an Asian democracy take a certain amount of ballot stuffing, street violence and beating up of each other’s election workers, in their stride; that’s life. What I am impressing on the reader is that electoral abuse in Sri Lanka took a leap in the direction of hell on earth starting the latter part of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s first term.
Some examples of what goes on are: Use of state premises, government vehicles and government servants in electoral work, partiality on a scale never before seen in Sri Lanka of police and military, beatings of opposition workers with impunity, abuse of privileges by Ministers, display of posters in violation of electoral laws by the government side only without the police raising a finger, and impunity of UPFA offenders from arrest or prosecution for all such acts. The Sri Lankan public has become so inured that it is no longer news at home, this paragraph is only for the information of overseas readers who may still cherish fond illusions about the state of wellbeing of democracy in this once blessed isle.
This is not an easy game plan to counter. No one who values democracy can refuse to accept an electoral challenge. And who has patience with those who say an election is good but it is going to be rigged? The Carter Centre and folks like that are too naïve to handle our kind of native cunning. It’s only when people take their fate into their own hands that fake democracy is exposed.
South Asia Analysis Group