By Jehan Perera –
Local elections are scheduled on 10 February 2018. Nearly 16 million persons will be voting at these elections. This will be the largest election in Sri Lankan history. These will also be the first elections under the mixed electoral system whereby 60% of members will be elected using first-past-the-post voting and the remaining 40% through closed list proportional representation. However, anticipation is that the turnout of the electorate will be less at previous ones. The last local government elections held in 2011 saw a voter turnout of 65 percent. This time around the figure is likely to be less. There is a stronger degree of voter disenchantment with the political parties.
In Sri Lanka local government is weak in relation to the central government. Therefore, the issues at local elections are usually not local ones, but national issues which are of more interest to the voters. This election will be no exception. The opposition in particular has been trying to induce voters to see the forthcoming local government elections as being of national significance. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who is heading the Joint Opposition campaign has clearly stated that this election will not be about local issues but whether the people want to support or oppose the government. The argument he makes that the government has not delivered on its promises resonates with the electorate.
At these elections, the parties forming the government will be disadvantaged by the slowness of their performance in delivering on the promises made at the national elections that took place in 2015. The voter turnout at the last general elections in 2015 at which change for the better was the promise was 78 percent. The government’s main campaign promises were with regard to quick results in economic betterment for the masses and to meting out justice to those accused of large scale corruption. These promises galvanized the electorate. The irony in this campaign is to see the hunter becoming the hunted. Those accused of large scale corruption in the former government have sought to become hunters. The problem for the voters is that the track record of the Joint Opposition when in government was very poor and they seek to ignore their past instead of being self-critical.
The Joint Opposition has shown little inclination to reform themselves which will prove to be a disadvantage to themselves at the forthcoming elections. Last week a small group of women activists from the war affected districts came to Colombo to meet with the government’s Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms which has been established under the Prime Minister’s Office and is headed by government advisor Mano Tittawella. Prior to coming to Colombo they had met several times on their own and presented their grievances to the government authorities in the areas in which they lived. But in keeping with the general belief that Colombo is the place to come to get things done, they insisted on meeting central government authorities in Colombo.
At the meeting the women made several points. One was that they were very keen to have their grievances heard by those in positions of authority. But what they usually encounter is the reverse. Instead of listening to what they had to say, and to what they wanted, those in authority came to tell them had been planned for them and what they should do. They were angry about the slow pace of change and the non-addressing of their burning issues, such as that of missing persons. These women victims of war appreciated that officials of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms listened to what they had to say before telling them what to do.
The second politically significant point they made was to appreciate the freedom they had to travel to Colombo to voice their grievances to the government. They compared the present to the past, and compared it favorably. They said that in the past they could not have travelled from north to south with such freedom, and if they spoke their mind to government authorities of the past, they would be taken away in white vans. The significant, if not total, reduction in the fear syndrome that existed during the period of the previous government is something the Joint Opposition needs to engage with instead of ignoring it like an ostrich.
The third point that the women activists made was that the people they interacted with in the south of the country were sympathetic to their problems. They found there was an openness to learn about what had happened in the past, to make amends and to ensure that this did not happen again. The sharing of sorrows and experiences was itself a healing exercise. It is not as if the people of the south have been spared the human rights violations of the past either. They also suffered during the time of the JVP insurrections both at the hands of the militants and security forces and again during the period of the LTTE.
An ongoing study has shown that most Sri Lankan people are open minded about learning about the past. On the one hand there is a big divide in the knowledge about other communities, even those living in their midst but are from different ethnic and religious communities, and even more so when they live in different parts of the country. On the other hand, there is a strong interest in learning about the other side of the truth which is a special feature of Sri Lanka. They know there is controversy about it and would like to know the truth. This also applies to most members of the security forces. They know they are under a cloud and would like to clear their names.
Despite many years of ethnic and inter religious conflict most people do not wish to hate or have such conflicts with those from other communities. One of the salient features of the ongoing research study is that people at the community level go out of their way to try and include those of other ethnic and religious communities in the decision making committees they form. Civil society groups such as the National Peace Council have found that people at all levels, and all sectors, including the government bureaucracy, security forces and religious clergy are glad to meet to dialogue and to solve problems together. This is a positive social and cultural feature of Sri Lanka that needs to be built upon.
Due to the focus on national issues at the forthcoming elections it is unlikely that the government will wish to do anything controversial that will provide the opposition with fodder for their election campaign. The Joint Opposition has espoused extreme nationalism in their political pronouncements which the government will prefer not to confront at this time for reasons of electoral politics. But after the conclusion of the local government elections on February 10 a new window of opportunity will open for reconciliation. Delivering on its promise of ascertaining and clarifying the truth needs to be a priority as it is wanted, needed and will have acceptance by the people.