by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Aim to win several elections in a row, so that the rules of the political game and the whole atmosphere of public life can be changed… Mobilize every (dirty) trick in the book of politics to achieve what others haven’t achieved….”:John Keane (The Life and Death of Democracy)
In a truly democratic election, voter is king and politicians are supplicants. In a genuine election season, voters will speak and will be heard, while politicians walk on eggshells, careful not to upset the sensibilities of the electorate.
That is not the way elections are managed in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.
Untimely, unnecessary and therefore over-frequent elections are a staple in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. These exercises are democratic in name only; their true purpose is not to test the popularity of the Ruling Siblings but to confirm it, by whatever means necessary.
Elections thus become theatres with the voters as muppets. The regime decides, with disconcerting arbitrariness, to dissolve some elected body and to go for fresh polls, way before time. Politicians of the ruling alliance, accompanied by their armed and unarmed cohorts descend on the target area, en masse. They zoom hither and thither in their mammoth vehicles; they harangue the silent voters; they inundate the target area with election materials.
Posters mushroom, leaflets rain and meetings become ubiquitous. Yet this campaigning does not seriously address the real issues of the people, creating a massive disconnect between the elections and the voters.
That disconnect is symbolic and symbiotic of Rajapaksa elections. For most UPFA politicians the real target audience is not the voters but the Rajapaksas. It is not the voters who will decide the future of these politicians but the Ruling Siblings.
Consequently the politicos behave like performing monkeys, intent not on winning over the voters (who are extrinsic to their political existence), but on pleasing their real political masters, the Rajapaksas.
Since Rajapaksa elections are shams with preordained outcomes, politicians are free to be themselves. They do not have to be considerate towards the voters in any way; or to moderate their behaviour and act nice for a while.
They can afford treat the voters with overbearing and ruthless indifference; so long as they kneel ever lower before the Ruling Family. This undemocratic state of affairs has turned the election campaign into mini-nightmares for many voters.
Two incidents, which happened last week, demonstrate how little the campaigning politicians care about the real opinion of the voters even in this election season.
For Lankan ministers and parliamentarians driving at breakneck speed, ignoring every road rule and endangering the lives of other motorists and pedestrians alike constitute normal behaviour. Since the elections are charades, the campaigning politicians obviously see no need to better their behaviour: “A vehicle carrying the security contingent of UPFA parliamentarian Roshan Ranasinghe yesterday morning crashed into a three wheeler at Jayanthipura, Polonnaruwa, killing one woman and injuring four others, including a five-year-old boy. Police said even though the jeep had been travelling at an excessive speed when the crash occurred at about 7:30 a.m…” (The Island – 31.8.2012).
Such an outrage would not have happened had elections been true democratic exercises because the politicians would have feared the rage of the voters. Not any more. In Rajapaksa elections voters do not count; they are mere stage decorations in a pageant celebrating Rajapaksa power.
Intolerance of dissent is a Rajapaksa leitmotiv. The Siblings and their cohorts are intolerant of dissent of any magnitude or form, from macro and political to micro and personal.
Last week a doctor attached to the Anuradhapura hospital was savagely beaten by UPFA activists. Dr. Chamila Herath was on his way back to his duty station after a late dinner at his home when he reportedly found his way barred by a group of UPFA campaigners. He had asked them to let his car pass and they reportedly took exception to this perfectly reasonable request.
As supporters of the former Chief Minister Bertie Premalal Dissanayake they probably regard Anuradhapura as their personal fiefdom – under the overall suzerainty of the Rajapaksas. They attacked the doctor and his car, with immoderate force.
A brutally assaulted Dr. Herath is currently being treated at the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit of the Anurahapura Hospital. Enraged doctors are engaging in strike action in protest, demanding the arrest of all the suspects. “The GMOA spokesman alleged that though a complaint had been lodged, the Anuradhapura Police were very slow in taking action against the culprits, because the gang belonged to the ruling party” (ibid).
When election is a lie and campaigning is a charade why bother to project a nicer, kinder more law-abiding façade?
The Rajapaksas want to win the provincial council elections, by whatever means necessary, in time for Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. They want to colour the world’s perception of their rule by ‘proving’ their popularity. Thus the decision to hold PC polls, two to three years ahead of time.
