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Holding back popular rebellion


”This is a warning that it will do well to take heed of. Post elections, political analysts have dwelt on the polarization of political opinion between the north and the east and the rest of the country. There may be some truth in this.  Yet the perception that the electorate outside the north and east continues to be solidly behind the government may not necessarily continue to be the case.  ”
By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
During the past week, we have seen an incongruous if not remarkably imaginative theory being propounded by government propagandists. In brief, this theory attempts to interpret the defeat of the ruling party in local government elections in the north and the east to vindicate the argument that the regime is committed to a democratic Sri Lanka.

Their contention per se is that if the regime was as anti-democratic as is made out by its (apparently)  overly excitable critics, then a victory for the government in these areas would have been secured by hook or by crook, as is said in common parlance. But, as they argue, the fact that this was not the case only goes to show that the state of democratic governance in the country is not bad as it is made out to be.

Fundamental irregularities in the electoral process
This theory is remarkably imaginative at several different levels.  Most obviously, it bypasses the fact that the recent local government elections, was not even remotely satisfactory when assessed against universal standards of free and fair elections.  As much as all elections in Sri Lanka, whether national, provincial or local government, are tainted by intimidation, thuggery and extensive use of state resources by the ruling party, this latest election too displayed these traits in unfortunate abundance.

We may accept these fundamental electoral irregularities as inevitable with scarcely a murmur. This indicates only that we have abandoned our sense of what is democratically right. It certainly does not mean that this country’s electoral administration or plain governance is all that it should be. Surely the surfacing of the dead bodies of people who have been ‘disappeared’ even two years after the ending of active fighting in these areas, the continued abductions of persons and the attacks on journalists, tell a different story? The severe assault of the Uthayan’s news editor this Friday is just the most recent case in point.

As has been frequently stated in these column spaces, it is not enough for the government to maintain that its officers, police or the military, are not responsible for these attacks. On the contrary, it is a duty cast on the government to investigate these occurrences according to law and take all preventive measures possible.

But as we have seen in the past, this responsibility is shrugged aside in the north and east as well as elsewhere. When tremendous public discontent is evidenced, as in the case of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone attacks, a committee of inquiry is appointed and in other instances, a Commission of Inquiry is established. Yet the government’s stringent duties of investigation, prosecution and punishment under the normal criminal law are disregarded. In the meantime, reports of committees and commissions come to naught. We do not even see their contents.

Singularly dishonest argument
Quite apart from this now habitual democratic dysfunctionality, to  contend that the results of the local government elections in the former war torn areas testifies to the government’s democratic  credentials is both oxymoronic and profoundly dishonest.

This Presidency has been singularly able in bringing about the almost wholesale defeat of the opposition, the silencing of its internal critical party voices and the general tethering of the media, the judiciary, professionals, civil society and the trade unions. Most relevantly, albeit uncomfortably, it has managed to do this not only by brute force or by a totally unscrupulous lack of respect for the Constitution as seen by a despicable 18th Amendment but also through a combination of street smart tactics and shrewd political maneuvering. This is something that detractors of the incumbent President who like to focus on his deceptively homespun Medamulana roots may not readily concede. Nevertheless, this remains a reality.

In effect, even though we certainly had Presidential authoritarianism in the past, Presidential rule post 2005 was executed to an extent that exceeded even those previous excesses. But this execution was calculatedly and not frivolously planned. The administration’s reaction to the now shelved pension bill shows its street savvy sense very evidently.  This is not a government that can be dismissed for its bullyboy tactics, however much we may see it thumbing its nose at the United Nations, among others and justifiably shudder at the sheer crudity of these gestures.  

Failing of street savvy tactics in the north and east
For most of the post war period, this shrewd and calculated combination of street savvy tactics succeeded in crippling any viable opposition. For example, though significant electoral irregularities during the Presidential and Parliamentary elections last year undoubtedly impacted on the numerical counts of the vote, maintaining that a different electoral result would have resulted was a more complex question, given the political mood at that time. 

Yet the reason why this calculatedly anti-democratic strategic combination failed in the north and east this month is not because the government magnanimously permitted free and fair elections as its ludicrously optimistic defenders would like us to think. On the contrary, it was because two missing elements in the balance of power in the rest of the country were present in these former conflict areas and prevailed over all other considerations. First, the Tamil people were in no mood to be won over by superficial rhetoric which sought to replace genuine post war reconciliation needs with a development drive that resulted in the filling of the coffers of the politically powerful while doling out small concessions for the communities. As one woman voter in Jaffna said to a wire service after the polls ‘”Since the war ended, we feel Tamils are being treated like slaves…I am not saying that the LTTE did better, but we are not comfortable now” (Reuters, July 29, 2011).

Second, many of the Tamil voters saw a political party which they could vote for in opposition as representing their interests, however limited that choice may have been.  The fact that the rest of the mainstream opposition fared so miserably is unsurprising given their total lack of direction and leadership. 

Of course, abandoning its combination of charm and threats (largely successful electorally in 2010), the government may have gone all out and done a ‘Wayamba’ style election in the north and the east this time around. But given the current regional and international dynamics, this would have been unwise to the highest extent possible.  And whatever may be believed of this administration, the risks it runs are far from being foolhardy. Likewise, we may anticipate the means that it will now inevitably employ to make sure that the local government results are not converted to a threat politically. 

Warning that past tactics may not always hold good
So when we are requested to take notice of the government’s democratic credentials in ‘permitting’ a free and fair local government election in the north and east, it is difficult not to rudely snigger. The fact of the matter is that this was the first major occasion on which the government realized that its strategies may not work in terms of controlling electoral opinion.  This is a warning that it will do well to take heed of. Post elections, political analysts have dwelt on the polarization of political opinion between the north and the east and the rest of the country. There may be some truth in this.  Yet the perception that the electorate outside the north and east continues to be solidly behind the government may not necessarily continue to be the case.

With increasingly gargantuan corruption, rising economic woes and confrontations with sectors of society ranging from trade unions to university academia, past tactics of capturing public opinion may not always hold good. In discussions mid this week with some practitioners of the Matara Bar for example, considerable disaffection with the way that the country is being run, (emanating even from those who supported this regime at last year’s polls), was clearly evident.

It may also not always be possible for the government to cling onto that exceedingly useful international war crimes cry. Even in the absence of an effective opposition therefore, it may become increasingly difficult for the regime to hold back popular rebellion.  And it is certainly opportune for President Mahinda Rajapakse at least now, to realize the value of safeguarding constitutional democracy for the good of his own administration, if the good of the country is no longer a persuasive reason.


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