Photo by Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press, via The Washington Post
The Pre-election scenario
For the last eight months I have been living in a village in the Kalutara district. The village is situated about 10 kilometres south of Kalutara the district capital and a kilometer or so east from the sea.. The village economy is based on paddy farming and services with many young men and women commuting for work in Colombo and the neighbouring urban centres. The village is well served by rail and road transport. It is almost entirely Buddhist with temples of all three Nikayas and most people claim to be of the farming community. The village is perhaps typical of the hundreds of self – identified village communities in this south west quadrant of the island.
The political affiliations of my village population has been more or less unchanged over the years. The five or six old families (the appuhamies) and their numerous relatives are essentially UNP. The middle level of school teachers, government functionaries, garment factory workers and retail shopkeepers are SLFP. The JHU ideology has some traction among this group. The JVP used to be strong among the “depressed “ communities of which there are a few pockets yet, but has lost its salience since memory of their ‘oppression’ at the time they were rising in the late 1980’s is yet persistent.
What has been a remarkable change recently in political affiliation after the emergence of Maithripala Sirisena as common candidate, has been the shift of the SLFP elements from Mahinda Rajapakse and the UPFA to Maithripala and the SLFP. Since the date the Election was announced until the 25th of December the only canvassing in the village has been for Maithripala. The highlight of the canvassing effort was a joint UNP/SLFP 30 member large group distributing the common candidates manifesto and 100 day programme. It is noteworthy that the group was composed of the principals of the five schools in the neighbourhood and pradeshiya level political figures. There has been no canvassing by groups supporting Mahinda for President so far. If this village is representative of the low-country Sinhala Buddhist constituency the shift in ‘loyalties’ could presage a major swing in this sector of the Sinhala-buddhist hinterland. But of course there are yet a few days more of campaigning to go.
‘An equal playing field’
It is a truism that an essential pre–requisite for a “free and fair” election in a democratic country is an ‘even playing field’ for all candidates contesting the election. Regrettably the structure of the Executive Presidential political system and the manner of its functioning in Sri Lanka militates against an even playing field as far as the incumbent Executive President is concerned. For one thing there is the rich array of state resources that is available to the incumbent to use as he chooses. Men, transport and money can be deployed with the distinction between that which is official and that which is political being porous. State media, electronic and print is particularly susceptible to abuse almost without detection or open transgression of the electoral law. Another pervasive structural feature particularly in a traditional society like ours is the perception that an incumbent President (virtually a monarch) has a divine right to his position and should not be dethroned by a mere election. Conversely the challenger is held to be an usurper who is making an unworthy attempt at the throne. The almost total absence of civic education in the school syllabus and top – down teaching methodology contributes to this widespread attitude.
Shorn of their official plumage the two candidates MR and MS are contesting for the 75% or so Sinhala Buddhist vote bank. MR as to be expected stresses the achievement of saving the heritage by his defeat of Tamil separatism alias terrorism. Although five years on, this rhetoric yet resonates. MS has no such magic wand and concentrates on waste, corruption and high cost of living. His chief 100 days project of the abolition of the Executive Presidential system has little meaning to the mass of the village who have little knowledge or awareness of liberal democracy. On the other hand his image as the authentic common man from a colony in the NCP appears to find touch with the large crowds that come on their own to his public meetings. On the contrary MR’s meetings and the publicity through State media seem contrived with social media pointing out ‘photo shop’ activity in making these appear larger than they are. Stories of the large number of buses commissioned to carry audiences hither and thither are current in the village as are accounts of unwilling samurdhi beneficiaries being dragooned for nearby meetings. The villagers mind is particularly sensitive to this kind of deceit, fraud being an ever present part of daily life.