These elections are not free and fair exercises; naturally. The entire weight of the state is used to ensure the electoral success of the governing coalition. Malpractices and irregularities have become so commonplace that they are barely reported or commented on. The rules of the games are understood by everyone, as well as the futility of trying to decry or change them.
Little wonder then that the people of the three provinces remain uninterested in the election and unenthused by the campaign. They know that the elections will change nothing. Perhaps things would have been different had the opposition not been in such a desultory state. But with a bickering UNP and a flaking JVP, the voters are left with no viable alternatives. And this critical absence has caused the regime’s belief in the myth of impunity to soar to unprecedented heights.
Limitless and timeless impunity is one of the many misconception the Rajapaksas shares with the LTTE. For instance the Tigers obviously never thought they would have to pay a price for child conscription. Whenever the issue came up, they made some promises which they had no intention of keeping.
After that it would be conscription as usual, until the next bout of international attention happened. They did not realise the damage they did to their own cause with each broken promise; they did not comprehend the resultant gradual de-legitimisation.
The Rajapaksas are traversing the same self-delusional path. They too make promises, national and international, which they have no intention of keeping. They do not realise that these promises are growing rather threadbare with overuse.
This sense of impunity and the sham-nature of the elections mean that the Rajapaksas see no need to pay attention to the real concerns of the voters or to ensure better behaviour by their supporters. The end result is an election which exhausts national funds and public patience without delivering any tangible benefits to the voters.
The people have burning issues, starting with the raging drought which had killed their crops rendering their precarious economic conditions even more fragile. What they needed was the government to focus on the water issue, to devise ways and means to alleviate the resultant suffering. What they got was an unwanted and untimely election, and hordes of politicians descending on their doorsteps complete with their vehicular and security cavalcades.
The regime’s lack of interest in the welfare of the people is evidenced by the non-issues in this election campaign.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) “urged the government to formulate a regulatory framework to control the quality of imported fertilizers and pesticides and test them for nephro-toxic agents such as arsenic and cadmium as they are known to cause kidney diseases. Research has shown that water in the North–Central and the Uva Provinces is contaminated with arsenic and cadmium.
Around 20,000 people have been affected by the Chronic Kidney Disease of Uncertain Aetiology (CKDu) in the two Provinces…. Analysis of 32 samples of agrochemicals had shown that 10 per cent of the samples were contaminated with arsenic and 20 per cent were contaminated with lead…” (The Island – 28.8.2012).
This is far from a new issue. In January 2011, the media reported that academics of the Rajarata University had identified the causes of the deadly kidney ailment affecting the people of the province. Despite an occasional hype nothing happened.
More pertinently this life and death issue is a non-issue in the ongoing election campaign. That is a measure of how divorced Lankan elections have become from Lankan voters.
Other non-issues include the crisis created by the university academic strike. A Level paper marking has been indefinitely postponed as a result of the strike. It is an issue which is of prime concern to hundreds of thousands of parents, in the three provinces and nationwide. But for the government focused on an electoral travesty, this issue is of the lowest priority.
Another forgotten area is the urgent need to reconstruct educational facilities in the Eastern Province devastated by the war/natural disasters: “Secondary schools in Eastern Province lack 222 mathematics teachers, 128 science teachers and 69 English teachers, according to 2010-2011 data from the Provincial Department of Education.
An additional 1,402 teachers are needed for electives, such as music, agriculture and health education, as well as to serve as counsellors and special education teachers. At the primary level, Eastern Province schools are short of 465 English teachers and 104 general subject teachers. The province had 385,115 primary and secondary-aged enrolled students in 2010, according to the government…. “ (IRIN News – 3.11.2011).
Adolf Hitler had the backing of a large segment of the German populace, if not a majority, until Germany began to lose the Second World War. So did Benito Mussolini; and Vellupillai Pirapaharan. Successful tyrannies are built not just on fear and compulsion but also on consent. This consent can stem from diverse sources, from enthusiastic support to apathy, from reluctant admiration to despair.
The Rajapaksas, those budding despots, are no exception to this general rule. They enjoy a degree of public support, which stems from multitudinous wellsprings, from ‘patriotic’ (i.e. Sinhala) pride to the unwillingness to become embroiled in trouble, from the hope that the Rajapaksas can deliver development to understandable disgust at the state of the opposition in general and the UNP in particular.
Until this support lasts, the democratic façade of their electoral travesties can be maintained.