| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
Courtesy: The Sunday Time, Colombo

(September 23, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) As Saturday the 21st of September 2013 draws to a close, marking the first provincial council election held in Sri Lanka’s Northern region for decades, there is a certain terrible inevitability as to where the metaphorical (so far) lines of battle are drawn between this Government and its most determined detractors.

Driven to their backs against the wall

Unmistakably defined by the hardline majoritarian policies of the Rajapaksa administration which has left little room for compromise during the past few years, the political rhetoric of minority parties has grown increasingly defensive in turn, reflecting their grave apprehensions as racial and religious minorities in post-war Sri Lanka. During the last month, campaigns around the provincial council elections only revealed an unhappy intensification of these positions. While such stridency on the part of this government is only to be expected, it is unfortunate that Tamil parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) appear to have taken battle positions as it were, on a pronounced hardening of the rhetoric.

From one perspective, this may be understandable as Tamil citizens are driven with their backs against the wall, their places of religious worship being defaced, their very language and culture being subordinated and their lands being occupied on the flimsiest of pretexts in the North, ostensibly for public purposes but later used to expand the burgeoning hotel industry with fat commissions being paid to those at the highest levels of the political hierarchy. Yet as to whether this decidedly provocative rhetoric is exactly wise or strategic in the prevalent political environment is a different question altogether.

The silencing of moderate voices

For in a way, the continuation of such divisive debates is what this Government actually wants in terms of its own priorities for its long term survival. Its greatest problem would be the assimilation and identification of common majority and minority grievances ranging from land disputes and the dispossessed to the inability of the law to safeguard basic life and liberty rights, whether in Chunnakam or Weliweriya. During a week which saw Sri Lanka’s 43rd Chief Justice being put literally into the dock on a trumped up case of bribery by a Bribery and Corruption Commission which has deprived itself of all credibility, such a focus in the run-up to the provincial polls in the North may have had interesting possibilities. This was however, not the case.

The more pronounced divisions there are on ethnic lines, the more fearfulness that is created among religious and racial lines and the more that national parties appear to tread the line of the radical Tamil disapora characterized by its reluctance to condemn the excesses of the late leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the happier the Government hawks would undoubtedly be. This divisiveness forms a toxic brew which keeps the moderates marginalized and silences otherwise disgruntled voices who fear, (irrationally maybe), the ghost of the Wanni Sun God rising from the ashes, to mix one’s metaphors, unforgivably perhaps but quite irresistibly.

It is hoped that with the heat of the election campaign over, a more nuanced strategy would drive approaches adopted by the minority parties, which would have as its centre point, the identification of a common strategy at opposing this Government with the Rule of Law at its centre.

The Election Commissioner must talk less and perform more

Meanwhile elections in the Central and North Western provinces have, in the absence of an effective and dynamic opposition, predictable outcomes dominated by intra-party fighting. This week, we saw Sri Lanka’s Elections Commissioner engaging in amusing theatrics before national television while promising to uphold the integrity of the electoral process. The precedent of his predecessor breaking down in tears in lamenting his inability to prevent political pressures exerted on him by this government is indelibly imprinted on our minds.

Yet even within this most unpromising process and in the absence of an independent Elections Commission, the incumbent Elections Commissioner may well be advised to use Article 103(2) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution, left intact by the obnoxious 18th Amendment, to the fullest extent possible. Similar provisions have been used to good effect by India’s abrasive Elections Commission. Even in the vastly weaker electoral process that prevails here, this constitutional provision may surely be utilized more effectively. Moreover sanctimonious announcements by polls candidates, most of whom may be better adorning a rogues gallery, that they have declared their assets are little reassurance. It is up to the Elections Commissioner to ascertain the actual truth of these so-called declarations, even if the law can do little in punishing political rogues given state patronage.

Historic but disillusioning polls

In conclusion, these elections may be heralded as historic for its holding of polls in the North. True enough, the sight of formerly war affected villagers trudging determinedly to cast their vote at polling stations is an uplifting sight. Not so long ago, as may be remembered, the LTTE’s ban on citizens of the North casting their vote was enforced so barbarically that a man who defied that order had his hand cut off. Yet nonetheless, bereft of a proper Rule of Law framework and dominated by divisive campaign propaganda, these polls promise to heighten disunity, regardless of whatever outcome.

One is forcefully reminded thereto of the frenzied rat on the proverbial wheel, going round and round but to little avail until the inevitable end comes. As ultra-nationalist positions on both sides of the Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide harden, that essential middle ground is lost to the detriment of the country as a whole. This seems to be the sad fate of this country, illustrating time and time again that the lessons of history are never quite learnt in all their grim foreboding.