TamilWeek, Oct 16 - 22, 2005
Elections and the North and East

by Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

As the presidential campaigns officially get going, the issue of a free and fair election
surfaces. Elections being the basic mechanism for choice and change in a functioning
democracy, the integrity of the electoral process is therefore vital. This is reinforced by
the critical nature of this election – the choice of a president for six years and probably
twelve who will have the power and the authority to chart the destiny of the country at
this crucial juncture in its history.

The unwillingness of the President to accept the nominees of the Constitutional
Council to the Election Commission leaves the current Commissioner with the powers
of the Commission. With the cooperation of the public service and the police the
Commissioner is equipped to ensure that the violence and malpractice which marred
previous elections and served as the catalyst for the 17th Amendment and
independent commissions, will be deterred, curbed and punished. The cooperation of
the political parties too is essential to eradicate this, but it remains to be seen as to
whether this will be forthcoming in the full measure required.

The last general election in this respect registered less violence and malpractice than
previous ones. The north and east were an exception; violence including murder
seriously undermined the campaign and malpractice characterized the poll in certain
areas. It seemed that in the rest of the country the impact of the 17th Amendment was
being felt. The major challenge is to ensure that the positive trend is continued and
extended to the north and east as well. Here the power and authority required lies
outside of the 17th Amendment and those in the hands of the commissioner. The
integrity of the electoral process in the north and east is bound up with the peace
process and a final settlement. In this respect – apart from the hard evidence in
respect of specific incidents of violence and malpractice on polling day which could be
the basis for a re poll- the conduct of the campaign and polling will crucially depend on
the commitment of the political parties and actors involved. Early signs do not augur
well – only yesterday the EPDP organizer in Pottuvil was reported to have been shot.
Fear, insecurity and tension prevails in the east. It is likely to intensify as the campaign
hots up.

It is therefore important that the good offices of the Norwegian mediators and Mr Ian
Martin, the Human Rights Advisor to the Peace Process who is currently in Sri Lanka,
be employed to get assurances from the LTTE that they will play their part in
contributing towards a free and fair election in the north and east. The same applies to
all other political actors ranging from the mainstream political parties, the GOSL and
security forces and the Karuna faction. A code of conduct for all stakeholders in the
north and east for the duration of the election should be explored. It would only be
practicable at this point if it does not in any way impinge upon the provisions of the
CFA and therefore either constitute an effective revision of it or necessitate its
immediate renegotiation. This could also serve as a reference point for local and
international monitors in the north and east.

Holding elections in the north and east is necessary but not sufficient in restoring
democracy there. Attention has also to be paid to the process, the space available for
the presentation of diverse and dissenting views and an enabling environment for
debate and discussion. Every monitoring organization from PAFFREL to CMEV and
the EU Election Observation Team made critical comment on the conduct of the
election in the north and east in April 2004. CMEV called for it to be annulled in the
Jaffna District and parts of Digamadulla. The Commissioner clearly took the view that
he did not have sufficient hard evidence of specific acts of violence and malpractice.
Despite the generalized opinion on the conduct of the poll, there have been no
measures to specifically address the problem. This is also attributable to the stalemate
in the peace process, the issue being closely linked to it.

Perhaps this time around, given the dwindling opportunities to revive the peace
process, the elections can be looked to as a way in which, if the climate cannot be
made more conducive to a revival of talks, it will not at the same time be poisoned and
result in the intensification of hostilities. Let us hope that the people of the north and
east will vote and vote in large numbers to shape their future and that they will be able
to make their choice freely. And above all else let us hope that the election will not be
treated as another pretext to kill and maim, the real contest lying outside of the
mainstream and joined with violence.

[Courtesy: The Morning Leader]
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