When governments fear elections
Posted on July 4th, 2017

Editorial Courtesy The Island

The country had polls diarrhoea, as it were, for ten long years under the Rajapaksa government, which staggered provincial council and local government elections, unnecessarily, to exaggerate its strength and the UNP’s weakness. Finally, the worm turned and an unexpected regime change occurred. The rest is history. Under the present yahapalana dispensation, the country has suffered from polls constipation for nearly two years.

The yahapalana government exhausted all its excuses for postponing local government elections. It has now been so bold as to put them off by three more months, through a gazette notification, without citing even a bogus reason! There is no guarantee that we will be able to exercise our franchise in the foreseeable future.

The Elections Commission is all at sea, but it cannot be blamed for that. It is not independent—far from it—though the 19th Amendment is thought to have liberated vital state institutions including it from the clutches of power-hungry politicians.

Intrepid Polls Chief Mahinda Deshapriya was like Gulliver in Lilliput in the run-up to the last presidential election. He roared and towered over those who acted high and mighty; he exercised his powers without fear or favour to ensure free and fair polls. He received praise for a job well done. But, today, he is like Gulliver on the island of Brobdingnag. He no longer roars. This is the kind of change that has occurred under the present regime. However, the yahapalana leaders, in fairness to them, only promised to bring about a change; they did not say whether it would be for the better or the worse!

The question is how people, in whom sovereignty is said to reside, can exercise their franchise. The government is determined to keep on postponing elections, on some pretext or other, as it cannot face them. All signs are that the long overdue local government polls will be postponed again come Oct. 01. The Joint Opposition (JO) claims that the government is also planning to bring in new legislation to put off Provincial Council elections as well. The kept Opposition, which is a mere appendage of the government, remains silent. Civil society outfits, save one or two, have turned a Nelsonian eye to the blatant violation of the people’s franchise and, strangely, the denial of the people’s right to vote has not caused any concern to the so-called international community, which has taken upon itself the task of preserving Sri Lankan democracy.

A government that fears elections is a threat to democracy, to say the least. The SLFP-led United Front regime (1970-77) extended the life of parliament, without an election, by two years in 1975. That undemocratic action cost it dear electorally at the parliamentary polls that followed. The debilitation of the SLFP paved the way for JRJ’s dictatorial rule, which led to the replacement of a general election with a heavily rigged referendum in 1982. The SLFP’s inability to act as a countervailing power to keep the JRJ government in check created conditions for the rise of the JVP, which exploited the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in 1987 and the prevailing public resentment at that time to plunge the country into a bloodbath.

Local government polls cannot make or break governments, but the issue of their postponement has assumed huge political proportions much to the disadvantage of the ruling coalition. Both the SLFP and the UNP are in a dilemma; they don’t want to vie with each other at a future election at the grassroots level, risking the fragile unity of their coalition. But, they will have to do so. This is a worrisome proposition for the two parties trying to keep the JO at bay.

The self-appointed champions of good governance had better sort out their political problems, overcome their polls phobia and arrest the rapid erosion of public confidence in the democratic process by conducing mini polls without further delay. Else, they will help, albeit unwittingly, promote the anarchical agendas of some ultra radical groups; democracy will be the loser in such an eventuality. Let no excuses be trotted out.

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