By M Rama Rao
As the voting day beckons the Sri Lankans, the question staring at them is: How far the Presidential election will be free and fair. The election monitors like the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFE) are unhappy that very little has been done thus far to control poll-related violence. Election law violations are on the rise. The poll monitors have recorded as many as 160 violations till January 19. The police are facing flak increasingly. The complaint against the police, according to D.M. Dissanayake, the national coordinator for the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), is that they are inclined to record election-related complaints as minor incidents.
The steadily mounting electoral violence is naturally a cause for concern in the presidential race which started off as a one-legged campaign in November. The Election Commissioner of Sri Lanka must live up to the hopes pinned on him by the people. There are no two opinions that he has an unenviable job what with the continued breach of electoral laws and the gleeful disdain as the Sunday Island terms the treatment to the ban on cut-outs and posters in some quarters.
Not too long ago, the Indian Election Commission faced the dilemma, which appears to grip Sri Lanka poll body today. It did not ask for more powers but went about its task very systematically. First by jealously guarding its independence. Second by tying the hands of the political executive right from the day the poll dates are announced. As a result the Nirvachan Sadan, as the Election Commission of India is called, is as much feared by the political class as it is respected by the common people.
Undoubtedly, the Election Commissioner of Sri Lanka is doing his best to cope up with the prevailing situation. The electorate expects him not to despair in a state of helplessness but be pro-active in asserting his authority. More so as the January 26 ballot is seen as the truly first democratic election without the spectre of LTTE guns. Also, as the verdict may usher in, going by the poll pledges of main rivals, a less powerful president and mark an end to the descent into a police state.
Both camps – incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his loyal commander turned challenger, Sarath Fonseka – are carrying out a very expensive campaign. The focus is more on rhetoric and less on policy. Both sides have been indulging in mudslinging. This charge appears to stick more to the second and third tier of the Mahinda camp, prompting comments that it shows a desperation. President’s 20-year old son has set up a squad of Rajapakse’s supporters called the ‘Blue Battalion’ for a high voltage campaign in the South. The General’s side also cannot escape blame for the lows the electioneering has reached. Its energies are directed to debunk the ruling establishment as a den of corruption and nepotism.
One charge that is being traded is particularly galling. It relates to war crimes and both sides have slipped into a slanging match even before the UN declared that the August telecast of Channel 4 of what purported to be footage of brutal and cold blooded killing of surrendering Tamil Tigers is authentic.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is the victorious war president. As his chosen army chief, General Sarath Fonseka is the one and only truly victorious war commander. While one sanctioned the ‘war’ plan the other executed it meticulously, often brutally to end the Tigers’ menace that brought ruin to the country. Yet, each accuses the other of war crimes. So much so, whom are they trying to hoodwink.
In fact, neither is covering himself with glory – the President, when he says he was unaware of what was happening on the war crimes front, and the General by claiming he was either out of Sri Lanka when unarmed ‘Tiger’ killings took place, or to have been unaware of such orders.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was ( and is) the Supreme Commander of the Sri Lankan armed forces, in which capacity he wants to be given the credit for the Wanni War victory. Fonseka was the head of the army at that time and he never tires of telling his audience how Rajapaksa brothers have done their best to deny him his rightful credit for the victory.
Denial mode even as a short term stratagem does Fonseka no service when he is supported by the Marxists, extreme Sinhala nationalists, one time Tiger proxies, a significant section of Muslim leadership and above all the main opposition United National Party. Needless to say, Fonseka supporters see in him the only chance to defeat Mahinda Rajapakse, who has carved out a niche for himself and still commands grudging respect of even his critics for his courage of taking on Velupillai Prabhakaran when no one expected him to take the grave risk.
As Chris Patten, a former Hong Kong governor, remarks, while Sri Lankan voters face a difficult decision in making their choice, the rift between Mahinda Rajapaksa and General Fonseka – and the consequent divisions among Sinhalese nationalist parties and the renewed vigour of opposition parties – has at least put the possibility of reforms on the agenda. Whoever wins must deal properly with the underlying issues that are responsible for ethnic strife in the past and have the potential to lead to a resurgence of mass violence unless correctives are applied with care, caution and passion. The winner can also count on the international community which is willing to lend a helping hand to Sri Lanka’s march towards democratisation and demilitarisation of its society.