Apart from some house to house canvassing and personal information sharing especially in work groups (offices, garment factories, trains and buses) the rival campaigns have followed the usual form of the large public meeting and sponsored debates through the TV channels. An entertaining interlude was the long awaited debate between four well – known astrologers. Based on their knowledge of the candidates public horoscopes (it was divulged that most individuals have private horoscopes as well) and a stupendous background in the transition of the planets, the four political soothsayers concluded that both candidates had an equal chance – two going for one and two for the other. As the locals would have it a ‘tie / tie’ situation.
An interesting development suggested by MS of a public debate (perhaps on the lines of the US Presidential debates) was not taken by MR on the basis that the challenger was not worthy of his time. He magnanimously offered a Minister of his Government for any such debate! The public view was that this round was won by MS.
Cross-overs and Party positions in final week
While some private media channels attempted to make light of cross-overs, calling them high jumps and somersaults, the lines of demarcation appear clear enough for amateur pollsters to make their predictions of what the final count would be like. The ethnic minorities, the Sri Lanka Tamils and Muslims stand clearly behind MS, the Indian Tanil vote is divided, so too the Sinhala Catholic while the main Sinhala-Budddhist seem divided down the middle. The patriotic Sinhala Buddhist vote appears confused in this election owing to the JHU and JVP (Anura Dissanayake faction) being supportive of MS. In 2009 the Sinhala Buddhist majority were without doubt for MR. Thr JVP (which is influential among the Police and Military -other ranks -) has taken the position that they want MR defeated but have not supported MS. (their reluctance to openly support MS is said to lie in their innate lack of trust in the UNP and the fear that the promise of the abolition of the Executive Presidential system will remain as before merely a promise.)
The chances of an abuse – free Polling Day
While the pre-election period has been marred by violence and malpractice of various kinds, the vast majority being perpetrated by the Governing party, Polling day itself in recent elections has been largely free of violence. This may be due to the large number of uniformed police mobilized for duty at crucial points but I think, more due to the pressing need for the governing authorities to display that the election was indeed free and fair. The presence of international observers (at this election from the UN and Commonwealth) act as a powerful incentive for the Government that called the election to ensure that the election was indeed so. Generally Observer teams start their scrutiny of the process too late to observe the number of violent acts (breaking up of rival candidates offices, etc) which have preceded the final “peaceful”election.
With no Election Commission (as mandated by the 17th Amendment which itself has been amended) and an Election Commissioner chosen by the President the opportunity for bias in the choosing of members from the Public Service for election duties is wide open. However straight the Commissioner might want to be, the opportunity for him selecting persons who conduct the election being those who favour the incumbent President is overwhelming. The well known incidents of uncounted ballot papers in bundles being found after the last 2010 Presidential election is yet in the public mind. Moreover a well documented case of even the Returning Officer (the Government Agent/District Secretary) of the 25 Districts being induced to violate laid down procedures is available from the 2010 Presidential Election. Thanks to Wikileaks we know the astounding account of the Government Agent Ampara mentioning to the then American Ambassador (Ms Butennis) that he along with some of his colleagues had been instructed to, and had sent, the final results of the District count to the “Temple Trees” (the official residence/office of the President) and NOT to the Elections Commissioner (Mr Dissanayake). Small wonder that the Elections Commissioner had at the conclusion of that election and his announcing of the results, actually said on TV that this was an Election in which he could not guarantee the integrity of a single ballot box! The question has been raised as to why then no Election Petition was instituted according to the Law. The sad fact however is that the cards are so poorly stacked against the petitioner under the executive Presidential system that every attempt at a Petition has been lost in the courts.
With this background what then is the likelihood of similar or more innovative malpractices being initiated to vitiate an authentic count. It is clearly impossible to predict what could happen on the 8th night.
But one thing may be said with some certitude and that is that the closer the election results look to the main actors in this final act of this national drama – ie the Elections Commissioner, the Returning officers, the Presiding Officer at the polling station and the clerks and the Police on duty, the greater the chance of the procedures being correctly followed on Polling Day. The retribution that will surely fall on the wrong doer if the Opposition candidate wins acts as a more powerful motivation to doing the right thing than lofty exhortations that the public service should and will do its duty.