N Sathiya Moorthy
Independent of President Maithiripala Sirisena’s tall claims to the contrary, the electoral system in the State has not become corruption-free after the present Government has taken over. If anything, under the care of the incumbent Government even the conduct of promised and/or constitutionally-mandated themselves have become problematic and delayed with the result, the SLPP-JO, among a handful of political parties in the country, and also the voter at large have become resigned and worse at welcoming the polls, whenever they come.
If there are no elections, there is no scope for corruption. If the elections are delayed, then again, there is no attempt for the critics of the Government to call foul fearing that one lil’ noise would be enough to cancel, postpone or countermand the polls. It is another matter that the relatively recent elections to the local governments would have anyway gone the way of the Opposition SLPP-JO in the ‘Sinhala majority’ areas, anyway, and there was little or no chance for either of the Government coalition partners in President Sirisena’s SLFP and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, to ‘steal’ the polls from the former even if they had resorted to ‘corrupt practices’.
Truth be acknowledged, to some extent or the other, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, had conducted a ‘corruption-free’ election of sorts when he conceded the elections when early results showed that he had lost the Tamil-majority Northern Province and Muslim-majority East. That was in the wee hours of 9 January 2015, when motivated speculation was running riot that he was conspiring to retain power by all means, this one through an army-engineered coup.
It was the meanest thing that anyone could have said of the nation’s armed forces. Even the pro-LTTE Diaspora sections of the Sri Lankan Tamils, who had laid every other criticism against the armed forces over the war and ‘war-crimes’ did not say anything of the kind. Nor did they claim that Rajapaksa was plotting an army-aided coup to retain power at all costs.
On the contrary, sections of the Sinhala-majority polity said it. The poll managers of Candidate Sirisena said it. The rumour continued even after Mahinda R had vacated ‘Temple Trees’ and drove down to his native village, down south. It died down, if at all, only after Sirisena had been sworn in President and Ranil W as Prime Minister, that very evening.
Rigging the polls
It should be said to the credit of the nation’s Election Commission, party cadres and people at large – the media included – that through the day when vote-count across the southern Provinces went on, no one made any attempt to ‘rig’ the results, no one complained that either side had rigged the counting. It should go to the credit of rival poll-managers, especially of the Rajapaksas with their ‘swollen heads’ on war-victory and more that they had their heads on their shoulders and could and did readily concede the polls once the North and East vote-figures became available.
Of course, this does not mean the Rajapaksas were lily white when it came to the conduct of polls. No other party or Government can claim so either. When in power, they all have played havoc with the election system. When in the Opposition, each of them has charged the ruling party of the day with ‘electoral corruption’. Most of them have not spared the Election Commission, either.
As a senior SLFP leader and minister under successive party Presidents in CBK and MR, Sirisena too cannot claim to be anything different, anything better. If the present Government is claiming to be clean, it is also because of alliance-differences, where each may end up charging the other(s) with electoral misconduct, to the amusement of the JO.
If now however, President Sirisena or those in his coalition Government end up finger-pointing at the Rajapaksas for the alleged misuse of the Government media, and of Government funds for their own electoral victory, it was the practice. If he now claims that all of it has changed that was the campaign promise of his candidacy. It is also possibly one of the few promises he can rightfully claim to have kept – at least as a promise – thus far.
‘Fixing’ the polls…
However, in the matter of ‘fixing’ the poll, or fixing the poll-time, the incumbent Government has fared much worse than the predecessor Rajapaksa regime. Under the latter, the nation had one too many elections. Under the present regime, it has one too few elections. Either way, it is not on, it does not serve the spirit of democracy. It’s aimed only at sub-serving the electoral chances of the ruling party/combine.
In this department, the track-record of the present Government or the Government parties is not much to right home effect. Sirisena thus is trying to make a virtue of a clumsy failure, to hold the elections when due. It has been true of every other election that this Government had to hold while in office.
Thus, the Government went against the totally forgotten 100-day commitment to hold parliamentary polls after removing Rajapaksa. The latter they did, thanks to the voter and possibly despite themselves. The former they suddenly remembered when, and only when, they found that Parliament may end up voting out then UNP Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, now without a job.
The less said about the divine and devious ways the LG polls got postponed is a story in itself. So has been the constituency de-limitation issue that bogged down the poll process, and was intended to do so. Now after a time, possibly with the hope that the voters have forgotten the LG polls, and possibly also to avoid voter-revulsion closer to the presidential polls, they are all talking about sticking to the existing PR system of polls, in the place of the proposed ‘mixed system’. Yet, a definitive decision continues to hang in the balance, hang in the air.
Beginning at home
If any Government in this country, or any other, is keen to prove its credentials and credibility with the conduct of elections, these ‘reforms’ have to begin at the top, yes, but also at home. President Sirisena cannot be party to the conduct or normal polls, this time, to the Provincial Councils, citing extraneous reasons, and still hope the nation to believe that he is above board, at least after coming to power.
Just as he had ticked off his UNP allies on such issues as ‘war-crimes’ probe, ‘Hambantota swap-deal’ with China and a few others where he felt insulted and not consulted enough by the PM & Co, he should also prove his sincerity (!) on the electoral front, by facilitating early polls to the PCs, even at this late hour. If that way, the ruling combine, starting with President Sirisena are delaying the PC polls (as they did in the case of the LG elections earlier), it ‘s possibly to avoid further embarrassing defeats ahead of the all-important presidential elections, next year-end or so.
It’s a mirror-image of the way Rajapaksa advanced the polls, and staggered them too, to pick one PC at a time and drain the UNP Opposition of the time of depleting financial resources and cadre-morale. The last time he tried it out, he lost the prestigious presidential polls of 2015, which he need not have called when he did, in the first place. But then, the only time that this Government has called elections, again behind schedule, the LG polls of 12 February, they again lost!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)