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view from abroad : Threat of violence in Sri Lankan election

Updated December 22, 2014

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President Mahinda Rajapakse. — Reuters/File
President Mahinda Rajapakse. — Reuters/File

AS the countdown begins for the crucial Sri Lankan presidential election scheduled for Jan 8, the race appears to be tightening. Indeed, from the incumbent’s point of view, the decision to hold the election two years before it was due now seems ill-judged.

However, a visitor driving along the southern coast of the island could be excused for believing that President Mahinda Rajapakse is the sole candidate. Huge cut-outs and posters of a smiling leader can be seen at every junction and crossroad. He truly bestrides the island like a behemoth. Although there are restrictions on publicity expenditure by each campaign, the president’s team gets around them by arguing that these posters have been placed by individual supporters at their own initiative and expense.

But whether this high visibility will do Rajapakse much good remains to be seen. Even though the ‘common candidate’, Maithripala Sirisena, better known as Maithri, does not have the same high profile as his rival, he is hardly unknown. After a lifetime spent with the ruling SLFP, and rising to become its secretary-general, he has crossed over to be named the joint opposition candidate.

In retaliation to this setback, the government has induced the opposition UNP’s secretary general to cross over to its ranks where he has been given the health ministry, Sirisena’s old portfolio. These moves have triggered a bewildering succession of crossovers that has witnessed several rapid changes of allegiance. In each case, these turncoats have cited qualms of conscience that have motivated them, although gossips in Colombo mention large sums changing hands.

To illustrate this phenomenon, Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times ran this fable: “A Lankan dies and goes to hell where he meets the Lord of Death, Yama, surrounded by a number of clocks with their hands moving at different speeds. He asks Yama why he has so many clocks, and is told that each clock represents a country, and the rate at which the hands move denotes the speed at which the people of each country change their principles. The man asks Yama why there’s no clock for Sri Lanka. Yama replies that he uses that clock for a fan.”

In a country where critical journalism has been stifled, with many reporters and editors beaten up, kidnapped and even murdered, the coming election has suddenly unleashed a spate of criticism in the media. Private TV channels are airing political discussions in which the government’s opponents are invited.

The Sunday Times published a very helpful article listing the various ways and the various points at which an election can be rigged. Presumably, the idea was to alert the opposition to the different techniques available to an incumbent and his supporters to fix the result. Interestingly, most of them would apply to a Pakistani election.

But one pre-poll method that escaped the editors has been put into practise by the president’s supporters. As they knew the election date before it was announced, they were able to book various grounds where political rallies can be held across the country. Spurious organisations paid the advance fees required by local authorities to deny the opposition these spaces. In one opposition rally in Matra, the electricity for the sound system was mysteriously disconnected.

By choosing an election date in the middle of the tourist season, the government has scored an own goal as the number of foreign visitors has dropped significantly. Since this is a major earner of foreign exchange, tour operators and many in the hospitality business are suffering. Many governments have put out travel advisories for their citizens who might have been planning a trip to Sri Lanka. The steep fall in the rouble hasn’t helped either as many Russians used to visit Sri Lanka in the winter.

Thus far, both Muslim and Tamil political organisations have refrained from announcing their official candidate. Political observers here feel they are sitting on the fence to avoid government pressure. However, come Jan 8, a large proportion of voters from both communities are expected to vote for the opposition candidate. Muslims and Catholics have been subjected to sporadic attacks by extremist Buddhist groups in the recent past, and are unlikely to support Rajapaske who has done little to protect them. And the Tamils still feel marginalised and bitter more than five years after the civil war ended.

A recent online opinion poll, conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, gives some indication about the way in which the wind is blowing. Based on nearly 1,400 respondents in different age groups, the poll shows only 24pc think the incumbent will win. A majority thinks the main issue before the voters is corruption; and as this is the Achilles heel of the ruling party, it underlines the anger many today feel about the way in which the ruling family has enriched itself over the last decade. But this online poll does not reflect the support Rajapakse still enjoys in the Buddhist hinterland.

In a devastating article in The Sunday Times, Anura Gunasekra writes: “The governance of this country is in the hands of one family, with fringe benefits for its relatives, friends and hangers-on. The judiciary is pliant, the armed forces submissive, the police compliant and the public administration partisan. The will of the ruler, and through him, that of the family and their cohorts, supersedes both the law and public interest. What we have in this country, self-proclaimed by the regime as the ‘Miracle of Asia’, is in reality, the sovereignty of one family.”

Given the high stakes in this election, observers are warning of violence, specially in Tamil and Muslim areas to discourage them from voting. Although foreign election observers have begun arriving, their dependence on the government for transport and translators, as well as their ignorance of the system, limits their ability to deter rigging.

Published in Dawn December 22th , 2014