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To map out the future for Tamils, do it in pencil?

| by Victor Cherubim

( September 12, 2013, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Whilst unconfirmed reports attributed to the government, stated that the UNP may extend support to the TNA to win the Northern Provincial Council election, other observers maintain, that the military authorities in the North, by blatantly canvassing for the UPFA candidates, were driving support of ordinary voters to the Tamil National Alliance.

President Rajapaksa added “Northern Province has been given equal benefits similar to that given to other provinces, following the end of the war. Although land issues in the North exist, those issues will be resolved in due course.”

Elections in Sri Lanka have in the past triggered violence and conflict, often revealing weakness within the political system. “An election is a formal decision making process by which a population chooses an individual or a party to hold public office.” But, elections have become a “tick box” with the so called “democratic process” often conceived and funded as a one off event, often isolated from other key political and existing governance processes.

Election process needs to start before and after the event

The Northern Provincial Council Election fixed for 21 September 2013, has to be thought of as a process and not an event, if it has to capture the popular imagination as well as attract international attention. The former is necessary for producing results that are more legitimate of the voice of the people, and the latter as a free and fair election.

Sri Lanka has for too long been in the eye of the world at large, irrespective of the number of elections held. On this occasion, part of the international community comprising the Commonwealth, has been invited by the Elections Commissioner, to send observers to the NPC. This is in the right direction.

These Observers we are informed do not represent the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, nor do they represent their individual governments. What they can do and what they cannot is defined by their terms of reference. Drawn from different parts of the Commonwealth and include a mix of gender and discipline, including “electoral experts,”

they may look at among others issues, the following:

The credibility of the voters’ register and the electoral process as a whole
The ability of political parties and candidates to campaign freely
The degree of bias or otherwise in the media, in the government, in the opposition
The secrecy of the ballot
The transparency of the count and the collation of the results.

The electoral environment

But what they cannot do is supervise the election, but only observe the process as a whole and form a judgment accordingly. As the international community needs to recognise that its role is limited, both in influence on the process or in the result to produce a free and fair election.

On the other hand the electorate too has a responsibility. It is well known that there have been no elections held in the North of Sri Lanka, for many decades. Thus although the process may have been initiated, the electorate may be unaccustomed.

Free, but not fair election

The NPC election may be free, but could it be fair?

It could be not fair because the electorate in the North may be poorly informed about the issues or the candidates due to lack of objectivity, freedom of speech, propaganda or other undue influence. Some observers state they people have not come out of the shock of the loss of their bereaved, or the unaccounted persons, or of their trauma over thirty long years of war. They may be mesmerised by the development around them, but after four years of this war, they may still not have regained their bearings as responsible free citizens.

Others may argue that they are not free, not really free to vote. It is not the freedom to vote and the knowledge of how to cast a vote but about the participation process, which has been long forgotten by other issues nearer home. It may well be fear which determines how they vote, whether “big brother” is watching. It may be that they may still have qualms of voting, remembering what the LTTE told them “not to vote.” It may be because of their despair, that whether they vote or not, their lot cannot change.

The litmus test whether the election to the NPC is fair or not, is in the participation “of the people, by the people, for the people of the North”.

Sri Lankan Monitors have come out with various opinions prior to the election. “The People Action for Free and Fair Elections” (PAFFREL) have stated that the postal vote was largely peaceful with minor incidents reported. CaFFE (Campaign for Free and Fair Elections) has pointed out the roles and responsibilities of senior public officials. Further, the letter petition to the IGP by the “Network for Election Monitoring of Intellectuals for Human Rights” (NEMIHR), have demanded all firearms that are with politicians should be taken over before the election.

The issue is the ability of the voters in the North to engage in public debate and have adequate information about the contesting parties, policies, candidates and election process itself, to make an informed choice, which really matters. This may take years.

The monitors, the media or the Commonwealth observers cannot guarantee a free and fair election. But, the government by holding the election, perhaps, as a confidence building exercise and the monitor’s action as a deterrent to malpractice, will savour the day for the voter in the North.

It is also my view, that the Tamil political parties contesting the election for the seats in NPC, will remember that the voter will want an achievable roadmap for the future for Tamils and not reach for the “moon and the stars, “which they can hardly deliver.

The credibility of any manifesto drafted in indelible ink and set in stone, could well be in question. Perhaps, a starter road map in pencil, to accommodate the various priorities that need to be identified and which can be honoured, may suffice at present.

Surely, the highest of these priorities, as I see it, is to maintain a sense of perspective and purpose for the future of the people of the North.
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