Friday, 9 January 2015 04:24
On a day when history is sharpening its pen it is heartening to see that democracy is doing well in Sri Lanka. Long lines of voters curled bright and early around polling stations and many areas were well past 50% by noon.
In a country where democracy has been increasingly under threat in the last few years the hope for a free and fair election seemed almost impossible. This was not helped by fresh amendments to the Constitution that stripped away independent commissions, especially police, public service and elections, which are seen as crucial to a credible poll.
Then there were the incidents in the lead-up to the polls. The number of election violations simply skyrocketed. It began innocently enough with posters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa festooning every lamppost in the country but as the election race became hotter so too did the seriousness of the violence.
Supporters of the Opposition’s common candidate Maithripala Sirisena were stoned, stages were set on fire and, undoubtedly the most tragic of all, a shooting incident this week left one person dead. The loss of human life, especially in the crossfire of politics, is the most unforgivable of all.
Election monitors in this backdrop feared the worst. There were reports of planned voter intimidation, especially in the northern part of the country where the involvement of the Tamil population would have a significant impact on the vote. On voter day an explosion in an empty house in Point Pedro sparked worries of violence. Fortunately no one was hurt and polling numbers at the nearby booths have been positive, insist police.
Another explosion in Mannar, however hinted at a more serious violation. According to former Trade and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen around 10,000 voters were prevented from excising their franchise when they were denied transport. Busses that were ordered by the Elections Commissioner were unable to reach the people as the road had been obstructed, Bathiudeen has alleged.
Undeterred, Polls Chief Mahinda Deshapriya insisted all was well with the poll. In his view the 326 incidents reported to him were minor and did not merit suspension of counting in any division. He rather optimistically insisted no voter had been intimidated or prevented from reaching the booth to vote.
In a laudable move Deshapriya won himself not inconsiderable respect by demanding certain misleading information be recanted. Enforcing election law, even hindered by the 18th Amendment, can be done. What is needed is the will.
As young and old flocked in droves to register at least one thing was made clear. Even with democratic institutions such as law and order, free media and Parliament undermined, democracy was alive and well in the hearts of the people. Enthusiastic first-time voters along with many others bombarded social media of evidence that they had excised their democratic right.
While this would seem unremarkable to many, the fact that the people, when finally given a vibrant Opposition, went out and had their say is indeed historic. Sri Lanka has just faced the most competitive presidential race in decades and the writing on the wall looks pretty good at this point.